The history of kefir

The word Kefir, comes from two Persian words, 'kef', which means foam, and 'shir', which means milk (in Turkey, the word kief means "good feeling"). It is a fermented, probiotic milk drink from the Caucasus Mountains in the former Soviet Union. There is a legend that the prophet Mohammed gave kefir grains to the Caucasus and instructed them on how to use it so that the Kefir grains would last their entire lifetime. Caucasus people fiercely guarded their Kefir grains because if they gave their kefir grains and recipe to outsiders, they would lose all their strength. So the local people protected their grains. And so, possessing kefir grains began to signify a symbol of wealth. The Caucasus people enjoyed a longer life expectancy of over 100 years, and when travelers across the land saw how healthy the local people looked, they too became interested in their local healthy food.

As in every culture, the local people could no longer protect their secret from incoming travelers and so kefir and its "secret" recipe were taken from them to far away lands.

By the end of the 19th century, some members from the All Russian Physician's Society decided to acquire kefir grains in order to make kefir easily available for their patients.

Earlier in that century, a representative from the society contacted two brothers named the Blandovs and asked them to acquire some kefir grains. The Blandov's possessed the Moscow Dairy. However they also had holdings in the Caucasus Mountain region, as well as cheese manufacturing factories in the town of Kislovodsk. The strategy was to collect a supply of kefir grains and then produce kefir on a commercial level in Moscow.

The Blandov's were thrilled because they realized that they could be the only commercial producers of this much wanted product. So Nikolai Blandov sent an attractive young member of staff, Irina Sakharova, to the court of a local prince, Bek-Mirza Barchorov. She was instructed to charm the prince and influence him to provide her with some kefir grains so that they could reproduce them. Unfortunately, everything failed to go according to plan. The prince, fearing retribution for violating a religious law, had no intention of giving away any 'Grains of the Prophet'.

He was however 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 left for Kislovodsk. On the way home, they were halted 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 (the Blandovs) were able to save Irina from this forced marriage.

The unlucky prince was punished by the Tsar, (the ruler) and he had to give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains, as compensation to her for any insults she experienced. The kefir grains were taken back to the Moscow Dairy and in September 1908, the first bottles of kefir drink were accessible in Moscow. Small quantities of kefir were manufactured in several small towns in the region, where there was a ready market for it.

Large scale commercial manufacture of kefir began in Russia, in the 1930s. In 1973, Irina, then 85 years old, received a letter from the Minister of the Food Industry of The Soviet Union, acknowledging her great part in bringing kefir to the Russian people.

Even before commercializing kefir, one of the most famous Russian scientist; biologist, zoologist and protozoologist, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, best remembered for his pioneering research into the immune system, became fascinated with the benefits that kefir can provide. Astounded by the longevity of Bulgarian peasants who ate large amounts of milk soured with various bacterial cultures, he discovered that these bacteria kill the Bacilli disease in the large intestine. He began investigating the causal relationship between bacteria and good intestinal health, which eventually led to the worldwide marketing of kefir and other fermented milk drinks or probiotics. In 1908, Mechnikov also won the Nobel prize in medicine for his work on phagocytes.

Much research and numerous articles regarding the health benefits of kefir have been published in Russian and eastern European journals. These however, were not as easily accessible to Western science. Some articles about kefir and its healing powers were written in Canada as far back as 1932, but the real studies began in the second half of the 20th century. According to Donna Gates, author of Body Ecology, kefir was brought to the United States in 1960. It was then that kefir was introduced to the western world.