Thursday, 3 January 2013

Mountain Foods: Kefir

Kefir Grains (photo courtesy of luxomedia)
I usually get get a good source of calcium and micronutrients from hearty green vegetables. In Costa Rica I had a backyard supply of wild fiddlehead ferns. Back in Canada, greens don't grow well in the winter, so I challenged myself to get a replacement source of nutrients. Kefir is the replacement I found.

Although I tend to write about plants and forests, kefir is neither of those. Kefir is a yoghurt like drink made from kefir grains, a.k.a, tiny balls of bacteria and yeast. Kefir grains look like tiny cauliflowers. It is thought that kefir was crafted by people dwelling in the Caucasus mountains (separating the Caspian and Black seas) over 2,000 years ago. 

Here is what happened when myself, an aspiring plant harvester, experimented with bacteria...

1. Online, I ordered one tablespoon of kefir grains from a company that imports Greek strains of kefir bacteria.

2. I placed these grains in some organic whole milk (kefir likes to eat fat, sugar, and lactose, and won't grow without them).

3. I babied the kefir, changing the milk multiple times to make sure my kefir was adjusting well to its new - far from mountain like - sterile conditions in my cupboard.

While I cared for kefir, I thought about how well this bacteria-yeast organism has adapted over the years. People once hung kefir on their doors; it was mixed when people opened and closed the doors and goats graciously provided their skin as a home for this drink. Today I'm using pasteurized milk and a glass jar to grow these creatures. If I were kefir, I would prefer the goat-skinned home rather than the glass one, but for now, I don't have a good source of goat.
Photo courtesy of Dom, who writes extensively on how to make kefir 
4. After a week or so, I strained my kefir grains into a glass and was left with a thick milky mixture. My kefir looked like yoghurt, smelled a little sour but not enough to turn me off, and tasted pretty good. All encouraging for my first attempt!

Pros: I learned about an ancient mountain-food, hopefully filled with micronutrients, calcium, and immune-system boosting probiotic bacteria. I am excited of the possibility to keep growing kefir using milk from local goats or cows, and even coconut milk. 

Cons: Kefir put me to sleep. I don't know if it is the fact that I'm not used to the pasteurized whole milk (I've been virtually dairy-free for years) or it's the new bacteria and yeasts I'm adjusting to. Something has me thinking it was the latter because my partner was also knocked out by the kefir. We've decided kefir should be recommended for anyone with insomnia, graduate students I'm talking to you! 

If you want to grow your own kefir, here are a few sites with great advice: freestyle farm, Dom's Kefir Encyclopedia, and SimplyKefir.

Need kefir grains? Try asking people you know. If that doesn't work, there are many sites that offer good grains, my preference is to order from small-scale kefir makers. I liked a few sellers on Etsy and I also think SimplyKefir is a good source of grains.

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