Kefir (кефир) is a drink made of fermented milk — not unlike yogurt — whose origins lie with nomadic shepherds living on the slopes of North Caucasus Mountains. Today, kefir is the most popular fermented milk in Russia. Late in the 20th century, kefir accounted for between 65% and 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988.
Kefir’s popularity has spread from Eastern Europe so that it is now regularly consumed in North America, Europe, Australia, and the United Kingdom, where pasteurized kefir may be found in many stores and supermarkets. It’s also being produced on a large scale in countries that once made up the Soviet block, as well as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and even as far away as Southeast Asia. Known as yogurt de pajaritos (bird’s yogurt), kefir has also been enjoyed in Chile for over a century, likely brought to South America by waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe or the former Ottoman Empire. Flavored varieties have been developed and are especially popular in the United States.
There is a legend among the Islamic people living on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains that Mohammed gave kefir grains to Orthodox Christians, thereby teaching them to make kefir. Called the “Grains of the Prophet,” they were jealously guarded by their owners, as they believed the grains would lose their potency if the secret of their use became common knowledge. Thus, kefir grains were secretly passed from one generation to the next, closely guarded as part of the wealth of each family within the tribe, and although foreigners were sometimes given kefir to drink—Marco Polo recounts tasting kefir in the book of his eastern travels—the method of making kefir was kept secret and the drink was all but forgotten until the 19th century.
It cannot be overlooked that kefir grains really can be described as “magical”: despite intensive research spanning well over a century and many attempts to produce kefir grains from pure or mixed cultures normally found in the grains, no successful results have been reported to this day, likely because so very little is known about the way in which the kefir grains form.
The most ancient methods of making kefir were far from complicated: fresh milk—from cows, goats, or sheep—was poured into watertight bags made of goat or sheepskin and the “magical,” cauliflower-like grains of a kefir culture were added before the bag was suspended in the sun during the day. When the sun went down, the bag was brought inside and hung near the door. Each person passing in or out of the doorway would push or prod the bag, helping ensure that the milk and kefir grains remained well mixed as the milk fermented. As kefir was consumed, more milk was added to the bag so that the process could continue uninterrupted—as it had for hundreds or even thousands of years, descended through the ages from kefir grains first used many generations ago.
Occasionally, kefir was made in clay pots, wooden buckets, or even vats of oak, but the most traditional method of making kefir was in watertight skin bags.
Shepherds could make their own kefir as they traveled: when leaving home, they would take skins of kefir with them on their treks across the slopes, adding fresh milk from the animals they herded to replace what they consumed. As the shepherd moved, the milk would mix with the kefir grains and ferment into the mildly self-carbonated beverage that they drank and simultaneously used to make more kefir.
During the Victorian Age, news spread that the use of kefir was successful in the treatment of such varied diseases as tuberculosis and intestinal and stomach diseases and Russian doctors began studying kefir’s properties in earnest. Although the first studies on the benefits of kefir were published at the end of the 19th century, kefir was still very difficult to find as, without the kefir grains, it was impossible to make.
Determined to obtain the elusive kefir grains in order to make kefir for their patients on an industrial scale, members of the “All Russian Physician’s Society” approached two brothers named Blandov with a request for them to procure kefir grains for the project. The Blandov brothers owned and ran the large Moscow Dairy and also owned cheese-manufacturing factories in the town of Kislovodsk in the Northern Caucasus region.
What happened next is a story straight out of a bodice-ripper: one of the brothers, Nikolai, sent Irina Sakharova — a beautiful, young employee — to the court of a local prince named Bek-Mirza Barchorov with instructions to charm the prince and obtain some kefir grains for the operation. Although the prince Bek-Mirza greatly desired Irina, he feared violating religious laws and refused to give away the “Grains of the Prophet.” Recognizing that her mission was a failure, Irina and the men accompanying her left to return to Kislovodsk. The prince, however, was not going to let Irina escape; as it was a local custom to steal a bride prior to marrying her, Bek-Mirza sent the men of a local mountain tribe to capture the hapless beauty. Following her kidnapping, Irina remained steadfastly silent while the prince proposed marriage to her, buying herself enough time for her employers — the brothers Blandov — to organize a daring mission to save her from a forced marriage to the besotted prince.
After Irina’s rescue, Prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov was brought before Tsar Nicholas II who ruled that, in compensation for the kidnapping and other insults to her person that she was forced to endure, Prince Bek-Mirza give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains.
Following the royal ruling, the priceless kefir grains were taken to the Moscow Dairy owned by the Blandov brothers and the first bottles of kefir ever manufactured commercially were offered for sale in Moscow in September 1908. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the manufacture of kefir began on a large scale.
However, the first kefir-making process wasn’t without its complications. The first commercial product was made by growing a quantity of kefir grains in milk and then straining them out before using the cultured milk to ferment a larger batch of fresh milk. The resulting mixture was given time to ferment and set aside to cool. Unfortunately, although the finished product was greatly inferior to the kefir traditionally produced, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the process was perfected. The employees of the “All-Union Dairy Research Institute” (VNIMI) developed a better method which included stirring the mix of kefir grains and milk in a large vessel and permitting the entire process—consisting of fermentation, coagulation, agitation of the mixture, ripening of the kefir, and its cooling—to take place in the same container prior to being bottled and sold.
In 1973, when Irina Sakharova was 85 years old, the Minister of Food and Industry of the Soviet Union sent her a letter acknowledging her part and thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people.
The people of the Caucasus region are famed for their extraordinary longevity and many accredit this to their regular consumption of kefir. Hospitals in the former USSR used kefir to treat conditions ranging from atherosclerosis, allergic disease, metabolic and digestive disorders, tuberculosis, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders.
In recent years, scientific studies have proven that kefir is able to stimulate the immune system, enhance lactose digestion, as well as inhibit tumors, fungi and pathogens — including the bacteria that cause most ulcers, Helicobacter pylori. Given that scientists are now discovering that bacteria may trigger many inflammatory diseases, including some types of heart disease, regular consumption of kefir may really account for longevity and continued health as we age.
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