A Higher Sour

When I arrive at Nadia Ernestus’s house in Sag Harbor she offers me a glass of ice-cold, refreshing pineneedle tea. It’s delicious and reminds me of the weird spruce gum our grandfather used to give us as children.

 “And now I’ll show you how to make it,” says Ernestus, pictured here.

We wander out to her front yard, and she randomly picks pine needles and fir sprigs from various bushes and trees.

“The prisoners in the gulag in Siberia would drink this to prevent scurvy. It is full of vitamin C and antioxidants. And it’s free!”

Ernestus pours a quart of boiling water over the handful of needles and leaves it to steep until it cools. Next, she opens her refrigerator and pulls out some beautiful magentacolored spicy beet kvass and pours it into tiny pressed glass cordial glasses. We toast.

“Nazdarovya!” I say, mangling her native Russian. She winces at my pronunciation and says, “Just say ‘cheers.’ ”

Nadia Ernestus is known around these parts as the “Kraut Kween.” She founded Hamptons Brine, a line of raw, lacto-fermented sauerkrauts and kvass, two years ago, and the product has taken off. The difference between her sauerkraut and the stuff you can buy sloshing around in plastic bags or at the ballpark on your hotdog is that hers is uncooked and unpasteurized, thereby preserving all of the valuable probiotic benefits.

 Eating raw sauerkraut on a regular basis can benefit your immune system, lower LDL cholesterol, assist in managing type 2 diabetes, improve digestion, and decrease allergies. It’s also supposed to cure hangovers, though I haven’t put it to the test. Yet.

Ernestus makes three varieties of sauerkraut and three types of kvass. The Kraut Kween realizes that the business has gotten big enough that she could expand, but has decided not to.

“I have an artisanal, handcrafted product. That’s good enough for me, I don’t need to be a sauerkraut mogul. My house is paid off, and I buy my clothes at the Salvation Army and L.V.I.S. Bargain Box.”

Her only extravagance is good, healthy, organic food. She entertains frequently and thinks nothing of feeding 30 people at a time. A typical feast might be venison stew (venison provided by local hunters), roasted vegetables, and lots of her fermented products.

Another peek into her refrigerator reveals cabbage with yellow beets and jalapeños in one jar, mushrooms in another (yes, she also forages for mushrooms and often finds chanterelles in other people’s neglected lawns), and cranberries in raw honey. Some of her favorites are fermented green beans with snow peas, and asparagus and corn.

W hen she begins to explain the fermentation process, I scribble furiously.

“Stop writing while I am talking to you!” She barks at me. “You should be listening while I am talking!”

Ernestus, who emigrated from Russia in 1981, has three children in their 20s; they all cook, make their own sauerkraut, and understand the importance of nutrition.

I ’ve become a fan of — actually, I’m addicted to — her spiced beet kvass and sauerkraut. I like to chop it up and mix it with shredded Lacinato kale, chopped dried apricots, and Marcona almonds. As a woman said upon trying it recently at a local farm stand: “It hits the spot I never knew I had.” — Laura Donnelly


Russian Sauerkraut SaladServes 6-8

16 oz. sauerkraut, drained

1 finely sliced or grated apple

1 cup chopped green onions

1/4 cup chopped dill

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 Tbsp. sunflower oil

Black pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate for a few hours

Laura Donnelly