Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Kefir (Κεφίρ)

Kefir is a well known dairy product, thanks to the web. The merits of kefir are well documented on the internet and it is often promoted as a super food. I had never really understood the term, until I visited a friend in Athens, who introduced me to it. She gave me some kefir grains to take home with me, wrapped in a plastic bag, which I carried on the plane back to Hania. Through these grains, I fell in love with kefir; as instructed, I have been dutifully feeding the grains to make them grow, making enough kefir every day to satisfy my appetite.

 Kefir grains

Kefir is one of those products that teaches you how to use and care for it. Kefir is the master here, and you are just the student, a kind of tool to operate it. Making kefir does not need so much time, as much as it needs highly perceptive observation skills, as my friend told me:
"At some point you can experiment with second fermentation, which means leaving the strained kefir out on the counter for another day or two (or even three) until it separates into curds and whey. That's another story. Wait till your grains increase and the mad-scientist part of you will become restless for some fun. The tighter you keep lid on the jar, the more carbonated your kefir will be. Just be really careful when you open the jar!"
Kefir can be made to suit an individual taste: it can be as runny as a light syrup, or as thick as yoghurt, or something in between. It can be made in an airtight jar, but it can also be made in a drinking glass. Because you feed the kefir grains every day, you become attached to your kefir, treating it like a special friend. And because you make the kind of kefir you want, you treat your kefir as a unique member of the family.

 Kefir fermenting in a jar (left) and buttermilk (right). After a day spent fermenting in a closed jar, the kefir is strained into a bowl or glass, and the grains are collected, which are reused in a new jar of milk.

I've always been wary of making any kind of dairy products in my own home, because I do not have a source of fresh milk. So I ask myself: why bother making cheese or yoghurt when I'm buying supermarket milk which has been subjected to all kinds of treatments before it gets to my house? Milk isn't even a local ingredient in our home - locally produced milk costs about twice the price of supermarket milk, making it highly unaffordable at the moment. But you feel differently when presented with a gift like kefir grains. They are a living organism, and if you don't nurture them, they will die. The fear of killing a living organism makes you forget all about your beliefs and attitudes towards processed food, as my friend explains:
"I purposely make kefir with 'bad' milk. It is one of my ways to combat the fact that in fact we do buy mass-produced, fully pasteurized and fully homogenized milk that has been stripped of all its good bacteria. The natural enzymes are destroyed and the proteins are altered. Kefir-ing it puts something back into it and connects me to the billions that came before us that lived on cultured and fermented foods, not refrigerated ones. So when I cannot buy 'good' milk, I just buy whatever I can and then get to use my kefir magic to transform it into something else."
 My first taste of kefir - it was very thick and frothy, like sea foam. After a few plain gulps, my friend also sloshed a drizzle of her home-made pomegranate syrup onto it, which turned it into ambrosia.

When I made my first kefir at home, I put the glass in the fridge, only to find out that you make kefir ex-refrigerator. I thought I'd killed it! But my friend told me not to worry:
"In fact, when and if you have to leave it (if you travel and don't take it with you), this is what you do: just leave it in lots of milk so it has 'food' to eat in your absence. You see, it is now an additional member of the family that wants to be fed, like a pet."
Making kefir doesn't need much knowledge: you need good observation skills and a good idea of how your prefer the final product. Kefir is just something that happens on its own. Knowledge will come after many experiments. The temperature, humidity, jar, tightness of lid and personal taste preference will all play an equal role in your experiments. It took me about a week to understand when the kefir was just the way I liked it (not too runny, almost yoghurty in texture). I like to strain it in the evening after 36 hours of fermenting in a jar (with a tightly screwed lid) and place it in the fridge. In the morning, I top it with the last of my home-made granola (another present from my friend) - it had a beautiful sweet-and-sour taste, and it was very refreshing in its cooled state. During the colder months, my kefir-making will again be the subject of experimentation, with the change in climatic conditions.

 Kefir as a super-breakfast food

So how do you start making kefir? You can only really do it by having someone share some kefir grains with you, or you can buy a kefir-grain starter. The latter is hard to find in the general markets in places like Hania, as kefir is not generally known among the local population, although I would hazard a guess that the immigrant community will know it well, as we have a number of Russian migrants living in the town. Some of them are bound to be making kefir with kefir grains that they have carried with them and/or shared with others.

Once you become used to making kefir, you will use it in more creative ways. My friend makes flatbreads and pancakes with it, using it also as a topping instead of cream. 

That's what makes kefir special - every time you have some of your own home-made kefir, you will be reminded of the friend that gave you the kefir grains. If you feed your kefir grains, they will grow, and you will eventually have more kefir grains than you need, so that you will end up sharing their magic with someone else - and the whole process will be repeated, as your friends discover kefir for themselves.

All the photos have been taken by my muscial artistic talented foodie friend Demetra Lambros. The beautiful plates she uses on a daily basis in her home are hand-made and hand-painted in Italy; some of the patterns are traditional, while others are unique, and they have all been designed by the husband-and-wife team Peter Lambros and Shelley Reisig at Dolce Tableware of Missoula, Montana, US.

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