Kefir, pronounced kuh-feer (alternate pronunciations being kee-fur or kef-fur), is a tart drink originally of the Caucasus, made from cow milk or sometimes goat milk. The name kefir is believed to have originated from the Turkish word “kef.” The word is still used in Middle Eastern languages to refer to “pleasure” or “good feeling.” It’s one of the oldest of cultured milk products and it’s popularity is spread through Russia and the Caucasus. Kefir is sometimes called the Champagne of Milk.
The word Caucasus is derived from Caucas, the ancestor of the North Caucasians. He was the son of Togarmah, who was the grandson of the Biblical Noah’s third son, Japheth. According to Leonti Mroveli, who is also called Leontius of Ruisi, after the fall of the Tower of Babel and humanity was divided into different languages, Togarmah settled with his sons between two inaccessible mountains, which are presumed to be Mount Ararat and Mount Elbrus. Leontius of Ruisi was an 11th-century Georgian chronicler, who is presumed to be an ecclesiastic.
North Caucasus is comprised of Russia. South Caucasus is comprised of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The people of the northern slopes of the Caucasian Mountains have a legend that Mohammed gave kefir grains to the Orthodox people and taught them how to make kefir. The “Grains of the Prophet” were guarded with much jealously, because it was believed that they would lose their strength if the grains were given away and the secret of how to use them became common knowledge.
Kefir grains were considered part of the family’s wealth and the tribe’s wealth and they were passed on from generation to generation. For centuries the people of the northern Caucasus enjoyed this food without sharing it with anyone else. Other peoples occasionally heard strange tales of this unusual beverage, which was said to have magical properties. Marco Polo mentioned kefir in the chronicles of his travels in the East.
Despite this, kefir was forgotten for centuries outside the Caucasus until news spread of its use for the treatment of tuberculosis in sanatoria and for its use in intestinal and stomach diseases. Russian doctors believed that kefir was beneficial for health. The first scientific studies on kefir were published at the end of the nineteenth century.
But kefir was extremely difficult to obtain and commercial production wasn’t possible without first obtaining a source for the grains. The members of the All Russian Physician’s Society became determined to obtain kefir grains so that kefir might be readily available to their patients. Early in the 20th century a representative of the Society approached two brothers with the last name of Blandov to see if they might get a hold of some kefir grains. The brothers owned the Moscow Dairy, but they had holdings in the Caucasus Mountain area, which included factories that manufactured cheese, in the town of Kislovodsk. The plan was to find a source for kefir grains and produce kefir in Moscow on an industrial scale.
This is their story: Nikolai Blandov sent a young beautiful employee named Irina Sakharova to the court of a local prince called Bek-Mirza Barchorov. She was told to charm the prince into giving her kefir grains. But everything didn’t go as planned, because the prince was afraid of violating religious law. On the other hand, he was taken by the beautiful Irina and didn’t want to lose her either. Irina and her party left Kislovodsk, when she realized she wasn’t going to obtain the kefir grains. On the way home, mountain tribesmen stopped them and kidnapped Irina and returned her to the prince. It was local custom to steal a bride and Irina was told she had to marry Bek-Mirza Barchorov. A daring rescue mission saved her from the marriage. The prince was brought before the Czar and was told he had to give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains in recompense for the insults she had endured. The prince had offered gold and jewels, but she had refused, insisting on kefir grains instead.
The kefir grains were taken to Moscow and in September 1908 the first bottles of kefir were put up for sale in Moscow. It was also produced in small quantities in several small towns in the area and people bought it for it’s declared health value.
In the 1930s, large-scale production of kefir began in Russia. But it’s difficult to produce it by the conventional methods on a commercial scale. The traditional manner was to make it in raw cow or goat milk, which is placed in sacks made of animal hides. Sometimes it was made in clay pots, wooden buckets or oak vats. In some areas sheep milk was used. The sacks were hung in the sun during the day and at night were brought into the house, where they were hung by the door. It was expected that anyone who entered or left the house was to prod the bag with his foot to mix the contents. As kefir was removed more fresh milk was added, making the fermentation a continuous process.
The 1930s process involved growing a quantity of grains in milk and straining out the grains and adding the cultured milk to a batch of fresh milk. The mixture was then incubated and allowed to cool when it was set. This product wasn’t as good as the one made by the home method.
The All-Union Dairy Research Institute, during the 1950s, developed a new method, which was the stirred method. Fermentation, coagulation, agitation, ripening and cooling were all carried out in a huge vessel after which the kefir was bottled. This method produced a drink similar to the home method.
In 1973, the Minister of the Food Industry of the Soviet Union sent a letter to Irina Sakharova, who was then 85 years of age, thanking her for bringing kefir to the people of Russia.
Currently kefir is the most popular fermented drink in Russia. In 1988 it’s reported that over 1.2 million tons were produced there. Today kefir is produced on a commercial scale, in addition to Russia and various former Soviet Union states, by Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, West Germany, and parts of Southeast Asia. Kefir is produced in many flavors, besides the plain kefir. The flavored kind is especially popular in the United States.
A beverage similar to Kefir, having the same properties is found in Tibet, where it’s known as the Tibetan Yogurt Mushroom, or “tara.”
Dr. Elie Metchnikoff is a Russian immunologist, who received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for discovering phagocytosis. He was intrigued by the exceptional longevity exhibited by certain populations in Bulgaria and the northern Caucasus. Fermented milk products were the staples of the diet of these people. Dr. Metchnikoff theorized that the lactic acid bacteria in the fermented milk were responsible for their exceptional health and longevity. He believed that there was a connection between disease and the microorganisms in the digestive tract. He theorized that the bacteria in the fermented milk products consumed by these people competed with the harmful microorganisms in their digestive tract.
His studies in regards to the contribution of lactic acid bacteria to the functions of the digestive and immune systems may have laid the foundation for the field of probiotics. Dr. Metchnikoff was particularly impressed by the bacteria Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, which he considered a good example of so called beneficial bacteria. Dr. Metchnikoff’s book, The Prolongation of Life, was published in 1907. His research and theories about the curative properties of lactic acid bacteria and the health promoting properties of fermented milk, which contain these bacteria were received well by the European scientific community at that time. Physicians in Paris began prescribing these foods to their patients suffering from tuberculosis and ailments of the digestive system. Consuming fermented milk products for their medicinal properties became a fashionable thing to do.
In 1920, L. F. Rettger showed that Metchnikoff’s “Bulgarian Bacillus” (L. delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus) didn’t survive in the human digestive system. Lactic acid bacteria must survive in the digestive system after they are consumed if they’re to produce beneficial effects. People continued to drink kefir after Rettger’s findings were published, because they enjoyed kefir’s refreshing taste, but popularity of consuming fermented milk products for their medicinal properties greatly diminished.
Since that time, it’s been shown that Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus consumed in fermented milk products like yogurt and kefir actually do survive the passage through the upper gastrointestinal tract. In the past few years, research has led to a better understanding of the properties of probiotics and the manner in which they regulate internal flora and to how they affect the physiology of the digestive system.
The census of 1970, revealed that 5,000 centenarians then lived in the Caucasus. Most of these centenarians were found in the Daghestan part of Azerbaijan at the Caspian end of the Caucasus, and in Abkhazia, part of Georgia at the Black Sea end of the mountains. Daghestan’s population, at that time, was just a little over a million people with 70 out of every 100,000 being 100 years or more in age. In Abkhazia, with half-million people, 2.58% were over 90 years old. In comparison 0.1% for the whole of the U.S.S.R. or 0.4% for the United States were over 100 years old. In a further breakdown of official figures, one out of every 300 Abkhazians was 100 years old or over, compared to in the USA only 3 in 100,000 reached that age.
Since well-tended kefir grains are potentially everlasting, the living ecosystem in your kefir grains may be the very same ones that traveled in a goat-skin bag, which was tied to the back of a horse, hundreds of years ago, fermenting goat milk for a north Caucasian prince.