Adventures in fermentation

I’m making friends with my microbiome.

Seems the prudent thing to do. I don’t want it to decide that this body is badly managed and thus a waste of time, and chuck it for a healthier version. No, not just yet. I have some stuff to write still. So I’m treating my gut flora to a microbial playdate. I want the symbiotic ecosystem that is my body to function optimally.

Not long ago in one of my internet ramblings I stumbled upon kefir, a fermented milk product originating long, long ago in the Caucasus. The word kefir (pronounced keh-fear) is related to the Turkish word keif, which means “feel good.” Kefir is a drinkable probiotic made with either water or milk using a gelatinous matrix of yeast and bacteria that are curiously called “grains.” (They have no relation whatsover to real grains like wheat or oats.)

The story goes that Mohammed gave kefir grains to the orthodox people and taught them how to make kefir. The “grains of the prophet” were a closely guarded secret, passed down from generation to generation, and credited with “magical properties.” They didn’t share them.  People lived long, long lives. Marco Polo wrote about kefir on his travels in the east.

Then somehow the Russians got wind of it. Rumor spread that it was effective in treating tuberculosis and all kinds of intestinal ailments.

The members of the All Russian Physician’s Society were determined to obtain kefir grains, and they approached two brothers called Blandov, who owned and ran the Moscow Dairy. They had holdings in the Caucasus Mountain area, including cheese manufacturing factories in the town of Kislovodsk. The plan was to obtain a source of kefir grains and then produce kefir on an industrial scale in Moscow.

Here’s the “true story” of the Blandovs’ quest for kefir grains.

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 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. Realising that they were not going to complete their mission, Irina and her party departed for Kislovodsk. However, they were stopped on the way home 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 carted before the Tsar who ruled that the prince had to give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains to recompense her for the insults she had endured.

So through a daring hoist, the Russians got the grains, and kefir spread through Russia, Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. The “industrial scale” part didn’t really take – it is difficult to produce kefir by conventional methods on a commercial scale. It’s not like yogurt, where you just take a bit of your previous batch and add it to your milk and it turns into yogurt. No, in order to get the real deal, all the wonderful probiotic power of kefir, you need the grains. Once you have them, they live forever. Like the children of the prophet himself, they quickly go forth and multiply, so you can pass them down to your children and your children’s children and all your friends and acquaintances and their children in turn. Amen.

True kefir can’t be mass-produced. The real, fully probiotic stuff involves sharing, culturing, and nurturing by hand. That’s a pretty mind-blowing concept in our time. The anti-convenience food. Maybe that’s why it appeals to me so much.

Why would you want to go to all that trouble? Well, kefir is like yogurt on steroids. Yogurt has one, maybe two strains of beneficial bacteria in it. Kefir has lots more, plus some beneficial yeasts thrown in for good measure. It’s great for your immune system, your digestive system, your skin, your bones and your brain. Here are just a few websites extolling the virtues of kefir:

In the throes of my seven-year itch, I figured I wouldn’t be able to find it in Switzerland. But one Saturday, on a whim, I went into a health food store in Morges and asked if they had kefir. To my surprise, the lady went over to the refrigerator and took out a mason jar with a curdled-looking substance in it. Fresh kefir grains! She had a customer who gave them to her to pass on to other customers. I was stunned. No way this would happen in the US. I think you have to order them over the Internet.

I was highly excited and rushed home to start watching how-to videos on YouTube.

It turns out that making kefir is ridiculously easy. There’s almost no way you can screw it up. Here’s how:

  • put the grains in a big glass jar
  • add milk – I use about 1 liter of organic whole milk to 1 cup of grains (don’t use UHT)
  • cover with a towel and leave on the counter, stirring now and then with a wooden spoon
  • after it gets thick, strain through a plastic strainer to remove the grains
  • put the kefir into another jar, and put the grains back in the first jar, add more milk and start again

Apparently you don’t want to rinse the grains with tap water (chlorine kills the bacteria) or use metallic utensils (metal reacts with the matrix). It’s so easy even I was able to do it! And I’m no genius in the kitchen, believe me. No kitchen chemist.

In fact, I hate chemistry. It was my academic downfall. I’d been an insufferable straight-A student all the way through high school; then, my freshman year in college, I got a B- in chemistry. It was a very rude shock, and I think I’m still recovering. Luc asked me a question about chemistry the other day and I broke out in hives. Ask your brother! I said. He’s good at chemistry!

But kefir has me intrigued. I’m actually fascinated by what is going on in there.  Alcohol is being produced. The bacteria are munching up the lactose in the milk, producing lactic acid. (This is why lactose-intolerant people fart a lot less after drinking kefir than they do after drinking milk.) Maybe this is why people like chemistry. Maybe one day I might like chemistry. Quick – pass the paper bag, I’m hyperventilating!

The kefir grains grow in volume. You can eat the excess, or give them away to other people who are tired of hearing you spout about the virtues of kefir and will do anything to shut you up, even ferment milk on their own kitchen counters. Here’s a picture of my kefir grains just post-straining:

They look a little like cauliflower florets. I drink a glass of kefir on an empty stomach every morning, sending a host of friendly bacteria down into my microbiome for a morning romp. Brendan and Luc get kefir smoothies for breakfast.

In the late afternoon, when I’m dying for jelly beans or cookies or nutella or some other highly nutritious snack, a glass of kefir enables me to get back on task and survive until dinner. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

Then I heard about another kind of kefir that ferments in sugar water. This makes a kind of fizzy probiotic drink – healthy soda pop, if you will. The “grains” are clear and gelatinous looking. They’re not the same as milk grains – not lactose munchers but saccharose-munchers.

You add them to a mix of sugar, water, a bit of lemon and some eggshell, and let it sit on the counter for a day or two. Then you strain out the grains, put the liquid into a bottle with some juice or other flavor (vanilla, ginger, etc) and cap it tight. You leave on the counter for a day, then “burp” it, put it in the fridge to cool, and you have a refreshing, bubbly drink. Here’s a site that explains the process.

I went back to the health food store and asked the lady if she had water kefir grains. She looked slightly chagrined and explained that she did, but they were dehydrated. I was enthusiastic, so she put some into a kleenex for me and sent me on my way. I don’t think she charged me anything for them.

Back on YouTube I found some videos about how to make water kefir – it’s a little more complicated than milk kefir, but I think I can manage. The grains plumped right up and digested all the sugar in the water over the course of a couple of days.

Here’s a picture of my kitchen counter with all the fermenting fauna, and the implements used in their production.

So far my microbiome seems very happy with the company.

Caring for my microbial menagerie may turn into a tedious chore, but at the moment, I’m finding it quite entertaining. Sure beats pulling weeds.

But I’ll save that post for another day.


3 thoughts on “Adventures in fermentation

  1. Thanks again for the nifty article Mary. As a fellow Kefir-drinker, I wanted to share a little trick I developed that might be of interest to your multitudinous followers. If you want to enjoy every drop of Kefir, that left behind in the glass can be a frustration. To get every last drop, try swirling the glass with water, then pouring out the water just before serving up the Kefir. The film of water left behind on the walls of the glass provides a low-viscosity layer that lubricates the flow of Kefir. I find I leave far less behind on the glass as I enjoy my final slurp using this simple trick.

    • Thanks John! I’m sure my “multitudinous” followers will drink it down to the very last drop! Marc drinks his in his expresso cup, after he’s finished the coffee. I wonder if coffee is as good a lubricant as water?

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