Visitors to Russia can observe the following typical sight on Moscow street corners: a large metal drum, larger than a beer keg, turned sideways and mounted on wheels. A spigot on one end releases a brown bubbly liquid into a glass. Customers line up to pay for a draught, down it in several gulps and return the glass to the vendor who wipes it clean for the next customer.
The beverage enjoyed by Muscovites, other city dwellers and villagers throughout Russia is kvass, a lacto-fermented beverage made from stale rye bread. It tastes like beer but is not alcoholic. Kvass is considered a tonic for digestion, an excellent thirst quencher and, consumed after vodka, an antidote to a hangover.
It is also recognized that kvass is safer to drink than water. Tolstoy describes how Russian soldiers took a ladle full of kvass before venturing from their barracks onto the Moscow streets during a cholera epidemic. Because kvass protects against infectious disease, there is no worry about sharing the glass.
Russians have been enjoying kvass for at least one thousand years. Wrote Pushkin: “Their kvass they needed like fresh air. . . ” Lomonosov, a prominent scientist of peasant origins lived in “unspeakable poverty” as a student. “With a daily allowance of three kopecks, all I could have by way of food was half a kopeck’s worth of bread and half a kopeck’s worth of kvass. . . I lived like this for five years, yet did not forsake study.”
But kvass was enjoyed by czars as well as by peasant. In wealthy households, various kinds of kvass were made either with rye bread or with currants, raspberries, lemons, apples, pears, cherries, bilberries and lingonberries. Peter the Great enjoyed splashing kvass on red-hot stones in the steam bath, to enhance the steam with the fragrance of fresh bread.
It’s the Bread
Kvass is made from stale sourdough rye bread so it’s a natural for bakeries to make it from the bread that they do not sell. That is what Jeff Kaplanov does at his All Star Bakery in Toronto, Canada.
Frothy and delicious, a glass of cold kvass is nature’s best cure for a hot day.
Jeff came to Toronto in the late 1980s. He wanted to make the kind of bread that was traditional in Russia. The sourdough rye bread that serves as the base for kvass is called Borodinsky bread, named after an area near Moscow that served as a battlefield during the Napoleonic wars. The bread—thick, dark and chewy—is made from freshly ground rye flour, water, salt and a sourdough starter. The process, which includes a slow rise and proofing, takes several days.
Kaplanov also makes other types of bread from wheat flour, all without preservatives or chemicals. These are distributed to health food stores and Russian grocery stores throughout Toronto. As the bread has a short shelf life, loaves are often returned.
Borodinsky bread that has gone past its shelf life is cut into 1-inch cubes, spread on trays and dried out in the bread ovens, set to low temperature. Then the pieces are added to a 200-liter tank filled with water—24 loaves go into one 200-liter tank. The brew is left 12 hours at room temperature. Yeast and a small amount of sugar is then added and the kvass is left another 12 hours at room temperature.
After that it is put into 2-liter bottles. Three or four raisins are added to the bottles which are then capped tightly. The kvass will be ready in about three weeks—foamy and refreshing. But the shelf life from that point is only about one week (or three weeks refrigerated), after which the kvass turns alcoholic.
Kaplanov makes about 2000 bottles of kvass per week in winter, 2600 in the summer, which are sold to the many Russians living in Toronto. The kvass sells for $3 (Canadian) per 2-liter bottle. He is currently exporting several cases per week to Ohio where it is sold in Russian delis in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and he is looking into arrangements for export to other cities. Shipping costs about $1.50 per bottle so the kvass needs to be priced at something like four or five dollars (US) per 2-liter bottle—still a bargain compared to wine or fine beer.
So far, Kaplanov is the only one making genuine kvass in the North American continent. A rival product made in New York is “more like Coca-Cola,” full of chemicals and preservatives to give it a longer shelf life. True kvass has a short shelf life and so is of no interest to the soft drink conglomerates.
Kvass can also be made from beets. The result is not so much epicurean as medicinal, although beet kvass is often added to borscht. No traditional Ukranian home was without its bottle of beet kvass, according to Lubow A. Kylvska, author of Ukranian Dishes, “handy and ready when a pleasing, sour flavor had to be added to soups and vinaigrettes.”
Folk medicine values beets and beet kvass for their liver cleansing properties and beet kvass is widely used in cancer therapy in Europe. Anecdotal reports indicate that beet kvass is an excellent therapy for chronic fatigue, chemical sensitivities, allergies and digestive problems.
Kombucha: Another Gift from Russia
Another delicious, refreshing and salutary beverage consumed in Russia is chainyi grib, known in the US as kombucha, made from tea, sugar and a culture or “mushroom.” Actually, fermented tea is consumed throughout Japan, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Manchuria and Indonesia as well as Russia. Other names for the drink are teeschwamm, wunderpilz, hongo, cajnij, fungus japonicus and teewass.
The tea fungus or culture is a symbiotic combination of vinegar-producing bacteria (Acetobacter sp.) with at least two yeasts. The fungus can only form when the Acetobacter and yeasts are present together. When Acetobacter is used alone, gas is produced and the film or culture does not form. The culture transforms sweetened black tea into a slightly fizzy, sour drink, redolent of cider, via a combination of acetic, lactic-acid and glucoronic fermentation. In the process, virtually all the sugar and caffeine are transformed into other compounds.
How to Make Great Kombucha
Kombucha is safe and healthy when prepared according to directions.
Bring 3 litres of water to a boil, remove from heat, add 1 cup of white sugar and steep with 4 bags of organic black tea. To avoid contamination, the sweetened tea should then be placed in a clean, clear glass bowl and the “mushroom” placed carefully on top. Place a crisscross of masking tape across the bowl and cover with a clean towel. Place in a warm, protected spot for about eight days until the beverage becomes suitably acid.
Some people claim that kombucha is not safe, but when reasonable care is taken, “you’re more likely to find contamination in a cup of coffee than in a cup of properly prepared kombucha,” according to Dr. Samuel Page of the FDA. Of course, if the kombucha develops mold, you should not drink it—just as you would not consume any food that developed mold.
Kombucha is rich in B vitamins and a substance called glucuronic acid which binds up environmental and metabolic toxins so that they can be excreted through the kidneys. Glucuronic acid is a natural acid that is produced by the liver. Kombucha simply supplies the body with more and boosts the natural detoxification process. Glucuronic acid is also the building block of a group of important polysaccharides that include hyaluronic acid (a basic component of connective tissue), chondroitin sulfate (a basic component of cartilage) and mucoitinsulfuric acid (a building block of the stomach lining and the vitreous humor of the eye).
In some cases, consumption of kombucha tea can provoke an allergic reaction. According to some practitioners, this is evidence that the liver is very toxic and cannot handle the detoxification products that the kombucha helps release. In these cases, it is best to begin the detox process using beet kvass, which helps the liver cleanse itself. Usually after two or three weeks of taking 8-12 ounces daily of beet kvass, the kombucha will be well tolerated and can be drunk both for its good taste and medicinal qualities.
Glucuronic acid content usually reaches its maximum on the eighth day, when the pH reaches 2.6. For testing, use pH Hydracid Papers 1-6, which can be obtained through any pharmacy.
Researchers looking at the toxic effects of fluoride have recently raised concerns about kombucha because most commercial tea is very high in fluoride. Fortunately, kombucha made with organic tea contains very little fluoride. We had fluoride levels tested in organic black tea and in the kombucha made with the tea. The levels in the tea were only slightly higher than those in the filtered water from which it was made and actually slightly lower in the kombucha than in the black tea. These results suggest that the process of fermentation actually removes some of the fluoride from the tea and may explain why the kombucha “mushroom” eventually gets black. These older, darkened “mushrooms” can be replaced with the newer, cleaner “babies” that grow on top of the original “mushroom” during the fermentation process.
How to Make Homemade Kvass
Kvass made at home requires careful attention to detail, especially to temperatures. To avoid failures and frustration, purchase a thermometer that will measure liquids between 10 - 80 degrees C (50-175 deg F). You will also need to find a warm place that stays about 24 - 25 deg C (76-78 deg F) in your kitchen or in a closet .
Be sure to use bread that is made only with rye flour, and that contains no food additives or preservatives. Kvass made from bread that contains oats or other grains is said to turn the fermenting liquid bitter.
Do not worry about using white sugar as most if it will be turned into beneficial acids.
The kvass should be stored in bottles with screw on tops or tops with wire fasteners. This recipe makes about 5 litres.
1 pound rye bread, cut into thin slices
1 1/2 cups sugar, in all
1 package dry active yeast
1 tablespoon unbleached white flour
About 1 dozen raisins
Spread the bread on cookie sheets and bake for about 30 minutes at 160 deg C (325 deg F). When cool, chop into 1cm pieces in a food processor.
Bring 4 litres of water to a boil and then cool to 80 deg C (175 deg F). Add the bread, stir well, cover with a lid and leave in a warm place (24 - 25 C / 76-78 F) for 1 hour. Strain and reserve both the bread and the liquid.
Bring another 2 1/2 litres of water to a boil, cool down to 80 deg C (175 deg F) and add the reserved bread. Cover with a lid and leave in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours. Strain and discard the bread. Combine both batches of liquid.
Place 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a small cast-iron skillet. Stir continuously over heat until the mixture turns golden brown. (Be careful not to burn it.) Remove from heat and gradually blend in 1/2 cup of the reserved liquid. Then stir this mixture into the entire batch of liquid.
In a small saucepan place 1 cup water and the remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming once or twice. Stir this syrup into the reserved liquid and allow the mixture to come to room temperature (about 22 deg C).
Mix the yeast with the flour and combine with 1 cup of the liquid. Return this yeast mixture to the pot. Make an X of masking tape across the top of the pot. Cover the pot with 2 layers of cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and leave in a warm place (22 - 25 C / 73-78 F) for 8-12 hours or overnight. Cool the kvass to about 50-54 degrees. Transfer to bottles, seal tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours. The kvass will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
In addition to its role as a refreshing drink, kvass is added to a number of typical Russian cold soups containing vegetables, sour cream and fish.
Adopted from The Art of Russian Cuisine by Anne Volokh, 1983.
About the Author...
Sally Fallon is founding president of the Weston A Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition education foundation with over 400 local chapters and 9000 members. She is also the founder of A Campaign for Real Milk, which has as its goal universal access to clean raw milk from pasture-fed animals. Author of the best-selling cookbook Nourishing Traditions and also of Eat Fat Lose Fat (Penguin), both with Mary G. Enig, Phd, Sally has a encyclopedic knowledge of modern nutritional science as well as ancient food ways. Her grasp on the work of Weston Price is breath taking and her passion for health freedom, inspiring. In each edition of Nourished Magazine Sally answers your questions about nutrition, health, food and medical politics. Send us an email with your question and we'll put it to her.