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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Secret Drink of the Caucasus

This kefir is made with water.

Fermented foods - from kimchi to pickles to yogurt - have been proven to be healthy for the human body, and some advocates state that one should eat something fermented every day.  Kefir (pronounced ke-'feer) is a fermented milk drink made with special grains that are a combination of  beneficial bacteria and yeasts.  Similar to yogurt but more liquid, it has been made and drunk for centuries.  The word comes from the Turkish keif, meaning a state of feeling good.

It was first documented in the Caucasus mountain regions where shepherds discovered that innoculating milk with kefir grains would produce this potable drink.  Scientists and others have written about the longevity of people from this area, especially Soviet Georgia, and while it is often attributed to yogurt, most likely it is kefir.  Marco Polo mentioned kefir in the tales of his travels.  But as so often happens in history, the story of its origin has divine beginnings - it is said to have been given from Allah through his prophet Mohammed, and passed down through the generations by his followers, never shared with strangers.

Russian doctors got wind of kefir, and in the late nineteenth century published the first scientific studies that it was good for the treatment of tuberculosis and intestinal and stomach diseases.  However kefir grains were carefully guarded. The All Russian Physicians' Society were determined to try kefir and sought to get hold of some of the grains.  They contacted the Blandov brothers who owned the Moscow Dairy but also had businesses in the Caucasus Mountain area including a cheese-making plant.  As this would make them the only commercial producers, they concocted a plan.  They sent an employee, the beautiful Irina Sakharova, to the court of local prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov to charm him and get some of the grains.  The prince refused to part with any "Grains of the Prophet" for fear of religious reprisal.  Ms. Sakharova left empty-handed, but was kidnapped by local tribesmen and taken back to the prince.  Her employers mounted a daring rescue, and the prince was made to appear before the Tsar who ruled that Ms. Sakharova would receive ten pounds of grains in compensation.

The grains were taken to the Moscow Dairy and in September of 1908 the first bottles were sold in Moscow.  In the 1930s kefir was manufactured on a large scale for commercial consumption.  However, commercial kefir is not as good. Traditionally it was made in sacks made of animal hides, or wooden buckets or clay pots.  The contents were constantly prodded, and as the kefir was consumed more milk was added so the fermentation continued.  In the 1950s a new method for commercial production was introduced.  In 1973, the minister of the Food Industry in the Soviet Union sent a letter to Ms. Sakharova thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people.  She was by then 85 years old.  It is the most popular fermented milk product in Russia.  Today it is produced commercially in countries throughout Europe, parts of southeast Asia, and in the U.S. and Canada.

It can be made of any type of milk (cow, goat, sheep, coconut, rice, or soy) or even water.  Whatever type of fluid is chosen, it is fermented with special "grains", which are actually yeast and bacteria colonies that look like cauliflower.  These are gelatinous white or yellow particles which ferment the fluid and then are strained and reused or stored.  The drink is effervescent and tart when plain, but various fruits and flavorings can be added.  While available commercially, it is easy to make.

Image courtesy of www.bonappetit.com.

The grains are initially purchased or given by someone producing kefir.  The grains cannot be produced from scratch, but since they grow during fermentation additional grains are generated.  The traditional methods of making kefir are now artisanal efforts.  Grains and milk are added to an acid-proof, dark container which is left out at room temperature and agitated several times a day.  The container must be dark in order to prevent the degradation of vitamins.  The grains are sifted out and reused for the next batch.  The temperature is not critical as long as it does not get above 104 degrees F or under 39 degrees F.

If not drunk immediately the kefir will thicken in several days, and also will sour. It will be good for a few days, then should be refrigerated.  The grains can be stored in milk in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, or frozen for a couple of months.  For even longer term storage, they can be dried and kept for a couple of years.  If the kefir is left out for a couple of days after the grains are removed, a thick cream will develop on the top.  This can be scooped out and used as sour cream.

Image courtesy of www.mercola.com.

The abundance of beneficial yeasts and bacteria in kefir produce lactase, the enzyme that consumes lactose, and thus any lactose that develops in the fermenting process is absorbed.  This makes it tolerable for those who are lactose-intolerant.  In European countries kefir is drunk much like a glass of milk, even served with sweets.  Because it has a sour taste, some people prefer mixing fruit with the kefir in a blender, and that is mainly how it is produced in the U.S.

Image courtesy of www.kefirstore.com.

When you drink, and especially when you make, kefir you are taking part in a process that was secret for centuries and is now celebrated for its benefits.  Za tva-jó zda-ró-vye!

Unless otherwise noted, imaged courtesy of Wikipedia.