“We’ve gone a wee bit viral”.
When I contact Ruth Munro, 47, the owner of the Edinburgh Fermentarium, she’s having a very frantic time, as local food blogger, Plate Expectations, aka Ailidh Forlan, has recently posted a TikTok video that demonstrates the making of their newest product, Mac Kimchi.
“We got 50 orders overnight which for a business of our size meant two extra days in work on top of the usual to pack all the orders”, says Munro.
“It has been a manic week, which is great, but also overwhelming. Running your own business makes it very hard to turn off and catch a break”.
Now Munro and her team have prepared a whole load of jars for delivery, all of which are packed with a bright red and spicy mixture. There will be some very lucky recipients soon.
This small producer, which operates from a kitchen in Duddingston, was established back in 2017.
Before then, Munro had worked as a fashion designer for label Get Cutey while she lived in Brighton and then continued freelance when she came back to her hometown of Edinburgh in 2012, though was soon made redundant and struggled to find work.
The next phase of her career happened almost organically. She met Edinburgh-based author and nutritionist, Faith Canter, on an organised “barefoot walk up Arthur’s Seat”.
Canter mentioned that she would soon be running a kimchi making course in her house. Although, at the time, Munro wasn’t entirely sure what the Korean fermented cabbage dish was, she decided to broaden her horizons.
“It turned out that the course covered kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, water kefir and sourdough,” says Munro, who now offers her own workshops.
“A whole new world of fermentation opened up to me and I started making them all for myself.
"I experimented with all sorts of different recipes and vegetables and read all the books I could get my hands on including Sandor Katz, the Art of Fermentation, as well as finding out as much as I could on the subject online.
"I was becoming obsessed with fermenting and it seemed that I had a knack for it. My friends tasted them and started putting in requests, then friends of friends”.
However, despite finding her niche, Munro needed a bit of a push to turn her new hobby into a business. It was a bit of a career volte face, though she can see the connection between her two professions.
“I think there's the same creative process in designing a new garment as there is with a new sauerkraut or kimchi”, she says.
“What I love and what has always been at the root of what I do is designing and then making things myself with a small team keeping things as local and sustainable as possible”.
Just before she made the commitment to her new start-up, she was given life coaching lessons for Christmas, and she had plenty of encouragement and support from friends and family.
Creating the look of the brand, which features simple glass jars and smart monochrome labels, also required a bit of mucking in.
“One friend worked on my branding and designed my labels. Another helped me with my website,” Munro says.
“Everyone collaborated to come up with the Scottish themed names: Cracking Kimchi, Braw Slaw, Stoatin’ Sauerkraut and Barry Beet Kvass.
"These were the products I launched my company with, although I have 12 recipes I make regularly now including the Fermented Figs which were a Christmas special that proved so popular that we now offer them all year round”.
They make the vegetable based products by fermenting them naturally, using salt and spices in a process that takes at least three weeks, sometimes up to five weeks if the correct pH hasn’t yet been reached.
Munro was just ahead of the curve when it came to fermented products.
They’ve become increasingly popular over the last couple of years, with most of us becoming familiar with the more obvious recipes, like sauerkraut, and starting to get to grips with things like kvass, which is a fermented cereal-based beverage.
It’s said that these food types enrich the gut biome and, thus, are supposed to contribute to overall health and immunity.
Also, kimchi has seen a rise in popularity more recently, thanks in part to Netflix’s most watched series ever, Squid Game, which came out last year and apparently hugely increased searches online for “Korean cuisine”.
However, Munro is very aware of making sure she’s responsible, when it comes to creating this traditional East Asian recipe, and has a full statement on her website.
“We acknowledge our complex relationship with cultural appropriation, and have pledged to act responsibly as advocates for cross-cultural fermentation practitioners in the future”, it says.
There are other elements of her business that she tries to keep ethical.
“We reduce waste by reusing wherever we can, and recycle with Changeworks, a local recycling business”, says Munro.
“We are committed to limiting our use of plastic, so we lacto-ferment our range in small batches in glass jars, a practice that we believe is quite rare among commercially-available ferments”.
They also use Farr Out’s cargo bike service when delivering within Edinburgh’s city bypass.
If you want to shop for their products, you’ll find them at some of the capital’s other independents, including The Bear’s Larder, The Refillery, Easter Greens and Hanover Health Foods, among many others, and you’ll occasionally see their stall at Edinburgh Farmers’ Market, Stockbridge Market, Haddington’s Farmers’ Market and Summerhall.
However, they also have their eye on a couple of the city’s other retailers.
“We'd like to continue to grow the business, with a combination of markets, mail order and wholesale this year, and we'd really love to be stocked in Margiotta and Valvona & Crolla,” says Munro, who has Great Taste Awards for her Stoatin’ Sauerkraut, the lime and mint injected Magic Mojito sauerkraut and Cracking Kimchi.
They also have one for the salad dressing Thieves’ Vinegar, which is made from a recipe that was said to protect the health of grave robbers during the times of the plague in France, and they’re hoping to soon expand this range of “drinking vinegars”.
They’re made from a kombucha base that’s fermented with botanicals, and can be downed neat for their health benefits, used as salad dressing, in cooking, or as an alternative to alcohol. “We’re addicted to them”, says Munro.
Their range has also been extended with dry products, Cracking Kimchi Salt and Braw Slaw Salt, both of which are made using another local producer, Blackthorn Salt.
In the last five years, the company has grown enough that she now has five members of staff. That’s especially essential as, on top of everything else, Munro also runs Leith Pilates with her husband.
“Luckily I have an amazing small team who I'm very lucky to have found to help me”, she says. “This means I can be flexible with working hours but it can be hard to switch off. Especially during the pandemic with all the rules changing and trying to stay afloat”.
It’s impressive that she still has time to continually come up with new and exciting products, like that Mac Kimchi that went viral.
It was originally made for the social enterprise supermarket Locavore, which has just opened a branch on Edinburgh’s Dalry Road, and is a take on mak kimchi - kimchi that contains chopped, rather than whole cabbage. However, this one has a Scottish twist in that it’s created using Scottish porridge making techniques.
“We make a warm rice flour porridge which we then blend with garlic, ginger, onion, soy sauce and pear and the inimitable Korean ground chilli, gochugaru. This mixture is then massaged into the cabbage”, says Munro.
“We find making the kimchi in this way imparts a deep, delicious umami taste with a mild heat”.
We hope that the flurry of people who bought this product from the Edinburgh Fermentarium, will appreciate the work that goes into all of their products. It seems that it’s exciting but hard work being a small producer.
“It’s super hard to compete with big business and make ends meet”, says Munro. “People expect so much for so little that it's hard for them to understand how much time and energy really goes into making a jar of our sauerkraut”.
For more information, see www.edinburghfermentarium.co.uk