Finding Connection Through Fermentation In NYC: Anton Nicola

January 1, 2021

Photo: Calla Kessler

Anton Nicola’s interest in baking and home-cooking was fostered from a young age by his mother who baked them fresh bread and challah. Nicola grew up in South Florida, where the climate is warm, humid, and destined for an appreciable growing climate. The college he attended, Florida Gulf Coast University, located in Fort Myers, was one of the first to foster food forests on campus. It was here he was first exposed to varying microclimates, regenerative agriculture, and how to cultivate his garden.

His interest in fermentation began in 2014 when he attempted to make sourdough bread for the first time but was not successful. Later in 2018, his partner, Calla Kessler, brought a sourdough starter to their home in D.C. for a second try. In 2019, the pair moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, Nicola joined the group NYC Ferments and his interest in fermentation took off. This particular group hosted people from all backgrounds; 9-5 working people on one side, and fermentation experts, chefs, and bakers on the other.

Photo: Calla Kessler

One particular person stood as a pinnacle of the fermentation movement: Ken Fornataro. Nicola observed Fornataro helping dozens of people with their sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha starters. Nicola recounts, “He grew up in a family of farmers and chefs in Jersey so you can see that New York City hustle aspect combined with food knowledge and a lot of passion.”

Nicola then became interested in making tempeh- a traditional Indonesian soy product made from fermented soybeans- with jackfruit seeds. He had made tempeh off and on beginning in 2014 and was looking to experiment with new ingredients. Nicola knew Fornataro was the right person to ask about finding the necessary local ingredients. Fornataro lead Nicola to Kalustyan’s- a spice market in NYC.  After becoming a frequent visitor, Nicola informs, “For non-New Yorkers, Kalustyan’s is the mecca for everything: herbs, grain, spices, nuts, and even the more scientific ingredients, like citric acid.”

After joining NYC Ferments and getting to know Fornataro, Nicola made connections all over the community. He visited co-working spaces and gained an understanding of how to produce vast amounts of high-quality food items in a short amount of time.

AT-HOME BREAD MAKING: 

Photo: Anton Nicola

Nicola continued experimenting with fermentation in his kitchen at home. In 2020, he has played with all the variables in breadmaking: varying hydrations, flours, and yeast strains. He also explored various sourdough toppings, such as homemade jams- rhubarb for his partner- or butter and cilantro grown from his patio garden. Recently, Nicola has been testing rye flour, noting how the different types of flour affect the fermentation process because of changes in enzymatic activity.

A recent out-of-the-box creation was a bread made with sake kasu- a byproduct of sake. Nicola explained his process:

Bread made with sake kasu: 

  1. Make the sake through the typical process of fermenting yeast from rice, rice koji, and water (or acquire sake kasu from your local sake brewery).
  2. Filter out the dregs; the sediment/ yeast left at the top or bottom of the mixture.
  3. Use as a rising agent, instead of traditional bakers’ yeast.
  4. Combine sake kasu to the flour of choice and create a preferment similar to a poolish.                                                                                                   

MAKING COUNTRY WINE:

Nicola felt as though making country wine was the natural progression from making bread. He explained that making country wine is the traditional way of making wine; a low intervention process that may or may not include added yeast.

Country wine process:

  1. Brew beer (beer, not wine) as normal.
  2. Scrap beer yeast off the top of the fermenting mixture and hang up to dry. Dozens of bacteria and yeast strains are introduced to that product, meaning, you can’t get that product anywhere else.
  3. Take that mixture and combine it with diluted jams to make country wine.

If Nicola doesn’t have that particular beer yeast, he will mash up grapes or other fruits purchased from local farmers markets, such as Union Square Market, and let the already-occurring yeast start to consume the sugar. A spontaneous fermentation occurs without any added yeast and creates another variation of country wine.

MOVING FORWARD

When asked if Nicola saw himself selling his homemade  sourdough, he explained how selling his bread does not call to him right now. Instead of selling it he gives it away to neighbors and friends. “It feels good. Giving it away, tinkering, and experimenting. If I had to be consistent with what was being offered, I couldn’t play with fermentation times, temperatures, or making something new daily.”

Nicola has experienced so much of New York through the fermentation scene. He has connected with world-renowned chefs and learned about the intricacies of fermentation and experimentation. The diversity and opportunity for growth bubbles with every new connection and recipe. Moving forward, he wants to explore underutilized grains, farm products, and spaces to create more biodiversity in the city and food market.