Wanderer – Fermentation in Daily Objects

The word of fermentation can literally evoke a tasteful fantasy about food with a rich aroma. However, I would more like to describe fermentation as a gift from nature instead of a sort of culinary art. We as the human being can just base on experiences and knowledge somehow adjust the environment temperature or the other external factors, to go with the flow and take the essence. The real functional „role“ in this process is still played by those invisible micro creatures.

The curiosity about food fermentation led me to look towards the fermenting process of milk products, above all of the sour milk. Sour milk seems and tastes similarly as yoghurt. But yoghurt is industrially produced product,  usually fermented through the vacuum-freeze-drying isolated single culture (in most cases are streptococcus thermopiles and lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus). The unicity of the culture ensure hygiene and safety, it conduced to the unity of the food taste in the mass production.  However,  in this way, the yoghurt also loses the ability concerning long-term conservation and unlimited usage as a starter culture for producing more yoghurt.

In contrast to this, sour milk is naturally fermented milk product: You can put a little batch of ready-made sour milk (which is called starter culture in this case) into fresh milk and left it at a place with room temperature, where the microbe can reproduce themselves in this appropriate environment (room temperature) and gain enough nutrition (fat from the milk) – It could be metaphorically described  as a process of gradual and cultural assimilation. In different region exist different kind of microbe, who build a diverse taste-spectrum of sour milk, many fermenters enjoy collecting and sharing the old starter cultures of them. But what are the sour milk consist of?  No one is able to answer this question. Even if the starter culture comes from the same family, after being treated differently or placed under distinct conditions, the species inside will change somehow and grow dissimilarly. In the passage of time and changes in the environment, they become some strong but inclusive small ecosystem, tirelessly saving and updating the taste of sour milk.

Available in the market, the home-used bacteria-Pulver for making yoghurt consists of single species of culture
 Vilii is a sort of sour milk from Finnland, which could be easily identified by their viscous and extensile appearance
Step by step I also started to develop my little collection of culture. I take care of these mini microbial „pet“ with friends in atelier together. From this process, I gathered this strong feeling, that the happiness of enjoying fermented food doesn’t only come from food itself, but more from the exchange and communication with ferment-lover

Comparing to the exchanging and delivering of starter on a small scale which is still imaginable, a long-term and transregional preservation of the culture seems relatively tricky. But considering the fermenting process of sour milk is actually the growing and activating process of lactobacillus (mesophilic or thermophilic bacteria), the starter could be inactivated while changing the factor of either temperature or humidity. Like putting in the refrigerator is for lower down the heat to reduce the activity of yoghurt and therefore keep it live longer. But to expand the „network“ of culture exchanging, ferment-lovers need to do one step more to change another factor: dehydrating the sour milk, to allow the sour milk being more suitable for delivering. 

During my search for different types of sour milk, I was fascinated by the derived forms of the „storage“ or „container“ of sour milk: Some people put the cotton into sour milk and dehydrate it, someone sent me some crumbs of dried sour milk, one of my friend used the tissue as a medium „smuggled” some viili to Berlin… As if this mini creature found their peaceful corner between the gap of human industrial civilisation and growth itself. The most astonishing story is from the Finnish migrant of the last century, for bringing the starter culture of viili to the USA, they applied the sour milk on a dried clean handkerchief, after making it dried then roll it and put into a bag, and transoceanic regenerate them again.

The „storage“ of starter culture in different forms
The „activating“ process of a „storage“
Sandor Ellix Katz told the transportation story of viili from Finnish migrant in his work The Art of Fermentation
After hearing the Finnish story, a friend of mine, who had a journey in Finland and wanted to bring me some viili, has been stopped in the airport because of the luggage limitation for liquid. Facing this embarrassing moment,  he came up with an idea, which was applying some viili onto a piece of tissue and brought the tissue back to Berlin, few days after putting the tissue in milk, the milk became new viili…
Influenced by these stories, I also tried to apply the regular yoghurt onto textile and dry them up, and used them as a starter culture

The story of Finnish migrant led my attention towards Textile as a kind of medium. Mention to textile, we can always recognise the original culture of a piece of textile, through identifying their unique visual style, which results from their vernacular weaving, printing and dyeing technique. In this regard, the textile is an expression medium of a culture on the civilisation level. 

In Germanic languages „culture“ possesses two meanings: one is the civilised rise, one is the bacterial cultivation. In the story of Finnish migrant, a piece of textile became a literary carrier of culture. The pun leads to a playful literary meaning. I started to think about how to use textile to convey the multi-paraphrasing of „culture“.

If I consider the process of applying sour milk on textile and dehydrating them as a transformation of textile to a „medium” or „storage“, can we beautify and regularise the presenting way of sour milk (as a content) on textile (as a container)? If the textile is a carrier of the sour milk baby, are they reusable after finishing their mission? I turned my attention to the white, thick sour milk – Can this semi-liquid substance also be used as a pigment to draw a portrait of the microorganisms in sour milk?

I tried to print some text on the textile through screen printing 
The patterns were inspired by the form of lactobacillus.
Before and after drying

I chose three sour milk from three different cultures: matsoni from Georgia, viili from Finland, filmjölk from Sweden. The fabric/pattern from each culture has its striking personality: Geometric pattern of Georgian carpet, Finnish lattice fabric, Swedish Kubrits pattern…I extracted the most representative visual elements in each culture and designed three different flat patterns for each sour milk. The textile as a container has been divided into equal parts with the unit of 10cm *10cm. The negative patterns and the name of related sour milk were screen printed on textile with food colour, and then the corresponding sour milk was applied on each square to cover the positive pattern. After drying, every little unit square can be cut off and used for getting a small bottle of sour milk starter. 

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The evolution of patterns design for sour milk from three cultures

Making Process 

I – Screen Printing

The negative patterns of sour milk were screen printed on textile

II – Sewing

Overlocking the edges of the little squares, and pulling out the line between

III – Applying the sour milk on fabric

The processing method of the fabric allows people cutting them down the textile easily into small squares,  The lightness of the material allows it to be inserted into any corner around. In this meaning, the culture not only has the possibility of infinite extension along the longitudinal axis of time but also wanders around with people in different spatial extents. I cut down pieces of my culture and shared with friends via post or visiting. Thus the micro bacteria rely on a light cloth completed their journey as the wanderer. As the natural fermentation is still full of uncertainties, from the feedback of friends not every container got a perfect result. But as a friend said: „it was fun“, I think the „ fun“ is the most substantial reason and most joyful thing, to cultivate and exchange culture, to enjoy fermented food in our daily lives. 

Check the Project 🔍

Wanderer | Masterarbeit 2018 


Axel Kufus
Johanna Schmeer 

Special Thanks to

Edible Alchemy 
Julia Kunz
Sandor Ellix Katz  
Zining LIU
Fang HU
Dong LIU

Videos feedback by

Filippo Maria MIRASOLE 
Yue LIU 

Repost by AtelierFang食物设计

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