Fermentation-focused feast invites diners into 'mystical and wonderful' world of microbial transformations

A pair of Winnipeg filmmakers are using a fermented feast to help bring life to a movie about decay.

Winnipeg's Wroughtten Feast will raise money for Wrought, a film focused on decay

Diners at the Wroughtten Feast, which runs Oct. 17-20, will get six courses, each featuring an element of fermentation. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

The vacuum-sealed baggies and bottles spread out on the kitchen counter at the Ralph Brown Community Centre look still — but inside, they're alive with activity.

Bacteria in the containers are busy winning a microscopic war, outcompeting foes and transforming the fruits and vegetables they inhabit as they go.

It's a process Anna Sigrithur calls "microbial transformation." In this case, it's fermentation. Other examples include rot and decay — and while their results are not as tasty as fermentation, Sigrithur says they're part of a hidden world that deserves a second look.

"[Fermentation] is a very charismatic process. It's very sensory," says the Winnipeg filmmaker, who is half of the production team for upcoming film Wrought, which explores the fascinating process of decay.

"You can see all these transformations happening, where we're very used to kind of static, sterile, cold food in the last half century or so," she said.

"There has, unsurprisingly, been this renaissance, cultural renaissance … around food fermentation," she added. "We crave some sort of contact with our food, and we crave participating in it."

Anna Sigrithur and Joel Penner are filmmakers working on the film Wrought, which explores rot, beauty, disgust and decay. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Later this month, Sigrithur will host a four-night feast, dubbed the Wroughtten Feast, at the community centre in Winnipeg's St. John's neighbourhood to fundraise for the film. The menu will focus on fermented foods, which Sigrithur said are included in the film's subject matter.

"The film is all about celebrating microbial transformations in our world, whether they be … ferments in our kitchen or composts in the backyard, or maybe the sort of wilder, more threatening world of rot and decay and decomposition," she said.

"What kind of microbial engagement or interactions, as humans, do we allow, and which ones do we kind of abhor?… There is no single line for that."

The beauty of decay

Diners at the Wroughtten Feast will get six courses, each featuring an element of fermentation. The options range from potatoes with cultured butter to a dessert made with koji, a type of fermented mould. The savoury courses include a filet mignon cooked in compost and topped with garum — a rich fermented condiment.

Sigrithur says cooking has long been one of the ways she engages with the world. She's been fermenting foods for a decade, incorporating techniques she said have been honed over generations.

The fuzziness on the rice is koji, a cultivated mould, which Sigrithur says can be used to make a variety of tasty foods. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

In the process, she's found "a lot of interesting outcomes in terms of flavour that you can gain from fermented products that you just cannot gain any other way," she said.

"This garum — which tastes like the most delicious jus that comes from the bottom of a roast beef — I couldn't have made this, really, without the help of this fungus that I had to learn how to grow. And that, to me, is kind of mystical and wonderful."

In working on Wrought, both Sigrithur and fellow filmmaker Joel Penner say they experienced a shift in the way they look at decay. Where rotting food or roadkill once triggered an instant revulsion response, Penner said he now sees something different.

"One of the biggest takeaways for the film, for me, is just the idea that all these disgusting things are also incredibly beautiful," he said. It is, he adds, a process that people "really don't look at critically, understandably."

Mould grows on a raspberry in a still from the film Wrought, by Anna Sigrithur and Joel Penner. (Submitted by Joel Penner)

Sigrithur and Penner are hoping to use funds from the feast to pay Winnipeg-born composer Randolph Peters, who is working with a fourth-year class at Toronto's York University to write a score for the film.

Diners will also get the chance to see an excerpt of the film, which Sigrithur and Penner hope to officially premiere in January.

Anna Sigrithur holds a spoonful of homemade miso made with beans, instead of the traditional soy. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

For Sigrithur, the message she's hoping viewers take home circles back to the idea of disgust, which she says is learned, not innate.

"I think that there's some bigger philosophical insights to be gained … [in] thinking about what we try to keep away from, and why — not only on a sort of disgust-based level, but [also], who is other? What is other?"

The Wroughtten Feast runs Oct. 17-20 at the Ralph Brown Community Centre in Winnipeg. Tickets are $75 for food and $110 for food paired with natural wine, and are available online through Brown Paper Tickets.