During the Victorian period, news spread that kefir was being used successfully to treat tuberculosis and intestinal and stomach diseases. Russian doctors began studying kefir more seriously.
The first studies on the benefits of kefir were published near the end of the 19th century, when internationally acclaimed Nobel prize winner Elie Metchnikoff (1908), known as “The Father of Natural Immunity,” did ground-breaking work on the health benefits of kefir to boost the immune system. Metchnikoff identified kefir as the primary reason that Bulgarians had an average life-span of 87.
Despite these tantalizing scientific developments, kefir was still very difficult to find, as it was impossible to make without the kefir grains themselves.
Determined to establish a source of the elusive grains in order to make a scientific study, members of the “All Russian Physician’s Society” approached two brothers named Blandov, owners of the large Moscow Dairy in the town of Kislovodsk, near the Northern Caucasus Region.
What happened next is straight out of a romance novel. Nikolai Blandov recruited a beautiful young female employee named Irina Sakharova, and sent her along with an armed guard to the court of a local prince named Bek-Mirza Barchorov. Irina’s instructions were to charm the prince into giving her some kefir grains for the study.
The prince was indeed charmed by the beautiful Irina – but he was too afraid of violating religious law which protected the “Grains of the Prophet” from outsiders, to give her any grains.
Admitting defeat, Irina and her escort party returned to Kislovodsk.
But it seemed that Prince Bek-Mirza was unable to forget Irina. Conveniently, there was a local custom that allowed a bride goom to kidnap his chosen bride – and so the prince sent the men of a local mountain tribe to capture Irina.
Dragging her back to his court, he proposed marriage. Irina bravely remained silent, buying herself enough time for the Blandov brothers to organize an armedrescue party to come to her aid.
They succeeded in their rescue mission. After Irina was safely returned home, Prince Bek-Mirza was brought before Tsar Nicholas II to answer for his actions. The Tsar ruled that in compensation for the kidnapping and other insults to her person that she was forced to endure, the Prince must give Irina ten pounds of kefir grains.
Following the royal ruling, the priceless kefir grains were taken to the Blandov brother’s Moscow Dairy. The first bottles of kefir ever manufactured commercially were offered for sale in Moscow, in September 1908. Manufacture of kefir on a large scale didn’t really take off until the 1930s.
The first kefir-making process was not without its complications. The first commercial product was made by growing a quantity of kefir grains in milk, then straining them out before using the cultured milk to ferment a larger batch of fresh milk. The product of this process was greatly inferior to the product fermented with the actual grains.
In the 1950s, the employees of the All-Union Dairy Research Institute (VNIMI) developed a better method, which included stirring the mix of kefir grains and milk in a large vessel and permitting the entire process – consisting of fermentation, coagulation, agitation of the mixture, ripening of the kefir, and its cooling – to take place in the same container, prior to being bottled and sold.
This is the same process that we use at Chuckling Goat today.
In 1970, when Irina Sakharova was 85 years old, the Minister of Food and Industry of the Soviet Union sent her a letter acknowledging her part and thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people.
Kefir’s popularity has now spread from Eastern Europe, and today it is regularly consumed in North America, South America, Europe and Australia.
Kefir is produced on a large scale in countries that once made up the Soviet block, where it is a billion-euro industry. Late in the 20th century, kefir accounted for between 64 – 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia, with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988.
Hospitals in the former USSR used kefir to treat conditions ranging from atherosclerosis, allergic disease, metabolic and digestive disorders, cancer and gastrointestinal disorders.
Kefir is regularly consumed in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and even as far away as Southeast Asia.
Known as yogurt de pajaritos (bird’s yogurt), kefir has also been enjoyed in Chile for over a century, most likely brought to South America by waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe or the former Ottoman Empire. Flavored varieties have been developed and and are especially popular in the United States…
and now it has finally reached the United Kingdom!