I always find it interesting when hippies become entrepreneurs. Not that Allie Dercoli, owner and operator of FinAllie Ferments, is necessarily a hippie…she’s more like a combination of itinerant farmer, artist, electrician, teacher, and finally, chef, with a refined palate, innate resourcefulness, and a penchant for smelly stuff – which is an important attribute for someone devoted to crafting this delightfully pungent food. When she settled in Vermont in 2014, she wasn’t looking to start a business—she was looking for sustainable community and farming. FinAllie Ferments is simply the result of meeting the demand that naturally arose from her delicious supply of amazing kimchi and kraut.
Allie is originally from Canfield, Ohio, near Youngstown, in the corn and soy industrial farming belt. The food culture in her family was strongly influenced by their Italian roots—growing it, preserving it, making sauce, and making wine were all were big, community affairs when she was little. She remembers wondering even when she was a little kid in Ohio why being wasteful was the norm, and taking it as a compliment when her cousin visited and declared, “You stink!” Allie replied, “Thanks!”
After graduating in 2010 from Columbus College of Art and Design as a glassblowing major, she began farming all over United States, making it to a total of 51 farms over the course of about four years. It was early on in this time of travel that she landed in a place called Bastrop, Texas and learned the art of fermentation. From then on, she would make ferments at the farms she worked at, along the way expanding her knowledge through experimentation and study, the latter especially focused on the works of Sandor Katz, who, according to Allie, is “the Elvis of fermentation.”
The process of making sauerkraut is pretty simple: get some cabbage, crush it with some salt, pound it into a container and cover it (tightly, but not too tight), and keep it at around room temperature until it’s to your liking. But Allie has taken this simple recipe and made each component sing in its highest octave.
First are the vegetables: Allie is passionate about Vermont’s soil. The concept of terroir—the idea that the environment and methods that go into growing food affect its character—is typically applied to wine and cheese, but Allie uses the term when she talks about anything grown in our state, and is adamant about the truly special qualities this mineral-rich land creates. All the veggies in FinAllie Ferments are grown at nearby farms, like Allwinds, Harlows, and High Meadows. It’s the supreme quality of these ingredients that lends each jar its truly next-level flavor, and the perfect blend of crunch, sweet, and zing. Even the herbs and spices are grown locally. The kimchi has the remarkable clear zest of Old Friends Farm young ginger root, and the “Dill With It” kraut has a stunning, kitchen-garden aroma when it’s served slightly warm—the kind of savory scent that can only come from fresh-picked herbs.
After it gets shredded, all that cabbage gets mixed with salt and crushed by hand. Allie has help from a couple employees: Carol (“my right hand”) and Cristina, and her boyfriend, Nate, who is nicknamed “The Polish Hammer” because of his mother’s country of origin and his big, kimchi-clobbering hands. Once it begins to release its moisture, the cabbage gets combined with other ingredients to create Allie’s unique recipes, and then is pounded into giant wine barrels with a classic Louisville Slugger baseball bat…an unconventional but highly effective kraut-pounding tool. The barrels, which stand at about 3 feet high and almost 3½ feet across, are made of lightly toasted oak wood. This is a point of pride: FinAllie Ferments are never aged in plastic, the industry standard.
All of FinAllie’s products are made and packed at the W.A.A.W.W.E. kitchen in Springfield, VT (it stands for We Are All What We Eat, and is pronounced “wowie”). The space belongs to Lisa Kaiman of Jersey Girls Dairy, who shares the space. There Allie has built an insulated room where there could be up to nine of the giant barrels in operation at one time during growing season, or as few as two or three in late winter. The time of year also affects the fermentation time: when the produce is super fresh in spring and summer, it spends about one month aging. In the colder months, it will take 6 weeks or so to reach optimum flavor…she says it’s done “when it’s super crunchy, but not too crunchy,” and tastes each batch to make sure it’s perfect. During harvest season Allie goes through 900 lbs. of local, organic cabbage every month. There are three regularly available varieties: Dill With It Kraut, Electric Curry Kraut, and her unique Kimchi made with beets. All varieties are made with ingredients purchased from farms that use organic and non-GMO practices in a kitchen that does not use gluten, and is vegan.
In addition to the giant oak barrels, five traditional German ceramic sauerkraut crocks are also still in use from before she scaled up. These are used for small-batch, experimental flavors. They’re about 2 feet high, and, naturally, all have names: Thor, Carol, Harriet, Alice, and Helga, and then there’s Pete, a little half-sized crock named after her dad. On a recent visit to the facility I thought I heard someone’s cellphone make a pert “Bloop!” sound, but realized that it was actually bubbles of gas escaping through the “airlocks”: a little trough of water lines the opening of each crock, and the lids sit in the water, sealing off the contents from the air but allowing gases to escape. And apparently this old technology also has the added benefit of giving voice to the little life forms that are the microscopic operators behind lacto fermentation, the process that transforms simple cabbage and salt into a living food that is not only delicious, but also beneficial for our health.*
Allie emanates fun and playfulness, and so does her business. Cases in point: she and her employees wear custom screen-printed red jumpsuits when they do tastings; the labels on FinAllie jars feature a drawing of her and her dog, Fin, wearing psychedelic sunglasses; and coming very soon we’ll see some wild, limited-run labels made by people in her community of artist friends. But don’t let this lightheartedness belie the seriousness with which she takes her vocation: Allie does not compromise on values or quality. Lisa, with whom she shares the W.A.A.W.E. production facility, said of Allie, “She doesn’t do it unless she can do it the right way.” This goes for the quality of her ingredients, the quality of her equipment, and an attention to resourcefulness and minimal waste in all things. Cows and chickens that Lisa raises eat most of Allie’s vegetable scraps, and there’s virtually no single-use plastics used in the packaging or the processing. And if her supply of cabbage or other ingredients cannot be met by local farms, then demand be damned, she will not produce more! Allie’s vision of success doesn’t look like exponential growth or a bigger bottom line (“more money more problems,” she said), and doesn’t want to expand the business beyond her heart’s capacity—it seems that FinAllie truly exists to help and heal people and planet through good food and community. She would like to create employment opportunities for more local people, and perhaps will down the road, but staying small and sustainable is the priority. She was recently picked up by a regional distributor, which has the potential to increase orders dramatically. But she has made it clear to them that for now, she only wants them to make FinAllie available to Vermont stores. We are so lucky to be able to sell Allie’s high-quality products at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and after tasting them I’m sure you’ll agree!
Come try some for yourself, when Allie is here (donning a custom red jumpsuit) on three Fridays, May 10th from 11-2, May 24th from 2-4, and May 31 for an all-day seasonal sampling. And keep your eyes peeled for a ferment-making class taught by Allie this summer or fall.
*“Naturally fermented foods are getting a lot of attention from health experts these days because they may help strengthen your gut microbiome—the 100 trillion or so bacteria and microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. Researchers are beginning to link these tiny creatures to all sorts of health conditions from obesity to neurodegenerative diseases. Fermented foods are preserved using an age-old process that not only boosts the food’s shelf life and nutritional value, but can give your body a dose of healthy probiotics, which are live microorganisms crucial to healthy digestion, says Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.”
By Ruth Garbus