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Fermenti Artisan: Healing through fermented foods 

Joshua Henson (left) and Mark Cox, of Fermenti Artisan. - MARK LEE
  • Joshua Henson (left) and Mark Cox, of Fermenti Artisan.
  • Mark Lee

On a brisk September morning on Indy's Eastside, standing in the middle of the in-progress production farm, Mark Cox spreads his arms wide in opposite directions. "My great-grandfather grew up right over there," he says, pointing northeast, "and my great grandmother on the other side grew up right over there," as he points southwest. "We ended up right in the middle -- totally randomly, but here we are."

It doesn't seem so random when you consider the big picture, and what Cox and his business partner Joshua Henson are doing with Fermenti Artisan, a local purveyor of raw probiotic foods -- i.e. they contain living microorganisms that offer a health benefit when consumed. At the heart of their business is a desire to see change in farming and people. They are proselytizers of an improved relationship between the two, a relationship that in the past 50 or so years has been broken.

This farm, Cox says, will eventually provide most of the vegetables used in the krauts and other ferments made and sold by Fermenti Artisan.

Cox and Henson want their message to be relevant to individuals and the community, and their techniques employ methods steeped in cultural tradition. With their families rooted deeply in Indiana, it is fitting their efforts for change begin here, in the literal middle of the land and among people they would love to see heal. It is the place where their own stories unfolded and they separately came to stark personal realizations about food, farming and the health of a nation growing sicker by the year.

Adventures with Easy-Bake Oven

Their ventures into food started early. Henson's journey into cooking began at age 4 when he stole his older sister's Easy-Bake Oven and made her read the instruction book to him -- he ended up using it more than she did. His parents adopted special needs kids, and with 20 brothers and sisters -- most with disabilities -- he quickly realized that to get alone time with Mom he needed to help in the kitchen.

It was clear at that early age he wanted to be a chef -- until middle school when the guidance counselor told him he couldn't make any money doing it. So he left his culinary dreams behind and decided to focus on math and science.

That is what he pursued, admittedly loosely, during his one year at Purdue. But he was restless and, after trying school and other jobs, kept ending up at restaurants.

At age 22, looking to gather some perspective, he spent a summer hitchhiking. He came back home to Lafayette with one goal in mind: to find a chef under whom he could apprentice.

Henson approached chef Brannon Soileau of Lafayette's Maize An American Grill. "I went in, told him I wanted to learn, told him I'd wash dishes for him. The next day he called me back and said I was hired. I was making $5.50 an hour making salads and desserts -- within a year and a half I was sous chef."

It was at Maize, steeped in the techniques of French cuisine, where the stories of Henson and Cox first overlapped. Both were working for Soileau and they began to embrace the skills of French cooking that contribute to the infamous "French paradox." That is the name attached to the intense jealousy by the rest of the Western world that the French consume vast quantities of animal fats, dairy and wine, yet miraculously escape many of the health consequences.

At the heart of French cuisine are long-cooking bone stocks, roux bases of butter and flour, sauces laden with heavy cream -- layers of flavor built over time while using every part of plant and animal to avoid waste.

They individually fell in love with the complexity of flavor and art of process, caring not that what they were serving to guests would be found damnable by USDA food pyramid standards.

But at the time, Henson wasn't eating what he was making. At age 25, he was diagnosed with psoriasis -- the same age of his mother and older brother when they were diagnosed with the skin disorder. After describing the condition as incurable, his doctor prescribed a lifelong pharmaceutical that could help keep it controlled.

But Henson had seen the ways those medicines had failed his family and sought natural remedies instead. He delved into herbal medicines and yoga and adopted a low-fat vegetarian diet. But over time there was no improvement -- and at times he seemed to get worse.

He was living a paradox: preparing rich, fatty foods for the customers at Maize, but avoiding those foods at home while hunting down the right dietary combination to set his body straight.

click to enlarge Mark Cox, working on site, creating fermented foods. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Cox, working on site, creating fermented foods.
  • Mark Lee

Enter Weston Price's research

By 2005, Cox had moved back to Indianapolis and was working at The Oceanaire. He and Henson had a mutual friend, Nick Schroeder, who told Cox about the Weston Price Foundation. It's an organization touting the research findings of Weston A. Price, a dentist in the 1930s who studied indigenous cultures all over the world. Price found they had remarkably healthy teeth considering they had little, if any, dental hygiene. And it wasn't just their teeth that were healthy -- their bodies were healthy too, even down to skeletal structure.

Price studied the diets of these cultures, finding items common to each: cultured foods (dairy and vegetable), broths and organ meats, souring or sprouting of grains and legumes.

Cox read everything he could get his hands on about traditional diets. The proverbial light bulb had turned on. There was a reason that we crave the foods taking center stage in French cuisine -- our bodies actually need those things and we are genetically programmed to like them. But not from industrialized, commercially produced sources -- our bodies need them from animals and plants farmed in healthy environments.

It was all directly contrary to Cox's own dietary history. Like most kids of the '80s, he had grown up eating industrialized food -- and with a grandfather who worked for Eli Lilly and Co., he had access to all the pharmaceuticals his family needed. "We grew up on processed food, boxed food, genetically-modified food -- it was what everyone did."

But after reading about how the health of the gut is directly related to the heath of our bodies and brains, he began to believe that the way he ate growing up had a direct impact on his lifelong struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and attention deficit disorder. "The most intimate thing we do on a daily basis is we eat -- and we leave that in somebody else's hands to make the decision for us before the food even gets to us," Cox says. "There is a direct correlation between gut, mind and body -- it all goes back to the diet."

Let the healing begin

Henson's food journey soon followed suit. After his own research into the methods presented by Price, he immediately changed his diet -- yet another attempt to get to the root of what was described as a genetic skin disorder. For Henson and Cox, the results of their lifestyle changes were dramatic. After six months of incorporating local cultured foods and good fats into his diet, Henson's skin began to improve. After a year, his psoriasis disappeared.

For Cox the change was mental and physical -- his head cleared, he lost five sizes on his waist, and says he's now in the best shape of his life. "What happens through the farming process to make that food nutritious, and what happens when you consume that food or make it more nutritious through fermentation -- for Josh and I, this was the missing link," Cox says.

At this point, they were convinced enough to shout the message from non-existent Indiana mountaintops -- so they turned their passion for helping others into a business plan.

In 2008, Henson moved back to Indianapolis and the two began talking about ways to launch a cultured vegetable business. One afternoon, a friend brought over some paté and a bottle of French wine and the three laid out a spread for snacking. As the story goes, by the end of the bottle of wine, and born from a conversation involving fake French accents, the name for the business was tossed out.

Though initially created in jest, it managed to encompass their history and future all at once: A love for French cooking blossomed into a desire to focus on ferments for the people. Fermenti Artisan it would be.

Their goal was to make and sell food that gave the biggest return on investment for their customers -- to prove that eating organic didn't have to be price-prohibitive or elitist.

That's why their commercial products focus on foods where a little goes a long way. While new customers often balk at the $10 price tag on a jar of Fermenti Artisan kimchee, they might not realize that a serving size is a tablespoon. In that tablespoon is a powerful colony of microbes that heals and nourishes a gut depleted of good flora -- a far cry from the pasteurized, commercially-produced counterpart on the grocery shelf that doesn't contain a single living organism.

When vegetables are fermented and raw, their nutrients become hyper-available, turning a very small portion into a superfood. They settled on an initial product line that included sauerkrauts (including traditional krauts and kimchee), kombucha (a fermented tea), and water kefir (a naturally-carbonated probiotic soda).

One day in the spring of 2009, Cox was driving north on Ritter Avenue on the Eastside and noticed a farm for sale -- a place he had driven past hundreds of times without a thought. He and Henson contacted the owner -- a man in his 80s who had owned and farmed the land since 1953. Originally a railroad worker, he took to farming after an injury and, from the early '70s until about 2005, ran an honor-system farm stand behind the house.

click to enlarge Joshua Henson, showing off some of Fermenti Artisan's fare. - MARK LEE
  • Joshua Henson, showing off some of Fermenti Artisan's fare.
  • Mark Lee
Back to the farm

Cox and Henson were able to set up a meeting with the owner and his stepson and got, first-hand, the history behind the land. After explaining that they wanted to keep farming the land, to improve it and bring it back to its original use after a few years of dormancy, the sale went off without a hitch.

Henson now lives at the farm with his wife. He and Cox share the work, enlisting the help of friends when they can, with future plans to hire a farm manager. Eventually the 2-acre farm will supply as much of their needed produce and eggs as possible.

Fermenti Artisan officially appeared on the farmers' market circuit in the summer of 2010 and, by the next season, was in seven markets each week. That proved to be too much.

"Doing that many markets was rough on us, the car, the equipment, everything," Henson says. As far as initial customer response, Henson explains, "People understood probiotics, because there was a lot of press coming out about that. But the biggest question we got was, 'What do I do with it, besides put it on sausage?'"

That fall they got into the Indy Winter Farmers' Market, and began selling prepared food to show customers how to use the ferments -- breakfast scrambles with their house-cured bacon, topped with a kraut flavor-of-the-day, along with cultured beverages. The response was so positive the next logical step was to open a permanent storefront.

They were considering their options around the time the City Market was coming off a major renovation and had renewed interest in filling its Downtown space with local-business vendors. The match seemed natural.

"We went into City Market for a couple of reasons," Cox explains. "One of them was that the space was originally created for what we were doing. We were trying to take back a piece of what that property was originally dedicated to -- we wanted to be a part of that culture," referring to the historic role of City Market as a place where local farmers and artisans sold their goods circa 1886.

The Fermenti Artisan storefront and restaurant opened in January. It has lunch and early dinner offerings as well as cultured beverages on draft. Customers can also pick up a selection of jarred fermented vegetables and condiments, probiotic beverages, local cheeses and smoked and cured local meats.

The idea of being a part of local culture is central to their business philosophy. When sourcing meats and vegetables for their products, they first seek local, then regional -- and if they must source commercial it's organic. They are able to connect with local farmers as more than just suppliers, taking the organic waste off the hands of Natural Born Juicers in City Market and using it as input on their farm.

They bring their own hogs to Smoking Goose which cures them to their specifications.

They've even used locals for their logo and label design, utilizing students at IUPUI who want to build their design portfolios by creating work for real-world businesses. It's a very communal mindset, a long-term investment in Indianapolis.

Back at their farm on the Eastside, Cox walks through rows of hot peppers and daikon radishes, and points out where garlic was pulled in late summer and horseradish waits patiently for harvest. This year they grew items with the most longevity and were able to harvest enough hot peppers to lend heat to their kimchee for the year.

"It's all about spreading it out as far as we can -- the nutrient density of food," Cox says.

The space has a long way to go, but the potential is obvious.

"We want to build this up and make it really nice so people will want to come and protect it -- a farm in the city," Cox says. "That's the main component in all of this that needs to be celebrated -- our connection with the farmers we use with the techniques they use -- because it all translates to the nutritional side. And that's when food is good. We're not doing this because it's trendy. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do."

Find Fermenti Artisan at:

Indianapolis City Market 222 E. Market St.
Hours: Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Indy Winter Farmers Market
Indianapolis City Market
222 E. Market St.
Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Fermenti Artisan products are also sold at Green Bean Delivery, Pogue's Run Grocer, Good Earth Natural Market, and Traderspoint Market

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