Kefir is a fermented milk similar to yoghurt. It is one of the oldest cultured milk products in existence, enjoying widespread popularity in Russia and the Caucasus. The word kefir comes from a language of the Caucasus, where it has been drunk since at least ancient times. According to another version, this word would come from the Turkish “keyif”, meaning “which gives pleasure” or “köpük” meaning “moss”.
In Europe it is regularly consumed in Russia where an important scientific literature is devoted to it (it is also distributed to hospital patients as a health supplement), and also in Poland, Serbia, Slovenia and Bulgaria as a traditional drink with gibanica. Russia and Poland are the largest producers of this milk drink.
Popular among the nomadic shepherds living in the steppes of southern and eastern Russia and the koumis and kefir of the Caucasian highlands, drinks made from fermented milk have long been of little interest to European scientists. The so-called milk wine vinum lactis was mentioned in travel accounts as early as the 13th century, but it was not until the 18th century that koumis was taken up as a medicinal remedy.
In the 19th century, and especially in the second half of the century, scientific work on koumis increased, and in the late 1860s on kefir as well. Initially, drinks based on fermented milk were of interest mainly to Russian, then Polish and German doctors. In their publications, a number of questions were addressed, e.g. methods of obtaining koumis and kefir, chemical composition, fermentation processes, dietetic and therapeutic properties, as well as cures in koumis and kefir establishments. In some studies data on the history of use of drinks based on fermented milk were presented.
The history of kefir use is presented in the article by Maksymilian Heilpern. Kefir (the name comes from the word ‘kefi’, which in the Caucasus means ‘choice’, ‘best quality’) was made from fresh cow, sheep or goat’s milk, which was poured into a leather bag (called bourdiouk) and ferment (kefir grains) was added; the bag was tied with a rope and left for 1-2 days at a temperature of 20-23 °C, the bag was shaken from time to time. Kefir was used as a daily drink, it was also said to have therapeutic properties and was used in stomach, lung and bronchial diseases.
The method of preparation of kefir was a mystery and the kefir grains were considered sacred and called the “Prophet’s millet” because, according to one of the legends, Mohammed was the first to deliver them to the people, and the grains would disappear when at least one of them was given to the giaours (a pejorative term in Islamic lands to refer to non-Muslims). Another legend says that the kefir grains were given by Allah Himself to one of the elders as a token of grace for the honest and efficient tribe of Karachais.
According to the opinion of Russian scholars quoted by Heilpern, these legends supported the belief in the strength and heavenly origin of kefir, which could only be used by the chosen people, and at the same time served to keep information about the origin of kefir grains secret. The secret was not kept for long, however, and kefir became a popular refreshing drink first in the Crimea, and by the 1880s the way it was prepared was already known throughout Russia. According to Heilpern, the first recorded mention of kefir was a note by a physician named Jogin, which was presented in 1866 to the Caucasian Medical Society. In 1867, Dr. Sipovich, a member of this society, presented his comments on kefir as a drink of certain tribes in the mountains of the Northern Caucasus. Both references went unnoticed.
It was not until 10 years later, in 1877, that the work of Dr. Szabłowski was published, containing information on the structure and quality of kefir and kefir grains, as well as the method of preparation of this drink. The first in-depth analysis of kefir grains was carried out by Edward Kern. The publication of the results of Kern’s analysis in Moscow in 1881 led many clinics to undertake research into the therapeutic significance of kefir, and university laboratories began to study the composition of the drink and the structure of the grains.
In 1908 the Russian bacteriologist Ilya Metchnikov established a link between the relatively high age of Romanians and Bulgarians and their regular consumption of fermented milk. Winner of the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich for his work on immunity, he achieved great notoriety with his research on probiotics: the bacteria that produce lactic acid, as occurs in curdled milk and yoghurt, but especially in kefir, serve according to his ideas to prolong life.
In 1893, a kiosk in the Saxon Garden was set up in Warsaw, owned by Klavdia Sigalina, a Jewish woman from Georgia, who is said to have brought the recipe for its production. In 1896 his product received a gold medal at the hygienic exhibition “For the diffusion of kefir and its quality”. A few years later Klavdia Sigalina owns the First Special Kefir Establishment, 31 Królewska Street (Royal) and several pubs in Warsaw, Lodz or Otwock. As the poster of the Kurier Warszawski (local newspaper) of 1905 announces, the consumption of kefir became very popular thanks to the opinions of medical notoriety, requested, among others, by Claudia Sigalina to promote her product.
Another kefir exists, made up of other bacteria, called “fruit kefir”. Here too, it could be a way of keeping a fruit drink for a few days without it becoming bad.