While in the West it is usually referred to as “Bulgarian yoghurt”, in its homeland it is called sour milk (kiselo mlyako or “кисело мляко” in Cyrillic). Regardless of its name, this magical probiotic product comes with an impeccable ancestry – it is believed to have been known for around 4,000 years.
It is certainly one of the things that make Bulgarians proud to call themselves Bulgarians. The country is not only credited to be the inventor but it also produces probably the healthiest yoghurt in the world – thanks mainly to the bacteria Lactobacillus native to the country.
In 1905, Stamen Grigorov, a prominent Bulgarian physician and microbiologist, who was also the creator of the anti-tuberculosis vaccine, discovered the bacillus responsible for the existence of natural yoghurt. As a sign of recognition, the science community called it Lactobacillicus bulgaricus.
Grigorov continued his research and found two more bacteria: Streptobacillus and Streptoccus thermophilus, which coexisted with Lactobacillus in perfect symbiosis. In addition, he also discovered that these two bacteria do not form a part of the human intestinal microflora, but, when introduced to it, they bring many benefits.
These two probiotic cultures are helpful in turning ordinary milk (which is usually cow’s, but also sheep’s, goat’s or buffalo’s) into the marvellous Bulgarian yoghurt.
The discoveries of Stamen Grigorov sparked a great interest in the Russian Nobel-prize winner, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (also known as Élie Metchnikoff). Through extensive research, he noted that more people lived to the age of 100 or above in Bulgaria than in 36 other countries. He attributed that directly to Bulgaria’s consumption of yoghurt.
Metchnikoff was the one who named the primary microorganism of yoghurt Lactobacillicus bulgaricus after the Bulgarians and contributed a lot of efforts to its popularisation. He theorised that, thanks to the bacteria found in yoghurt, health could be enhanced and senility – delayed.
In 1996, relatives and family of Stamen Grigorov found the Dr Stamen Grigorov Foundation whose activities relate to microbiology.
The Food of the People: from a Home-made to a Mass Product
In the first half of the 20th century, Bulgaria was an agriculture land where the majority of the population lived in villages. Dairy animals were found in almost every family. The owners used them for home production of various dairy products.
It was in 1947 when a full-scale industrialisation of the dairy sector occurred with the creation of the government-owned enterprise “Serdika” (renamed to ELBY after the fall of communism). By 1965, half of the population was already urban.
The demand for dairy products rose considerably as farmers became factory workers and villagers – town dwellers. In 1968, Maria Demireva, a nutritionist, defined the dairy products as people’s food and regarded the increase in their consumption as a symbol of improvement in the nation’s diet.
National nutrition policies further encouraged the consumption of yoghurt. As a result, it was included in hospital and school meals, appeared on the menus of restaurants, and was considered to be an important feature of what was (and still is) called Bulgarian cuisine.
- As was mentioned in the beginning – yoghurt is seen as a reason for longevity. A place in the Rhodope mountains, near the town of Smolyan, is renowned for the long life of its inhabitants – four people in every thousand are 100 years old or more. In the U.S., centenarians are 250 times less common.
- Bulgarian yoghurt is one of the best probiotics which have been shown to be effective or somewhat effective in the prevention of paediatric antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and upper respiratory tract infections.
- The microflora (Starter Culture) of Bulgarian yoghurt lies behind its uniqueness. It depends on the combination of the strains of Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles. Lactobacillus bulgaricus is believed to have antagonistic effects against Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Escherichia, and Salmonella sp. Pseudomonas.
- In the words of Todor Minkov, a former general manager of the dairy enterprise in communist Bulgaria, it is the brilliant Bulgarian nature that gives the product its nutritional qualities and unparalleled taste. It contains large quantities of living bacteria. While Western companies add sweeteners and other artificial flavours, Bulgaria’s sour milk is natural and does not need additives.
- According to the Bulgarian State Standard, 1 g of yoghurt must contain neither less than 1 million living bacteria, nor any flavours, dry milk, starch, or sweeteners. It is one of the purest dairy products out there.
Bulgarian Yoghurt around the World
Bulgarian yoghurt is the most famous yoghurt in Japan. It is so popular that the Japanese have created a company called “MEIJI Bulgaria Yogurt” which is one of Japan’s top brands. Maria Yotova has written an extensive paper where she dwells on the conceptualisation of yoghurt by the Bulgarian government-owned yoghurt company ELBY and the Japanese MEIJI. In fact, MEIJI Bulgaria Yogurt opened factories in Thailand in 2013 and China and Singapore in 2014, thus contributing to the popularisation of Bulgarian yoghurt. MEIJI Bulgaria Yogurt has a market share of 43% in Japan.
In China, in the last seven years “Bright Dairy” has been producing yoghurt thanks to the imported Lactobacillus bulgaricus. The yoghurt that bears the name of the Rhodope village of Momchilovtsi has brought the company more than 200 million yuan (around 31 million USD) which accounts for 20% of the total operating revenue of the Shanghai-based “Bright Dairy & Food”. An interesting fact is that the first Chinese reality show “Survivor” in Bulgaria was also held in the village of Momchilovtsi chosen for its unique dairy product.
Thanks to the assiduous efforts of Atanas Valev, a Bulgarian agriculture engineer and yoghurt enthusiast, the organic Bulgarian yoghurt “Trimona” has entered the huge American market where it is battling against the Greek varieties. It is available in more than 300 shops in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and many other states.
Are you ready to visit Bulgaria, the holy land of yoghurt, and feel the taste of longevity?