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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Fear of Kefir

Kira gave me some kefir starter yesterday and I have made my first two batches, using some organic milk that we had in the fridge. From the time she gave me the "babies" yesterday, to this morning, they have grown in volume by 50%. My mutual funds should take note. Kefir babies sounds cute , but they are actually a bit scary. Knowing that this army of many tribes: some bacteria, some yeast, has grown trillion-strong overnight is both impressive and humbling. A kefir horde.

Kefirnology: How do you even say it? Most people mispronounce with kay-fir. Some say kiefer (Hello, I'm Kiefer Sutherland, I was named after bacteria). The correct way: say "veneer". Now put a k in place of the v. Now say keh-feer with the the emphasis on the second syllable. Finish by making it heavy and guttural, as if you have a ball of.. uh, kefir stuck in your throat... keh-fihrr.

This ancient, magical food has been around for along time and was studied as far back as 1907 for the beneficial benefits of the lactobacillus bacteria. Even then, the people of the Caucasus and Bulgaria were living very long life spans and this fermented milk was one of the main reasons. No healthcare, no cold-fx, just kefir. It is interesting that the popularity of the technique grew from a practical means to preserve food without refrigeration. There was no kefir section in the corner market. They just discovered (or their mother told them so) that they did not get sick if they added the white cheesy stuff to their milk. Brilliant in it simplicity, instead of pasteurizing to kill any bacteria, they fermented the food to prevent spoilage. In the process, the fermentation not only preserved the food, it also preserved the foodie.

A host of very beneficial bacteria and yeast have been identified. There are different variations depending on the origin of the strain, but some species of microorganisms are always present. You will find Lactobacilli, Acetobacter, Leuconostoc and yeasts like Zygosaccharomyces, and Saccharomyces. Consider that your puny grocery yougurt tub will have maybe five million cells of bacteria. Kefir can contain 200 times more.

The process produces beautiful "mushrooms" of cheesy kefir clumps, which is strained off from the curdle of solids. (Use a plastic salad strainer) The remaining solid mush is ready to eat. The mushroom pieces are then used to start the next batch. I poured the mushrooms into a two pound jar of 2% organic milk which is right now sitting on my desk at room temperature. It is poised to topple unto my laptop keyboard as I write this. I can feel the kefir army pushing against the wall of the plastic jar in waves, " OK, you ladies...on three, we all surge forward and give this fella a nice little kefir surprise, yeah? Hey you! On the 30- milllionth row... put your psp down for crying out loud. "

Tomorrow, I will repeat the process.

Kira warned me that it is very important to start with a sterilized container, either glass or plastic. No metal should touch the culture (neither vessels, stirrers or lids) and that the culture should be checked after 24 hours, as the rate of production of solids is surprisingly very fast. Better to avoid a blast of kefir splattered into the ceiling and all over my laptop. She recommended using milk, rather than the coconut water that I was planning to use. (Much thicker, faster results)

It looks daunting to first try it. First I smell it. Then I take a gulp. The taste is not unpleasant. It is not pleasant either. It is very...primeval. Primeval yogurt. A slice of banana would easily fix it. I immediately realize that I have been spoiled by the easy texture and pleasing flavour of commercially produced yogurt. An entire civilization is softened by leisure and convenience.

The fact that this bacteria is many centuries old transports me. I am sitting at dawn on the ridge of a minor hill in the Caucasus. I have a three day hike in rugged terrain ahead of me, until I can deliver a package of herbs to my ailing friend Desislav. He has had the misfortune of eating some bad goat at the wedding. I have kefir in my bladderbag and I take a swig of its creamy fetidness. I am now sustained. A mini-cloud floats in the air as I clear my throat. .. aackk...kehfirr.

A yogurt's quality is always measured by the chatter of the digestive tract. It is either quiet (such as when I took bargain probiotics which likely had no live culture left) or market-day lively (my belly sings, as if the commensal bacteria are having a heck of a block party). I would say that the effect of the kefir was evident right away. I am now eagerly awaiting the next batch.

I salute the Caucasus mountains that gave us this amazing food. I get up from my laptop which is very unlikely to outlive the kefir army, swivel around on my man-made-materials-only Staples chair with three (yup, three) adjusting levers and go back to my day. At least my bacteria now makes sense.