The year I was 15, my father, Ralph, gave me for Christmas a small jar containing strange white curds.
He said it was a yoghurt bug.
But it wasn’t like any yoghurt bug I’d ever seen.
It wasn’t the kind of present Dad usually gave me. He was great at choosing gifts for the women in his life, including me.
Except for my mother, Sue, who didn’t want perfume or jewellery or other feminine “stuff”. What Sue wanted was Ralph’s active support to finish her PhD, so she could get a paying job as an archaeologist. (Which he didn’t give her.)
I was intrigued by my weird Christmas so-called yoghurt bug.
I loved yoghurt. Also, I was very interested in food in general. I’d been devouring the Penguin box set of recipe books that my father had given to my mother, the previous Christmas.
These cookbooks were highly unappreciated by Sue, but I loved them. I still have some of the volumes in my bookshelf.
English food writer Elizabeth David is one of my role models as a writer.
It wasn’t my first foray into DIY fermentation. A few years earlier, when we were living in New Guinea, I’d had a ginger beer plant. It consumed massive amounts of sugar and powdered ginger and produced so much ginger beer that we eventually got sick of it.
This may have given Ralph the impression that I might like to have a yoghurt bug.
I’d watched my mother make home-made yoghurt, when she got hold of some fresh yoghurt. It wasn’t easy to come by, in New Zealand in the early 1970s.
She’d heat some milk, then cool it to blood temperature. Then she’d add a couple of tablespoons of the original yoghurt to the milk and put it in the hot water cupboard for a few days, until it transformed into a jar of soft, mild yoghurt.
But this jar of curds was a different animal (so to speak).
My father told me I should add milk to the curds, then leave them for a couple of days, then sieve off the yoghurt.
That was all he knew.
My mother didn’t want to know about it. But that wasn’t unusual. If the curds had been 50,000 years old, maybe.
Sue just wasn’t particularly interested in culinary matters. Although she was a good basic cook.
There was probably another reason that my mother regarded my curds with disfavour. I think the so-called yoghurt bug had come from a woman friend of my father’s. I don’t know who she was, but I’m certain it wasn’t Lena, who married my dad in 1983, after my parents divorced. Lena was even less interested in cooking than Sue.
It must have been one of the other women who flocked around Ralph.
I didn’t know about any of this at the time. My parents were keeping up a good front.
Looking at the jar of strange curds, I knew I had a problem.
The timing was terrible. We were about to go on a three-week tramping trip to the South Island.
On Boxing Day we packed up the big white Volvo station wagon, and Sue, my brothers David and Kenneth and I headed south.
While we drove through Wellington and onto the Cook Strait ferry, Ralph stayed at home with our family dog, Pippa the Sheltie, and our grey cat, Elephant.
Ralph was probably also hanging out with someone who wasn’t my mother. My parents didn’t do family holidays.
I didn’t want to leave Dad’s gift behind. For one thing, I wanted to find out what it did. Also, I didn’t want to annoy my father by acting as if I didn’t appreciate his present. (Yeah, I had been raised to avoid upsetting my parents at all costs.)
So, I took along the jar in a box with a sieve.
In Wellington we met up with our family friends, the McKinlays, who had a son and daughter about the same age as me and my brothers.
Joanne McKinlay had in her bedroom something that I found almost as weird as my so-called yoghurt bug. A tank containing a huge axolotl.
But she didn’t insist on bringing it with her to the South Island.
All together we went tramping and camping in some amazing, beautiful places around Nelson Lakes National Park.
But mostly I remember that those three weeks were a great big hassle for me, as I struggled to care for my mysterious new creature in campgrounds and National Park lodges.
I discovered that it produced a strange runny liquid with a strong taste and smell.
Nobody was interested and nobody wanted to help me eat it.
People would go, “Ewww, what’s that?” I couldn’t answer. It wasn’t yoghurt as I knew it.
Somehow, my creature survived the return trip to Auckland. But a few weeks later, I quietly threw it out. I don’t think my father noticed.
And then it stayed as a mystery to me for thirty-five years. It was just one of the many things in my childhood and young adulthood that didn’t make any sense, that I couldn’t fit anywhere.
I used to keep the strange memories and experiences on a shelf in my internal filing system. It’s my personal Hall of Mysteries.
Every so often I would take them out and look at them and wonder what they were. Like a box in a museum storage vault, that doesn’t have a label, so you don’t know what’s in it. My parents were both researchers and collectors, so I had plenty of experience with storing data and objects.
A mystery solved
Fast forward to 2010, when I signed up to do a Permaculture Design Certificate.
Permaculture is a beautiful systems approach to agriculture and ecology. Many people think permaculture is mainly useful for planning home gardens and lifestyle blocks.
But the Australian co-creators of permaculture theory, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, clearly apply it to human culture in a much wider sense. That’s what I’m most interested in.
Bill Mollison died in 2016 at the age of 88.
David Holmgren’s most recent book is RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.
When I discovered Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, I knew I was getting close to my heart. I was keenly anticipating the course module on fermented foods.
That weekend the workshops took place in a yurt at Ngaruawahia, which was owned by Nandor Tanzos and his partner. Nandor is a beloved former Green Party MP and national permaculture leader.
There was a module on resilience in natural disasters. I remember the date, because as we were sitting there talking about what kinds of natural challenges were most likely to affect the Waikato region, Christchurch was being shocked by a huge earthquake.
Then came the food fermentation workshop. After all the unsettling news about the earthquake, I found it comforting to focus on food. I learned how to make sauerkraut and sourdough.
Also on the table, there was a jar containing white curds and milk.
It was my strange so-called yoghurt bug, from all those years ago!
A name at last
I learned that it was called kefir.
Now that I had a name for it, I could find out what to do with it.
I have no idea why my father didn’t tell me the name of the so-called yoghurt bug.
Ralph was a scientist, a researcher. He published research papers on taxonomy and ethnobiology. One of his best-known papers is called “Why is the Cassowary Not A Bird?”.
He knew that names are important. Also, he cared about food.
This unsolved question is still sitting on a shelf in my Hall of Mysteries.
But I’ve been happily co-existing with kefir grains ever since.
So, what’s kefir?
Kefir is a traditional milk culture that originates in the Caucasus Mountains in Central Eurasia.
I’ve heard the name pronounced two ways: “keffer” is the way most North Americans seem to say it. I’ve heard Europeans pronounce it something closer to “k’veer”.
Kefir is made using kefir “grains”. The so-called grains are a strange looking mass. To me they’re more like curds – they look a bit like cottage cheese, although the texture is much firmer.
You place the kefir grains in a jar of milk, and a few days later you strain off the kefir.
My friend Clare asked me what the grains actually are. I honestly don’t know. They are a “scoby” – an acronym for a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeasts.
But that term could also be applied to any yoghurt bug, and also sourdough, sauerkraut, kombucha and even compost.
Kefir is usually a runny, pouring consistency, although depending on the milk I use, sometimes it turns out thicker. Also it is sharper, very sour in flavour, with an almost fizzy edge.
Kefir tastes stronger than most commercial yoghurts. The kefir that you buy from supermarkets is very mild compared to home-made kefir.
How to make kefir
Kefir grains. The best way to get kefir grains is from a friend, or from someone at your local Weston A Price Foundation group. If you go to a meeting, there will almost certainly be kefir grains which you can have for a small donation. And lots of great advice about what to do with the grains.
Two 1 litre jars with plastic lids. Metal lids aren’t ideal because they may corrode.
A kitchen sieve, to strain the kefir liquid from the grains.
Some people recommend using non-metallic sieves. But I use a metal sieve and it works fine.
Place 2 or 3 tablespoons of kefir grains in a 1 litre jar.
Fill the jar with cow’s milk, leaving a small space at the top.
Screw lid on the jar. NB screw the lid on fully. Kefir doesn’t seem to need air.
Leave jar on the bench for two or three days, until the milk has thickened a bit. In cold weather this will take longer, maybe four or five days.
It will be a runny consistency, not like ordinary yoghurt.
The longer you leave the grains, the stronger the sour kefir flavour.
The next step is to strain the kefir liquid out of the grains.
How to strain kefir grains
Place sieve over a bowl.
Tip the jar of kefir and grains into the sieve.
Stir gently to strain the liquid without squashing the grains.
The grains will still have some liquid on them, and that’s fine.
To make a new batch of kefir, place the grains in a clean jar of milk.
Some people suggest rinsing the grains after straining off the kefir, but I have never done this.
Pour the kefir liquid into a clean jar.
Store the kefir in the fridge. It will keep for weeks, but I hope you’ll use it before then.
Caring for kefir grains
Kefir grains will multiply as you use them. At some times of year they seem to grow faster.
When you have more than half a cup of grains, store the extra grains in a jar of milk in the fridge, labelled with the date. I think kefir grains can be also stored in the freezer, but I’ve never tried it.
Every couple of months I check the spare kefir jar, drain off the milk and feed it fresh milk. (Or throw it out if it looks gross.)
When the grains have been sitting in the fridge for a few months they will take a few days to revive at room temperature.
Give away your spare kefir grains. Keep one backup supply for yourself, in case something awful happens to the main kefir jar. Like, being eaten accidentally by husband (it’s happened!), or being left for a week on the windowsill in summer (the grains died).
“I’ve killed my kefir!”
You can kill kefir grains, if you leave them at room temperature and don’t feed them for a couple of weeks. This happens faster in hot weather.
I’ve managed to kill my kefir grains just once in ten years.
It was a hot summer. I left the jar out on the bench for a week. When I went to strain off the grains they had disappeared. And I’d just given away my backup supply to a friend.
I had to ask for half the grains back!
Kefir lasts a long time in cold temperatures. When you’re going on holiday, leave the kefir jar in the fridge. Labelled, so your house sitter doesn’t eat it by mistake.
Don’t feel guilty if you kill your kefir grains. Just get some more and start over.