Milk Kefir – the back story

Kefir originated at least 2000 years ago somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, where according to legend, the first kefir grains were given to the Caucasians by the prophet Mohammed. He showed them how to make a magical elixir that would bring health and longevity, but only if was kept secret; so kefir grains became closely guarded tribal treasures. For hundreds of years kefir was barely known outside this region, but gradually, rumours of a miracle health tonic began to spread and by the end of the nineteenth century, the All Russian Physicians’ Society were keen to get their hands on some for their patients. They approached local dairy owners, the brothers Blandov, to discuss the concept of large-scale kefir production.

But there was a problem. To make kefir, they needed Kefir Grains, and the native Caucasians were intent on sticking to Mohammed’s instructions, reluctant to share either grains or know-how. The brothers decided to resort to subterfuge. Step forward Irina Sakharova, a brilliant and beautiful young employee at the dairy – at 20, already a graduate in dairy farming with a gold medal to her name for her butter. Irina was sent off with a small party to charm some kefir grains from Prince Bek-Murza, a local Caucasian nobleman and dairy owner. After entertaining her at court for several days, the Prince was rather taken with Irina. Every day he sent her red roses and invited her to walk in the “alley of love”. Irina did not return the prince’s affections, but it seems the plan was successful and he was besotted enough with her to bestow 4 kg of kefir grains. The Blandov brothers were able to start production and from 1908 kefir was available to the Russian public – in some cases provided free of charge – although large-scale production was not undertaken until the 1930s.

Mohammed-based myths aside, it is generally accepted that kefir started through an accidental interaction between two different microbial worlds. Fresh milk, which is a rich source of nutrients and microbes, was stored in goatskin bags, covered with their own microbial flora. Shepherds used to take goatskins onto the hills with them and top them up with milk during the day – one supposes that on occasion, the milk turned into delicious fizzy kefir, and at some point the connection was made between the flavour and the presence of the grains. The habit became to store milk in a bag hanging over the door and whenever anyone passed they would knock the bag to help mix the contents. Nowadays, people are more likely to use a ceramic pot, though the set-up below is still used by Bedouin tribes to make yoghurt. If you don’t have a fridge there are only two ways to enjoy milk – either fresh, or fermented, on the basis that once it has been acidified, it deteriorates much more slowly.

The kefir grains we use today are distant relatives of those same ancient cultures. In fact, at the time of writing in 2019, the creation of kefir grains through any other means than spontaneous natural generation has been achieved only once or twice in laboratories, using mixed cultures of bacteria that are involved in the process.