Kismet doesn’t regularly determine where I go to eat, but recently, the universe seemed to be sending me a message that I needed to get to a particular pickle shop in Berkeley ASAP.
It all started a couple of weeks ago, while walking my dogs in Cesar Chavez Park, where I met Kevin Farley and his four-legged brood. As our canines became fast friends and chased each other wildly through the off-leash zone, we humans chit-chatted. Farley mentioned he owned the Cultured Pickle Shop with his wife, Alex Hozven, and it struck me that theirs was the same shop I had just read about the day before, via Soleil Ho, the Chronicle food reviewer. I had intended to visit one day, but as Farley shared more details about their Rice and Pickles weekend events, getting there sooner than later became a priority. I made a beeline for the shop that very Saturday.
Hozven and Farley started the Cultured Pickle Shop 24 years ago out of their apartment in Berkeley. The couple first got interested in fermented foods in the early ’90s, when they were working and living on a farm in northern Mendocino. At the time, they were following a macrobiotic diet, which, along with whole fruits, vegetables and grains, included eating many traditional Japanese fermented ingredients — like miso, soy sauce and tsukemono (preserved vegetables).
When she was pregnant with their first son, Hozven craved sour pickles to combat her nausea, but the diehard DIY-er soon became obsessed with making, rather than just buying, what she consumed. She convinced her husband to join her in starting a business, and soon they were selling their fermented fare at the Berkeley farmers market.
They first worked out of the Albany Community Center, then sublet space from a Berkeley catering company before landing at 800 Bancroft Way, where they’ve been for the last 14 years. Here, they produce their sole wholesale product — sauerkraut — along with kombucha, condiments, seasonings, tsukemono, kimchi and other lacto-fermented pickles. These days, along with their Tuesday and Saturday Berkeley farmers market appearances, you can find Cultured sauerkraut at Berkeley Bowl, Natural Grocery stores and Farmer Joe’s. The couple, who live in Berkeley, are rightly proud to boast that their certified organic business has successfully supported their family of four.
First-time visitors might be surprised to find the Cultured Pickle Shop is more workshop than retail store. Right inside the door, a menu announces its current stock, and a small table and a packed refrigerator carry all that customers can buy for the day. And that’s about it, in terms of the store. On weekdays, the rest of the space is roped off for employees only. However, for the last two years, the Cultured Pickle Shop has opened the behind-the-scenes space to the public on weekends, for diners looking for a unique tasting experience, a weekly three-course set menu of the shop’s many fermented delights. Not only is this a great opportunity for visitors to try a large swath of what the Cultured Pickle Shop makes in one sitting, but it’s a way for the couple to host an intimate dining event where producers and consumers converge in the space where the food is made, what Hozven calls “a food system with integrity.”
When I arrived on Saturday at noon, a large communal table that normally serves as a prep space during the week was set with cloth napkins, metal chopsticks and ceramic cups for 10 diners. Some seats were actual stools, but the rest were overturned metal pickling vats. Piles of cookbooks, most about the art of pickling and fermenting, were stacked on the table in place of a runner. On my visit, I lucked out and got a seat at the table, but according to Farley, the weekend before saw a full house. On busier days, they’ll tuck overflow diners at whatever spaces are free around the shop, and even at a picnic table just outside the store. To be sure you’ll be seated at all, Farley and Hozven recommend diners make advance reservations.
Lunch began with a small bowl of dashi. Traditionally, this is a stock made with fish and kombu (kelp), the base for many Japanese soups and dishes. At the Rice and Pickles events, the dashi changes weekly and is always vegan, made with whatever leftover produce — organic and farm-fresh from purveyors like Riverdog Farm — they’ve used to make products that week. “It’s how we deal with our scraps from pickle making,” Farley explained about the dashi, but also describing the m.o. of their mostly zero-waste operation. The pumpkin leek dashi we sipped that day got its subtle sweet and umami flavors from pumpkin skin, seeds and “goop” along with leek greens simmered with kombu.
A glass of the daily kombucha is an optional add-on for $3. Diners will notice glass vats of the fizzy beverage in various states of ferment sitting on shelves all over the workshop. Farley hasn’t kept track of how many flavors Cultured has made over the years, but he counted eight they’re brewing at the moment. On this day, he poured diners a version made with fermented green tea, fennel and Asian pear. The brew had a gentle effervescence, juicy flavors of pear and a nose of licorice.
The main course — the rice and pickles ($13) — starts with a generous bowl of sweet brown rice (a short-grain, glutinous rice that the Cultured Pickle Shop sources from Lundberg Family Farms) that’s steamed in a Japanese clay pot, called a donabe. The rice is topped with a sprinkling of gomashio (a sesame seed condiment; Cultured makes its version using dehydrated seakraut, rather than salt), fresh greens and a diversity of fermented vegetables that changes weekly. Farley said another reason they started doing these events was so they could experiment with quick pickles, things that only need a day — rather than weeks, months or years — to ferment. In our bowls that afternoon, for example, was mint and escarole that had been quick-pickled in an umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) dressing.
Other pickles nestled in our bowls were a green tomato kimchi, carrots pickled in coriander brine, a Meyer lemon kosho (a condiment made with fermented citrus and chilies) and sunchoke kasuzuke. The latter pickle was my favorite, made from sliced sunchokes that had fermented for three years in a sharp, pungent marinade made with sake kasu (the lees, or by-product from sake-making). Cultured Pickle Shop gets its sake kasu from its neighbor, Takara Sake brewery.
Everything the pickle shop makes has a backstory, including its nuka pot, a ceramic jar that holds the rice bran pickling bed used to make nukazuke (rice bran pickles). The jar’s funky, yeasty mixture is almost like the couple’s third child — the nuka pot must be fed leftover produce scraps and stirred daily to maintain its healthy bacterial state. Farley said when the family goes on vacation, they need to find a nuka pot sitter.
For an additional $3 each, diners can add avocado and/or a cured egg to their rice bowl. I got both, and recommend you do the same. The cured egg is especially worth noting. Boiled for 6-8 minutes until it’s still slightly jammy inside, the egg is cooled, peeled and marinated overnight in a mixture of tamari soy sauce, hojicha (roasted green tea) vinegar and sake kasu. Farley said that sometimes, instead of rice bowls, they’ll offer pickle-loaded toasts made with Morell’s Bread, another neighboring West Berkeley business and fellow farmers market vendor.
The last course is a sweet bite. A half of a dried date stuffed with Asian pear and lime butter was artfully centered on a small plate atop a slathering of yogurt mixed with Indian pickled limes, fresh fennel fronds, coriander seeds and fennel honey. Almonds that were soaked overnight, coated in chile paste and tamari, then deyhydrated and chopped, added a crunch. It was an intriguing, delicious end to a wholly satisfying meal.
As courses were served, Farley explained each dish, and in many cases, the techniques and individual ingredients behind them. The amount of work, creativity and care that goes into preparing each component we ate and drank that day is astounding. And being surrounded by the people who made each thing we consumed, in the place where those products were lovingly prepared, felt like a very special thing. Whether it was destiny or not, I’m grateful for the coincidences — and the dogs — that led me to finally stop in to this pickle shop in Berkeley.
The Cultured Pickle Shop is open weekdays 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Tuesdays); noon-5 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Rice and Pickles events happen Saturday, noon-3 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.