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The History of Kefir | Education Series Part 1

The Incredibly Weird and Wonderful History of Kefir

Kefir is a slightly fizzy fermented yoghurt made from milk and live cultures called kefir grains. The yoghurt is packed with billions of strains of probiotics and the word “kefir” translates to “good feeling” in Turkish. Whilst kefir has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity all over the world in the last few years, it has been a household staple for over 200 years in many countries due to its powerful health benefits. You might be surprised to learn that the probiotic yoghurt has an intriguing, twisting-and-turning history, which includes espionage, prophecy and a 40,000 year old tomb! From its ancient origins to the modern shelves at your local grocery, read on to find out what makes Kefir truly unique.

Evidence of kefir in the ancient world has been found across many diverse civilisations. Most compelling was the evidence of kefir grains in the 4000 year old tomb of the emperor Xiaohe in Xinjiang, China. It is theorised that kefir fermentation was common in the semi-pastoral households of Central Asia in the Early Bronze Age, contributing to economic and technical advancements during that time. It has also been found in Tibet, under the name Tibetan Mushroom.

Many mystical and religious stories enshrine kefir as a sacred food across different cultures One belief is that Abraham, who according to Biblical legend lived till 175 years old, owed his longevity to magical fermented yoghurt, and that the Manna from Heaven given from God to the Israelites was kefir grains. Another belief is that that Noah received kefir from God to help him and his arc survive the flood.

Despite the murkiness of its ancient roots, the birth of modern kefir and its popularity can be traced back over 200 years ago to the Caucasus Mountains, a rural region between Russia and Georgia. Much like cheese, kefir was a happy accident, first brought about when fresh milk carried by shepherds in leather pouches would ferment and thicken, producing kefir. The farmers soon found white gold at the bottom of their pouches- kefir grains! They quickly learnt to strain out the fermentation and add new warm milk to the grains at the bottom of their leather bags, creating a continuous supply of kefir.

The people of Caucasus Mountains believed that the Prophet Muhamad received the grains from Allah and taught the Orthodox Caucasian people to make kefir. According to legend, he also prohibited them from showing this secret to other peoples, for the grains would lose their potency and magical properties if the secret were to be revealed. This led to a long history of secrecy over the “Grains of the Prophet”.

Scientifically speaking, kefir grains are small gelatinous balls that form symbiotic colonies of yeast and bacteria that feed on the lactose in milk, fermenting it into kefir.

The superfood soon became both a valued commodity and a sacred treasure, with families handing down grains from generation to generation and guarding them jealously. Kefir was believed to be responsible for the remarkable longevity and good health enjoyed by the nomadic Caucasian people, who often lived till 100 years old- a rare feat for any 19th century population. Stories of the extraordinary wellbeing of the Caucasian people spread through its neighbouring regions, bringing unwanted attention to the magical yoghurt they believed was responsible for their good health.

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of Russian scientists wanted to unlock the secrets of good health in the Caucasus, but knew that the origins of Kefir were guarded carefully by its people. After many failed attempts to reproduce the yoghurt from small samples, they concluded they could not make nor reproduce the key to kefir- kefir grains! So, in 1908, with the backing of government officials, they contacted a renowned dairy school, Moscow Dairy, to help acquire them. This task was handed to Irina Sakharova, an impressive, award winning, 20-year-old graduate. Her unique directives were to seduce the Caucasian Prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov and return home with the precious grains, which would be gifted to her by the enamoured royal. Who would have thought fermented dairy could have such a racy history?

The plan was going swimmingly at first, with the Prince quickly falling for the beautiful young cheese-maker. Whilst the Prince showered her with gifts, Irina’s requests for the gift of kefir grains were all but denied, reflecting just how precious the secret of kefir was. The prince, however, was certainly smitten, and proposed to Irina. This proposal was also rebuffed. Things at this point went a bit pear shaped- as the Prince refused to let Irina leave, demanding her hand in marriage. Eventually, with the appeals from Irina's co-conspirators, the Czar Nicholas II intervened. He demanded the Prince free Irina and that she be offered generous compensation for her woes. The compensation she requested? You got it! Irina refused his offers of gold, jewels and lavish gifts, requesting only precious kefir grains. In 1908 she returned home triumphant, bringing kefir grains to Russia and the outside world for the first time.

Kefir quickly spread through Russia, at first as a health tonic to cure illnesses. It was used in hospitals to treat a wide variety of conditions including digestive disorders, cancer, atherosclerosis, and tuberculosis. By 1930, Kefir was a staple in the everyday Russian diet and was as popular as milk. By this time it was being mass-produced and was widely available throughout the nation. In 1973 the Russian Government formally thanked Irina Sakharova for successfully bringing kefir to Russia, and by the 1980’s, they were producing over a tonne of kefir a year. Soon kefir spread to through Europe, becoming popular in Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. In 1960, kefir was introduced in the United States.

Today kefir is popular and widely available all over the world. Its popularity is growing still, as consumers become increasingly focussed on the health benefits of probiotic rich diets and gut health. As the link between the gut and holistic health becomes increasingly evident, we can see the shelves at the grocery stores swell with gut-healthy products such as kefir. The incredible yoghurt, propagated through long generations since ancient times, indeed might have one of the most fascinating histories of any widely available food on the market. So next time you take a sip of your kefir, you can think about all the weird and wonderful events that brought it from an ancient tomb to your fridge!


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