The very early beginnings of milk kefir are part legend and a little bit of mystery. Most all references and research points to kefir originating in North Ossetia (the Northern area of the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and Georgia). It was there that the Ossetians, descended from the nomadic Scythians who settled in the area, first harnessed kefir grains to ferment milk in simple leather bags. It's hard to say what these highlanders of the Caucasian Mountains did on a day-to-day basis with kefir, or where exactly they first happened across it. Unfortunately there were no written records of this, only a story passed down (and probably a good helping of exaggeration with it!). Nonetheless, as the story progresses into Russia, it becomes more accurate as names, dates and written records of kefir take the place of legend and story-telling. This is the story of kefir:
According to the people of the northern slopes of the Caucasian Mountains there is 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 jealously since it was believed that they would lose their strength if the grains were given away and the secret of how to use them were to be common knowledge. Kefir grains were regarded as part of the family's and tribe's wealth and they were passed on from generation to generation. The kefir was made in cows or goats milk in sacks made from the hides of animals. Occasionally it was also made in clay pots, wooden buckets, or oak vats. In some areas sheep milk was also used. Usually the kefir sacks were hung out in the sun during the day and brought back into the house at night, where they were hung near the door. Everyone who entered or left the house was expected to prod the sack with their foot or hand to mix the contents. As kefir was removed more fresh milk was added, making the fermentation process continuous. For many centuries the people of the northern Caucasus enjoyed this food without sharing it with anyone. Strange tales spread of the unusual beverage which was said to have 'magical' properties; Marco Polo even mentioned kefir in the chronicles of his travels in the East.
However, kefir was forgotten outside the Caucasus for centuries until news spread of its use for the treatment of tuberculosis and for intestinal and stomach diseases. Russian doctors believed that kefir was beneficial for health and the first scientific studies for kefir were published at the end of the nineteenth century. However, kefir was extremely difficult to obtain and commercial production was not possible without first obtaining a source of grains.
The members of the All Russian Physician's Society were determined to obtain kefir grains in order to make kefir readily available to their patients. In the early 1900's a representative of the society approached two brothers by the name of Blandov and asked them to procure some kefir grains. The Blandov's owned and ran the Moscow Dairy, but they also had holdings in the Caucasus Mountain area, including cheese manufacturing factories in the town of Kislovodsk. The plan was for the Blandov's to obtain a source of kefir grains and then produce kefir on an industrial scale in Moscow.
The Blandov's were excited since they knew that they would be the only commercial producers of this much sought after product so Nikolai Blandov sent a beautiful young employee, Irina Sakharova, to the court of a local prince, Bek-Mirza Barchorov. She was instructed to charm the prince and persuade him to give her some of his kefir grains.
Unfortunately, everything did not go according to plan. The prince, fearing retribution for violating a religious law, had no intention of giving away any 'Grains of the Prophet'. However, he was very taken with the young Irina and didn't want to lose her either. Realizing that they were not going to complete their mission, Irina and her party departed for Kislovodsk. On their way home though they were stopped by mountain tribesmen who kidnapped Irina and took her back to the prince. Since it was a local custom to steal a bride, Irina was told that she was to marry Bek-Mirza Barchorov. Only a daring rescue mission mounted by agents of her employers saved Irina from the forced marriage. The unlucky prince was brought before the Tsar who ruled that the prince was to give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains, to recompense her for the insults she had endured.
The kefir grains were taken to the Moscow Dairy and in September, 1908, the first bottles of kefir drink were offered for sale in Moscow. Small quantities of kefir were produced in several small towns in the area where there was a ready market for it. People mostly consumed it for its alleged medicinal value.
Commercial manufacturing of kefir on a large scale began in Russia, in the 1930's. However, it is difficult to produce kefir by conventional methods on a commercial scale due to its ever-changing state and complex biological make-up.
By the 1930's kefir was being made as a set-type product which entailed growing a quantity of grains in milk and then straining out the grains and adding the cultured milk to a larger batch of fresh milk. The mixture was incubated and, when set, allowed to cool. Unfortunately, this type of product was not as good as the one produced using the traditional home-style method.
During the 1950's workers at the All-Union Dairy Research Institute (VNIMI) developed a new method for commercial kefir production which gave a drink similar to that produced in the home by traditional methods. The kefir was produced by the stirred method. Fermentation, coagulation, agitation, ripening and cooling, were carried out in a large vessel, and then the kefir was bottled.
In 1973 the Minister of the Food Industry of the Soviet Union sent a letter to Irina Sakharova thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people.
Presently, kefir is the most popular fermented milk in Russia. Various reports have stated that it accounts for between 65% and 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988. The average yearly consumption of kefir in the Soviet Union was estimated at approximately 4.5 kilograms per person per year in the early 1980s.
Currently kefir is being manufactured on a commercial scale in Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and various of the former soviet union states, Denmark, the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and parts of southeast Asia. You may even be familiar with some brands such as Lifeway's Kefir, now available in many up-scale and organic grocery stores.
As kefir makes itself known across the globe, more and more people are able to enjoy this delicious ancient beverage today. It is wonderful to see that despite our sometimes hectic lives full of ever-evolving technology serving us instant gratification that we are still able to appreciate, encourage and share something as simple and natural as kefir grains.
The milk kefir beverage has acquired many names from all over the world throughout the centuries, including:
• Snow lotus
• Tibetan mushroom
• Mudu Kekiya
• The Grains of The Prophet Mohamed
• The Drink of the Prophet
• Tibetan Mushrooms
• Yogurt Plant
• Yogurt Mushroom
• Yogoot-tane-oko (Japanese)
• Tibetanischer Pilz (German)
• Galodium (Romanian and/or Polish)
• Kefyras (Lithuanian)