Bacteria is normally painted as the bad guy. But PETER FROST finds the little creatures to be both a delicious ingredient and important for the survival of our species.
AMONG the many benefits immigrants bring to our country is their own exotic food. In my nearest town, as well as the predictable curry and Chinese food, I can eat genuine and delicious Portuguese dishes in a wonderful cafe or shop for Polish, Russian and other eastern European delicacies in our newest delicatessen.
I love the opportunity to buy the ingredients for a great borscht. Beetroot cabbage and apple soup with smoked pork shoulder is one of my favourites. Pickled herrings and jars of crispy salads are also on my shopping list, along with the wonderful poppy seed roll they call makowiec.
Best of all, though, is the chance to be able to buy some of the cultured and sour milks and other similar drinks that I have enjoyed so much in my travels around northern Europe and the old Soviet Union.
We all know yoghurts, of course. They arrived in British shops in 1963 when Ski launched their fruit blended yoghurt. Prior to that, yoghurt was a rare thing found only from very specialist health food suppliers.
Yoghurt blended with fruit jam had been first patented in Poland in the 1930s.
Yogurt is made by adding a bacterial culture to milk and letting it ferment. Bacteria is normally painted as the bad guy but without the millions of bacteria that make their home in our gut, we simply would be unable to digest our food.
Some commercial yoghurts claim to be “alive” with added health benefits — particularly for those taking anti-biotics. In fact all these cultured products contain live bacteria.
Many other products are made the same way using different species of bacteria to ferment milks and creams with differing levels of fat. Among them are the kefir, smetana, riazhenka and cultured buttermilks that fill the fridges in my local Polish deli.
Kefir is made by adding special grains to milk. The grains are made from latic bacteria and yeasts and look a little like cauliflower florets.
Once they have done their magic, the thin creamy kefir is filtered off leaving the grains ready to make the next batch.
I first got the taste for these cultured diary products more than 30 years ago as a journalist in Moscow, where they have a vast variety of such concoctions from barely turning sour to pretty ripe.
In my favourite Moscow breakfast bar, there was always a row of small traditional milk bottles. At one end, the bottle contained a thin cultured buttermilk, then came various kinds of kefir — I loved it from the first sharp and tingling sip.
As you moved along the row of bottles the contents got thicker and more flavoursome. Each morning I would pick a more adventurous variety.
In the last few bottles, the milk had become solid, almost cheese and a rather thick, rude and phallic fungus-like column of crusted white and blue-veined milk solids projected a good six inches from the neck of the bottle. I was never brave enough to try one of these malodorous offerings.
Here in Britain, cultured milks have never been really popular. Buttermilk is used for cooking in some places where it is a key ingredient for baking.
Buttermilks have never been popular as a drink here although today, some shops are selling fruit-flavoured versions.
Sour cream, smetana or the slightly less sour creme fraiche can usually be found in supermarkets, and even kefir has reached my local Tesco.
Kefir must have arrived. Even Tom in the BBC radio soap opera The Archers is looking at adding kefir to his range of specialist farm made products.
I have enjoyed these cultured milk products all across Scandinavia. Norwegian shops offer a good choice. Indeed unwary British holiday-makers often buy sour milk thinking it the fresh variety and then complain. You need to look out for the word “kulture” on the carton.
At the splendid working museum at Kjerringoy (below) near the Lofoten Islands above the Arctic Circle they have recreated life as it was at a trading station in the 1800s, when every fit man in northern Norway headed here to work the brief but profitable fishing or whaling seasons.
Kjerringoy trading station on the mainland opposite the islands bought the fish and whale oil and supplied everything the fishermen needed.
In the museum’s kitchen, they told me of one old fashioned cultured milk product I had never come across. I couldn’t begin to spell or pronounce the Old Norse name — but the translation got me hooked. They called it Snail Trail.
About a dozen special black snails from the garden were put into a large white pottery basin. They were left a few hours to leave their trails of slime and then they were returned to the garden from whence they came.
Then the basin was filled with warm fresh cow’s milk and left beside the stove to keep the milk at blood heat for 24 hours, by which time some culture in the slime had made the milk thick and delicious.
The museum cook offered to make me some. Sadly, I didn’t have time to wait the 24 hours. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I’ll finish this sour milk travelogue with the legendary kumis. This is a fermented alcoholic drink traditionally made from mare’s milk.
Amazingly, kumis was once popular in Britain. Indeed, in 1877 a book entitled Milk Champagne was published in London touting its health benefits.
Toward the end of the 19th century, kumis cure resorts sprung up in Russia. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov were among kumis fans. By 1982 the Soviet Union was milking a quarter of a million horses just to make kumis.
Today, mare’s milk is often replaced by cow’s milk with added milk sugars to make the drink.
The level of alcohol can be strengthened through freeze distillation into the spirit known as araka or arkhi.
I wonder how long it will be before the Grundy Family will be offering mare’s milk brandy to the population of Borsetshire?
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 7 April 2017.