Tag Archives: fermentation

Big Life, Small Space

Three years ago my husband and I bought a lovely three-bedroom home on a little more than half an acre of land. If you’ve read my previous posts you know that we have put a lot of work into our land to bring fertility and beauty to an acidic, parched, sandy lot that had been neglected and abused for decades.

Our lovely house today.
Our lovely house today.

We busted our butts clearing scrub brush and overgrown azaleas, and breaking up the compacted soil by tilling almost the entire yard. I planted fruit trees and blueberry bushes, strawberries and asparagus – plants that will produce every year with a little care. I built raised beds and created soil out of yard and kitchen waste, composted manure, and peat moss. I tossed about 100 earthworms in the beds to eat the organic matter in them and turn it into microbe-rich worm dirt, then started heirloom seeds to grow delicious, nutrient-rich food.

Baby Chickipoos
Baby Chickipoos
Chicken Tractor
Chicken Tractor

We went further in our dream of a sustainable life by getting baby chicks and raising them up. We built them a chicken tractor and moved them to a new patch of grass every day or so. We were happily surprised about how much better the yard looked a couple of weeks after the chickipoos had scratched and aerated the soil,  eaten all the plants & bugs, and left a bit of fertilizer behind them. And at the end of the day, we had fresh, delicious eggs! We also built a worm bin. Whatever kitchen waste the chickens wouldn’t eat (coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc) went to the worms. That worked well for a while, but our worms decided to migrate and left the bin one day. It was kinda weird, but other folks I’ve talked to say that worms do that sometimes.

Along the way I discovered fermentation and took to it like a duck to water. I’ve made all kinds of fermented veggies, brined eggs,  soft and hard cheeses, bacon, prosciutto, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, skyr, clabbered milk, mead, hard cider, beer, and wine.

Lots of fermentation going on!
Lots of fermentation going on!

When we bought our home we thought we’d be there for a very long time, but life happens. Neither of us were successful in finding employment that we were in the least bit happy doing. I spent many months trying to get our business off the ground, but after failing to get financing we came to the conclusion that we were simply in the wrong place. We had chosen our town because of the lovely little downtown area, but you know what they say about books and covers. There was really very little going on in the CSRA that we could do for recreation other than tending our animals and our plot of land. Those things were great, but we had left an amazingly rich life back in the Ozarks before moving to South Carolina.

Last summer my dear friend, Hope, and I had taken a trip to see Rock City. Both of us are fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and had always talked about going together to see where the battle scene in the book took place. I fell in love with Chattanooga! It reminded me of my old hometown of Fayetteville, AR, but it’s even funkier. I knew my hubby would like it because of the mountains and the wonderful local food culture. So when the opportunity presented itself, I encouraged him to apply for a job there and since he’s super awesome, he got it!

Now we’re living between two places: our house in Aiken and our rented apartment in Chattanooga. We realized a few months ago that we have a big house that costs a small fortune to heat and cool, but we only live in three rooms. The whole time we’ve lived there we’ve had one guest that took advantage of our guestroom… one! We have decided that if we want to seriously commit to a sustainable lifestyle and stop spending all our time dealing with household maintenance, we have to make a big change. In a few weeks we’ll have an estate sale where we will be selling off at least 70% of our belongings. It hurts a bit, but it’s just stuff. Then we are going to sell our house. I’m really hoping that someone comes along that wants to garden and falls in love with our property. The hard work has been done already, they just need to plant and tend the garden. Once the house is sold, we are buying at least five acres of property outside of town and we’re going to build a tiny house!

By selling most of our stuff we’re hoping to whittle things down to a much more manageable state. We won’t have room for a dishwasher, so we decided to cut down the number of dishes we have. Instead of a set of eight dishes, we currently have a set of four. We are thinking about cutting that down to a set of two. That way, I will wash each of my dishes when I’m done with it and not have a big pile of dishes to wash everyday. And if we do have company, they will be told ahead of time about our kitchen arraignment and to bring their own dishes.  With less of our time being spent on things that aren’t really important, we can devote ourselves to the things we really love to do: hiking, dancing, brewing, gardening, raising critters, reading, and hanging out with friends. And hopefully, we will start our business in Chattanooga. The culture here is much better for what we want to do.

I’m sad to think about what we are leaving behind. But I’m even more excited about what lies ahead!

Microbes, Microbes Everywhere…

In our household I do all the food fermentation (veggies and dairy, occasionally curing bacon too). I also make mead, wine, cider, and ciser. My hubby primarily makes beer. I’ve brewed beer a couple of times so that I could understand the process, but beer brewing is one of my beloved’s favorite hobbies (and he’s very good at it), so I tend to leave that mostly to him. When he first started out, he brewed kits in our kitchen.

Steven and Mooshi Brewing Beer in the Kitchen
My hubby and his brew kitty, Mooshi, brewing beer in the kitchen

The kits were easy (most, if not all, the malt is in liquid or dry extract form), but I encouraged him to brew all grain beer. In my mind, it is just another type of cooking. After reading many of articles and forums and watching lots of YouTube videos, my hubby built a mash tun, bought a propane fish fryer, a small oxygen tank, and a ten gallon brewing kettle.

Brew Kettle on Fish Fryer
Brew Kettle on Fish Fryer
Mash Tun and Brew Kettle
Mash Tun and Brew Kettle

To brew beer all you must do is put your malted grain into the mash tun, bring about 5-7+ gallons of water to just before boiling and gently pour it into the mash tun with the grain (this is called mashing in). If you look at the mash tun (the modified cooler), you can see a tube with a valve coming out of it. Make sure the valve is closed before pouring the water in, or else it won’t be doing its job properly. After maybe an hour, open the valve and drain the liquid, called wort at this point) into the mash tun. While the grain has been mashing you would have boiled up a bunch more water which you very gently and slowly pour over the grains, this is called sparging. After you’ve collected all the sparged water in the mash tun, you boil the whole thing for about an hour. At certain points in the boil you add hops and/or other herbs and spices to bitter and add various other flavors. After all this you have to cool the wort down so that when you add yeast the heat doesn’t kill them. After various low-tech methods, my hubby bought a wort chiller (a big coil of metal tubing that cold water runs through while it sits in the wort) to cool the wort off quickly.

My hubby using the wort chiller to cool the wort.
My hubby using the wort chiller to cool the wort.

After all that he pours the cooled wort into a sanitized carboy, puts a sanitized tube attached to the oxygen tank into the wort and lets the oxygen flow into the wort for one minute. Adding oxygen is very important because the yeast needs it to multiply and thrive during fermentation. After that he adds his yeast, puts an airlock on it and lets the yeast do the job of multiplying and turning all the sugars extracted from the grain into alcohol. It isn’t until the wort has fermented that it is actually beer.

Now having made mead, wine, and so forth, I knew a good deal about those darling little microbes called yeast. When I first heard Sandor Katz and Michael Pollan talk about the microbes in fermented foods I started reading a good deal about what happens during lacto-fermentation among other kinds of fermenation. I knew that the thing that makes your salted cabbage turn into sauerkraut is that all plant matter is covered in lactic acid bacteria (LAB), also known as lactobacillus. What I didn’t understand is how the vegetables got the microbes to begin with.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Master Gardening lecture by Dr. Al Bey called Teaming with Nature – Organic Yards and Gardens. Dr. Bey is a retired chemist. When he first moved to South Carolina from Michigan he used chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on his lawn and garden. He’d been a chemist his entire career, so he really didn’t know any better then. But soon enough he realized that the problems he was treating with chemicals were only getting more pervasive and he decided to try something different – organic lawn and garden care.

I’m really glad Dr. Bey does have a background in science, because the handout we all received is 30 pages long! He has done all kinds of research to understand what needs to happen beneath the surface of the soil to produce beautiful, nutritious food and a lush yard. I certainly can’t go through it all here (this post is plenty long enough), but what I took away was the importance that microbes play in the nutritional value of the soil. If you have nutritious soil, you have nutritionally dense food, which in turn makes you healthier when you eat it. One of the richest sources of microbes that you can add to your soil is worm castings.

I remember reading an article a few years ago (I want to say it was in Mother Earth News, but I can’t swear to that) where a couple in the wastes of Australia turned their horribly infertile land into a lush pasture by making worm casting tea and dripping in onto their soil. After hearing Dr. Bey talk about using worm casting and compost tea to enrich your soil it all started coming together in my mind!

1. Make worm casting tea to feed my soil.

2. Continue to feed the microbes throughout the year via dehydrated, non-sulfured molasses.

3. Eat the nutritious food as it ripens. If there’s more than we can eat, ferment it to eat later.

It is so simple, but so intricately complex all at once! Feed the soil microbes and they in turn will feed you AND the microbes in your gut that are so tremendously important for your health.

Now you may wonder what all the talk about beer was to begin with. Well let me show you what I did to start making my worm casting tea. This recipe was from Dr. Alvin E. Bey’s article Teaming with Nature (Article No. 8) – Energizing your Soil with Compost Tea.

1. Fill a cloth bag with four cups worm castings, compost, or a combination of the two. Add four gallons of water (I used rainwater I collected in a rain barrel) and two ounces of non-sulfured molasses as a food source for the microbes (I used locally produced cane syrup). Put it in a bucket or whatever you have to use. I used an old water cooler that I was using as a continuous kombucha brewer, but it has since cracked and the buch started seeping through. It works great for this though!

Fill a cloth bag with four cups worm castings, compost, or a combination of the two.
Bag of worm castings going into the rain water.

2. Aerate with an aquarium pump or fountain pump for 24 hours.

Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away
Worm Casting Tea Brewing Away

After the microbes have had food (cane syrup/molasses) and air, they multiply tremendously and can then be sprayed on your soil. You can see in the picture above, I drained my tea into an old milk pail that my grandparents used when they had dairy cows back in the 50’s and 60’s. After that I pour it into my watering can or a pump sprayer and sprinkle the tea over the soil. It doesn’t take too much in any one place. The idea is to get them into the soil so they can help the plant roots access minerals in a more effective way. I followed the sprinkling with a little bit of spraying with my water hose. I’m sure it was probably unnecessary, but I didn’t want the little critters getting lost.

So in both the beer and with the worm casting/compost tea, the various microbes need air and sugar to reproduce and do their jobs.

Now I am the kind of person that wants to really understand how things work. I’ve decided to audit some classes in the near future on biology and microbiology. I took biology in college, but the poor old instructor was literally senile. We barely learned anything in that class, so I want to go back and learn it properly. I want to see the various microbes under a microscope and see what it is that they do!

While I’ve been ruminating over this whole concept the past few weeks, I started listening to a new podcast (new for me, that is), The People’s Pharmacy. I happened to listen to Episode 959: Farmacology – What Farmers Can Teach Us About Health, which is the title of a book by Daphne Miller, MD. Dr. Miller has done some of the research that I have been so curious about. I sat down this evening and began reading. I got ao excited reading about the connection between nurturing the soil and nurturing our bodies, I had to get out of bed to write about what has been bouncing around my brain!

I know there will be more to follow on this topic, but it’s now 4:01 am and I haven’t gone to sleep yet. Besides, you’ve got to be tired of reading my ramblings by now. 🙂

Kefir Pie

In March I gave a class on Basic Dairy Fermentation where we covered clabbered milk, kefir, yogurt, and skyr. I made kefir pie (a play on a traditional buttermilk pie) that I shared with my students to show them the range of things you can do with fermented dairy. I’ve been asked for the recipe so here it is!


  • 3 eggs

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened

  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar

  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup kefir

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1 tablespoon preserved lemon peel, diced

  • 1/8 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg

  • 1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust


    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 degrees C).
    2. Beat eggs until frothy; add butter, sugar and flour. Beat until smooth.
    3. Stir in kefir, vanilla, preserved lemon, and nutmeg; pour into pie shell.
    4. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, or until center is firm.

Daikon Dilemma

The past few weeks I’ve been getting a bunch of daikon radishes in my CSA basket. I had been waiting for the radishes because I wanted to try fermenting them to make Takuan, a traditional Japanese pickle. The way I wanted to do it originally was with rice bran, but I didn’t really plan ahead and didn’t have any rice bran. I was afraid some of the older veggies were going to go off if I didn’t do something with them, so I found another recipe for Takuan that is a little more familiar to me. But if I get anymore daikons, I am going to get the rice bran and ferment them that way too. In the meantime, this is the recipe I used.

Daikons, daikons everywhere...
Daikons, daikons everywhere…









5-6 lbs daikon radishes, thinly sliced (please watch your fingers!)

2 medium onions, sliced

9 cloves of garlic

6 Tbsp sea salt

5 Tbsp crushed red pepper

3 Tbsp powdered ginger

3 Tbsp maple syrup


1. Mix salt, ginger, and maple syrup with about 3 quarts of water until the salt dissolves to make brine.

2. Place a couple of cloves of garlic, 1/4 of an onion, and red pepper in the bottom of a quart Mason jar, then add daikon slices up to about 1 1/4″ below the top of the jar.

3. Fill the jar with the brine so that the veggies are all covered, leaving about an inch at the top.

4. Loosely put the lid on and let ferment for anywhere between a week and a few months.

5. Try it once in a while to see how it’s tasting; put in fridge to stop (or at least significantly slow down) fermentation.

Spicy Fermented Radishes
Spicy Fermented Radishes

 UPDATE: These are delicious and very spicy! I was very surprised at the flavor, but I could eat these every day. If you decide to do these, I would suggest fermenting them in your garage or other well ventilated area as they smell super funky the first few weeks.



Gruit Gardening


This past Sunday, February 1st, was International Gruit Day. My husband and I have been brewing gruits for a few months now with very interesting results. Since most folks are unaware of what a gruit is, as was I until a few months ago, let me explain.

Gruit is the word for herbs in Old German. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, beginning in the 16th century, ales were brewed with a variety of herbs and spices (singly or as a blend) to add bittering and flavor to their brew. Sometimes hops would be added to these herbal blends, called gruit or groot, but they were not used exclusively until relatively recently. In fact, in England the word beer wasn’t used until ales were brewed exclusively with hops. Prior to that all beer was called ale.

If you read my blog then you know that I’m given to writing about the past, so when I found out about gruit I was very excited. The craze for super hoppy beers the last few years had nearly turned me away from beer. Six hundred years ago the only reason you might find something on par with a double IPA would only be found if there was no other bittering agents around to brew with. Like most foods, textiles, etc., people used what was available to them, and hops weren’t always available everywhere. Scotland is still quite renown for brewing heather ales.

See what happened in Europe during the late Middle Ages was that a lot of brewing was done by monasteries (ever tried a Belgian Trappist beer?). The monks devised secret gruit blends that were lost to posterity when the monasteries were destroyed by the fire and fervor of the reformers. And during these early days ordinary people brewed in their homes and women were the primary home brewers. When they had more ale than they needed, they would sell it. Again, these early home brewers used what was available, herbs from their gardens or those that grew wild, such as yarrow, heather, bog myrtle, wild rosemary, juniper berries, or spruce tips. Laws were made which banned the use of any herbal bittering agents apart from hops. This was in part to help outlaw the beer brewed by monasteries and beer brewed by women.

When we decided to try gruit, we decided to split up the work. My hubby is the primary beer brewer (I usually do the mead, cider, ciser and wine), but I am the primary cook. To get an idea what the various gruit herbs and spices might taste like, I measured out a gram of each in its own individual glass then added an ounce of boiling water to each. I let it steep for ten minutes and then did a tasting. It was an interesting experiment! I found the lovely grassiness of heather and yarrow, the gin aroma of juniper berries, the floral bouquet of elder flowers, and the downright despicable bitterness of wormwood. I used all of the above in my first gruit blend. I, like the monks and wise women before me, am keeping my formula to myself, but I will share this bit of cautionary information – do not use more than two grams of wormwood for five gallons of ale!!!  Since then we have brewed five gruit ales, with different gruit combinations for each brew.

I believe that with the current boom of micro-breweries opening and the hops shortage, we will start to see more brewing with gruits. Since I really like to keep my supply chain as short as possible, I’ve decided to devote much of my yard and garden space to growing gruit herbs this year. I have received my seeds and will be starting them soon. I’ll be growing heather, yarrow, wormwood, blue hyssop, white horehound, sweet woodruff, St. Johnswort, feverfew, and German chamomile. I am hoping that some of these plants will flourish in our acidic soil and hot summers. Perhaps I’ll even have enough to sell down the road.




My 15 Minutes… or More like 12

Earthwise Interview

A few months back while I was doing a kimchi demonstration at the Augusta Veggie Food Truck, a gentleman stopped and introduced himself. He produces a little online show for Augusta Magazine called “Earthwise.”  My new acquaintance, Mark, was interested in setting up an interview with me about some of the stuff I make. So a couple of weeks ago he came to my house with his crew and I did a mead demo in my kitchen. It was a lot of fun to do the show and have Mark and his crew over. So much fun that we are talking about doing further episodes in the future.

One of the things mentioned in the show is the development of our business, Thoroughbrewed. We decided to change the name of the business to reflect the heritage & history of our adopted hometown of Aiken, SC, and also to better reflect the main purpose of what we will be doing. While education is going to be a big part of what we do, we want to offer more locally brewed craft beer choices to the residents of the CSRA in a cozy, relaxed environment. We will also offer home brewing/wine making supplies and classes on various kinds of brewing and food fermentation.  This blog will become part of the Thoroughbrewed web presence as we move forward.

If you are curious about mead making you can see me in action by clicking here. Otherwise you can follow the directions below:


1 gallon glass carboy (jug)

cleaning brush

bung or stopper



5/16″ siphon hose

Sanitizer, such as Star San

racking cane or auto-siphon (optional)

bottle filler (optional)


wine bottles

wine corks

drill whip (optional)

Ingredients (makes 1 gallon of mead)

2 ½ – 3 lbs      Honey

Filtered Water

1                      teabag

1 Tbsp            strong tea

½ tsp               Yeast Nutrient

¼ tsp               Yeast Energizer

¼ tsp               Grape or Wine Tannin

¼ tsp               gypsum (optional)

½ pkg             Mead or Wine Yeast

1                      Campden tablet, crushed (optional)

¼ cup             oak chips/cubes (optional)


  1. Wash and sanitize all of your equipment before you get started.
  2. Read yeast instructions and rehydrate or thaw according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. Pour honey into glass carboy. If honey has started to crystalize or if it Is flowing too slowly, sit the container of honey in warm water (90° F) for a few minutes.
  4. Add water to carboy and fill to 4 – 5 inches from top.
  5. Add remaining ingredients, except for yeast; put bung on the carboy, cover the hole and shake vigorously until everything is dissolved.
  6. Pitch yeast; attach bung and airlock.
  7. Wrap with a towel or place in a dark room.
  8. Ferment is complete when SG has dropped to 1.000 (about 6-8 weeks). If the mead is not completely clear, rack (siphon) wine off of sediment into a clean and sanitized secondary; reattach airlock.
  9. If you want to stop fermentation before it is finished, you can add the Campden tablet or sit it out in the sunshine for a couple of days.
  10. If you want to add a more sophisticated flavor, add oak chips and taste every day or two until you like the flavor. Since the oak chips have more surface area and can contact more of the mead than an oak barrel, only a few days are needed to add an oaky flavor.
  11. To aid clearing, siphon again in a month and again, if necessary before bottling.


Pitfalls to Avoid
  1. Many sources/recipes tell you to boil your must (the unfermented honey-water mixture). DO NOT DO THIS. It is completely unnecessary and can result in fingernail polish remover-like flavors that it takes a very long time to get rid of. Also, boiling the must destroys the subtle floral aromatics of the honey. If the honey is not flowing out of the jar/bottle very well it is alright to warm it, but never boil it.
  2. Many recipes also call for using champagne yeast. The only reason I know to do that would be that champagne yeast is more tolerant of high alcohol levels. While some people might want this, champagne yeast results in a “hot” flavor that is rather unappealing. If you wish to enjoy a good flavor in a relatively short time span, just do a little research (Ken Schramm’s book is an excellent resource!) to figure out what yeasts might work well for what you want. I am a big fan of White Lab’s Sweet Mead/Wine Yeast.

UPDATE: Since this was recorded, we have come to realize that our business plan would not work in Aiken. We have since moved to Chattanooga, where we will revisit the idea once we get ourselves settled a bit. In the meantime, I am trying to find somewhere to teach fermentation and brewing classes.

The New Year and Good Beer

I know things have been quiet here and on my FaceBook page the past couple of months. I spent several weeks doing research and writing my business plan. Now the bank has the paperwork for our business loan. Keep your fingers crossed and send happy thoughts our way.  And even though the name of our business is Thoroughbrewed, we are going to keep Fermdamentals as the educational aspect of our shop. Once we have our funding and actually start making our plans a reality, I will certainly be sharing what we are doing with y’all.

During the holidays we did a good bit of brewing. In addition to a Smoked Oaked Porter, an Irish  Red, and a Brown, my hubby brewed the most delicious thing I may have ever tried – a Caramel Apple Graff. From what I’ve been able to find out, graff is a concoction inspired by one of Stephen King’s stories. Graff is a combination of beer and apple cider. The Caramel Apple Graff tastes like the most wonderful apple pie you’ve ever eaten! In addition to a small amount of brewed malt, apple juice, brown sugar, maple syrup, and a variety of wonderful spices are blended together. It is still currently fermenting, but it is already 7% ABV. My hubby and I have been debating whether to let it continue to ferment or whether to kill the yeast and bottle it flat. We have several one gallon carboys sitting empty at the moment, so I think we might start pulling off a gallon at a time every few days or so, killing the yeast, and keeping notes on how the flavor changes until the last gallon finishes fermenting.  We didn’t time the brewing of the graff very well, because this is exactly the drink you want for the holidays. So with our tasting notes in hand next fall, we will brew our favorite version of the graff in time for Thanksgiving next time.

The World’s Oldest Cheese

Eight years ago I was cloistered away in my little apartment working on my master’s thesis in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval History. I spent months obsessively documenting silk trade, technology, and fashion as it moved both west and east throughout the Eurasian continent. Now you may be asking yourself what in the world does ancient silk trade and fashion have to do with the world’s oldest cheese? I beg your patience, dear reader. I will get to the cheese, but first let me tell you about one of the peoples I researched and wrote about in my sleep-deprived, madness-inducing, thesis writing experience. Some of what follows will be directly from my thesis, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006), while some is new research. Since I have no personal pictures of the mummies, I will link to websites that do have pictures (let them worry about copyright infringement!). Unfortunately, I seem to find the best pictures on some of what I as a scholar deem to be less than reputable sites. I know that the pictures and maps are accurate because of all the actual reputable sources I’ve seen the same pictures in over the years, but I suppose that many academics use their photos to publish in peer-reviewed journals and books rather than websites.

Modern Day

In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, the westernmost part of the country, many well preserved mummies were unearthed between the late 1930’s and 2009. The mummies had been buried near various settlements around the edge of the Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin over a thousand year period between 2000 BCE and 400 BCE. Some burial locations seem to have been chosen because the soil was infertile. This infertility was caused by geological formations of salt beds. Once buried, these bodies dried out in the desert heat and were freeze-dried during the winter. The salt beds also acted to preserve the bodies in them so well that thousands of years later their face paint is still visible and their clothing remains vibrant and whole. One of the most surprising things about these mummies, who had lived and died in the very heart of Central Asia, is that the oldest ones were Caucasian. It has not been definitively established why these people were so far east, though it is likely that they had followed their herds grazing their way along the steppe.

The textiles found on and around the mummies were analyzed by Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, an expert in ancient textiles and a professor of linguistics and archeology at Occidental College in California, and Dr. Irene Good, a specialist in the laboratory analysis of ancient fibers and textiles from the University of Pennsylvania. During their research, many similarities were found between the textiles buried with the Tarim mummies and those uncovered in the Celtic Hallstatt civilization, a culture that prospered in what are now southern Germany, western Hungary, and Austria, between 900 BCE and 500 BCE. The Hallstatt civilization is named for the area in Austria where the first discoveries of this culture were found buried in salt mines (not unlike the salt beds in which the Tarim mummies were interred).

These far-flung burial finds may seem unrelated, however they actually demonstrate an ancient trade network had formed, or had begun to form, several centuries before the Silk Road was officially established during the Han Dynasty (205 BCE to 220 CE).

The Small River Cemetery, or Xiaohe Mudi, was originally excavated in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman, but its location was forgotten for nearly 70 years. In 2000, the cemetery was rediscovered and archeologists and looters raced to uncover its secrets. Between 2003 – 2005, a group of Chinese archaeologists completed the excavation of the entire necropolis at Xiaohe.

The bodies were buried in coffins shaped like overturned boats. The body was placed on the ground and the two sides of the coffin were fitted around the corpse. Next, planks that were made to fit the boat-shaped coffin were laid across the top. Then a few oxen were slaughtered, perhaps as part of a sacrificial funeral rite, and skinned at the cemetery. The coffin was then covered with the ox hides which shrunk to fit the coffin in the desert heat, like shrink wrap. Because of this, the coffins and the bodies inside were pristine. Not even a grain of sand managed to get into the sealed coffins until they were opened, either by the archaeologists or looters. The Xiaohe people were buried dressed in lovely wool clothing, leather boots, with ephedra twigs, tamarisk branches, jade beads (the nearest contemporary jade production was 300 miles away!), feathers, well-crafted baskets, wheat and barley grains, and cow and sheep/goat ears. In addition, on some of the mummies they discovered an organic compound placed in lumps around the mummies’ necks. A few also had an organic substance in baskets near their waists.

Okay, so what about the cheese? No one knows for sure when cheese was first made. There have been sieve-like vessels discovered in Eastern Europe that have been tested and found to contain traces of milk proteins. Some of these specimens are 7,000 years old! Despite this, no examples of intact ancient cheese have been found until the lumps of organic compounds on the Xiaohe mummies.

Ancient Times

To figure out how cheese got that far east we have to go back pretty far in our pre-history, to where dairy production began. On what we now know as the Eurasian or Russian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, there was a group of people who spoke a common language that we call Proto-Indo-European. Now we have no written records from this era in this region, writing hadn’t been invented yet, so we have to look at the archaeological record and at the common language that modern scholars have been able to piece together.

Indo-European is the language family that includes English, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Swedish, Hindi, Persian, Celtic, and Tocharian, to name a few. The ancestors to all the speakers of the Indo-European languages today, the Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples, began as foragers in the river valleys north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 5200 -5000 BCE. Apart from the river valleys most of the steppes were not a good place for farming, so they relied on the foods they could hunt and gather, like wild plants and nuts, wild boar, fish, wild horses and sheep, and the wild aurochs (the largest bovine to walk the earth).

The grasslands of the Russian steppe are much like our American plains, but these early ancestors did not have the agricultural advancements that the American settlers had (and a great many of those American settlers still died of starvation). There are no plants that grow there that are edible for humans, but there are 3,000 miles of open grasslands. What they could grow on the grasslands were animals: cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

Cattle, goat, and sheep domestication was revolutionary! People went from a communal, hunter-gatherer society where social status would have been dictated according to who the best hunter was or who could always find the best berries to one where social status depended on how many cattle or sheep one owned. These animals not only produced meat, but hides and wool for clothing and tents, and milk.

The next important animal to have been domesticated was the horse. Horses were originally kept as food, but eventually people learned that they could ride them. Soon after the horse was domesticated the wheeled cart was invented around 3300 – 3100 BCE. This allowed the Proto-Indo-Europeans to move not only their herds when they had exhausted their food supply, but whole tribes – they became nomads.

At this point in human evolution no one was able to tolerate lactose (milk sugar). The first cheese was probably a happy accident: something acidic curdled the milk (possibly stored in a bag made from an animal stomach), the lactose-heavy whey drained away and left lovely curds. The discovery of milk fermentation was just as revolutionary as the domestication of animals. Now the Indo-Europeans had access to a steady and prolific supply of protein that did not require the death of an animal. This nutritional increase resulted in these ancient people becoming physically larger than their contemporaries without access to dairy protein. This would have led to increased population growth. And as populations grow, eventually parts of those populations break off and find new herding lands – thus we have the beginnings of the Indo-European diaspora. It was one of these nomadic Indo-European peoples, the Tocharians, who traveled east with their herds.

The scholars who study languages, etymologists and philologists, were able to determine approximately when certain languages, and the peoples who spoke them, left the original Indo-European group due to how much the languages changed over time. According to David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, it is quite likely that the Tocharians were the second group to leave the Proto-Indo-European homeland (the first to leave home were the Hittites). The descendants of these early explorers left written records in their abandoned settlements in the Tarim Basin. When analyzed the languages, Tocharian A and B, were closely linked to the Celtic language.

The Science

[DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist. I have done my best to interpret the science for those, like me, who did not take chemistry or microbiology in college. To get serious details please see the Proteomics Evidence article cited below.]

So let’s look again at the organic compounds found on the Xiaohe mummies. The lumps were approximately 1 – 2 cm in diameter with a chunky texture. The scientists took 5 – 15 mg samples from 12 organic lumps found in ten different graves. They took each sample, ground it down to powder, added a bunch of chemicals I’ve never heard of to them and eventually got them to where they could analyze them. The proteomic (protein) analysis, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR) characterization, ion chromatography, and elemental composition analyses led them to believe that what they were looking at cheese made mostly from cows’ milk, though there were some goat or sheep milk mixed in some samples. Due to the differences in exactly which caseins and proteins remained in the ancient samples, the scientists realized that the cheese was not made with rennet nor by acidification. Therefore, they looked at milk fermentation and found that the Xiaohe samples contained proteins from lactic acid bacteria (LAB) which included Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and various Saccharomycetaceae yeasts which are commonly found in kefir.

Commercial raw milk and kefir grains (Caucasian and Tibetan) were obtained and the scientists made kefir cheese by pouring pasteurized, non-homogenated cow milk over the kefir grains and letting them sit at room temperature for 72 hours. Then the whey was strained off the curds resulting in yummy cheese. The milk, kefir grains, and kefir cheese were each dried in a vacuum centrifuge and processed the same way the organic compounds from the graves were.

When the compositions of the modern samples and the ancient samples were compared it was determined that L. kefiranofaciens was the predominant source of LAB proteins in ten of the twelve Xiaohe samples. The yeast proteins were from Candida kefir (aka Kluyveromyces marxianus) and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These yeasts are the ones found in modern Tibetan kefir. The scientists concluded that ten of the twelve ancient samples were kefir cheese.

The two Xiaohe samples that were not kefir cheese were found in the same grave, M13. The M13 samples were placed like the others, around the neck and in a basket near the waist. The samples were both dairy products made of raw milk, but did not contain LAB. They did, however, contain mold. Whether the M13 samples were another type of cheese, the article did not say. The scientists “concluded that the protein composition that we attributed to Xiaohe kefir cheeses is a bona fide dairy practice hallmark and that it did not arise spontaneously from unprocessed milk over thousands of years.”

Due to the low salt content of the Xiaohe kefir cheeses, the scientists also speculated that the cheeses were made to be eaten relatively quickly, rather than being stored long term or traded across long distances. The low levels of lipids seem to indicate that the raw milk may have been skimmed. Although there was no evidence of butter production (butter is made from cream) at Xiaohe, that does not mean anything. The cemetery is many miles away from the nearest known contemporary human settlements.


Due to the linguistic, textile, and DNA evidence of the early Tarim Basin mummies, we know that these ancient Tocharians were the easternmost branch of the Indo-European family tree, long-lost cousins to the Celts. They participated in dairy herding and long-distance trade. They had sophisticated textile and basket weaving techniques. And they had a rich funerary practice. The food they preferred, perhaps the food that enabled them to live in one of the most inhospitable climates that humans have ever continuously survived in, that let them cross thousands of miles of grasslands, and that accompanied the dead on their final journey was simple, delicious kefir cheese.

We still don’t know exactly where kefir grains originated but since the ancient Tocharians had the kind that we know as Tibetan kefir grains, we can only speculate that they perhaps traded for them somewhere in their wanderings. Since they were trading with peoples in every direction (for evidence of that you probably need to read all the sources in the bibliography below), it may have been the Tocharians or some of their Indo-European cousins on the steppes that brought the knowledge of kefir to the west. Perhaps in time the desert will reveal more of its secrets.


Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. Reprinted, London: Pan Books, 2000.

Hansen, Stephanie D., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006.

Mair, Victor H. “Mummies of the Tarim Basin.” Archaeology, 48:2 (Mar/Apr 1995), 28 – 35.

Mair, Victor. “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies. Vol 34, No 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2006), 273 – 318.

Shavit, Elinoar. “Medicinal Mushrooms: Renewed Interest in Kefir, the Ancient Elixir of Longevity.” Fungi Vol 1:2 (Summer 2008), 14 – 18.

Stroud, Kevin. The History of English Podcast. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com, 2014.

Thomson, Helen and Adam Cole. “Archaeologists Find Ancient Evidence Of Cheese-Making” on National Public Radio. December 13, 2012. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/12/13/167034734/archaeologists-find-ancient-evidence-of-cheese-making, 2014.

Yang, Yimin, et al. “Proteomics evidence for kefir dairy in Early Bronze Age China.” Journal of Archaeological Science 45 (2014), 178 – 186.

Apples & Cider & Pears, Oh My!

Okay,  that may be a bit cheezy, but I don’t care. Fall has finally arrived in southern South Carolina! Fall is my favorite time of year not only because of the gorgeous fall colors, but also for the wonderful variety of fresh produce coming into season. The farmers markets are filled with beautiful pumpkins, root vegetables, greens, apples, and pears. I had never pressed apples or pears before, but I’ve been dying to try it.  A friend recently made me an apple press, so last weekend I decided to take it for a spin (pun intended).

Homemade Apple Press
Homemade Apple Press


Apples in Mesh Bag
Apples in Mesh Bag

I washed my apples under running water and ground them up in my food processor. Then I scooped them into a mesh straining bag and placed it in the press’s tub. Luckily a friend was visiting because it took three of us to wrestle that darned machine to barely squeeze a quart of juice out of nine pounds of apples! I took the pulp and cooked it down into apple butter, so it wasn’t a complete waste. I took my little bit of juice and let it ferment on its own with wild yeast. It took nearly a week before I saw the first bit of activity, but it seems to be fermenting well now. I’m anxious to see how it tastes with wild yeast instead of using commercially produced yeast.


A couple of days after our failed experiment I came across this awesome idea on YouTube.  I decided to try making pear cider, also known as perry.  I first tried perry many years ago in Sweden. It is light and refreshing and luscious! There’s nothing quite like a good perry. I’ve not really found anything comparable here in the States. I figured I would try making it myself.

In the video, the gentleman has some kind of hard plastic boards with slots cut out that he stacks in between his wrapped packages of apple pulp. I know I’ve seen those kinds of boards before, but for the life of me I can’t remember where or even what they are really called. That’s okay, I do well at improvising. I bought a package of thin, yet sturdy, plastic cutting boards (3 boards were in the package). Two of the boards I drilled large holes in to allow the juice to flow during the pressing process. The guy in the video also has built a sturdy frame in which he layers several packages of wrapped pulp. Since I wanted to try this process out without going to a lot of expense or effort, I used what I had on hand – my deck.

The deck has built in benches that are just high enough to work. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on the bench boards themselves, so I decided to use the supporting studs under the bench. I also decided to modify one of my good baking sheets, rather than trying to find a new cheap one. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything runny in this pan so I punched a couple of holes in one corner for the pear juice to run out. With everything scavenged or modified from around my house, it was time to try this new experiment.

Ground Pears
Ground Pears


I started by grinding up about 15 lbs of pears. I had gotten  a small bag of pears at the farmers market. The a friend (the same lady who helped wrestle the apple press) was given a large amount of pears by a neighbor and she in turn gave me a large bag of the fruit. It took a little while, but I got them all ground down. It was enough to fill two very large stainless steel bowls.


Filling Pan with Pear Pulp
Filling Pan with Pear Pulp


Next, I filled a small pan with the pear pulp. I lined the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to make sure the pulp would come out easily. I don’t know if it actually made any difference, but the pears did come out easily.


Pear Pulp Turned Out Fine
Pear Pulp Turned Out Fine


Then I positioned my pan, a bucket to catch the juice, and an unbleached linen napkin (cotton muslin would work as well, but commercial cheesecloth is not sturdy enough), and then flipped the pear pulp onto the center of the napkin.



Fold Fabric Tightly Around Pulp
Fold Fabric Tightly Around Pulp




Next, I wrapped the fabric tightly around the pear pulp, creating a little rectangular packet.



Second Layer
Second Layer



Then I stacked another drilled cutting board, napkin, and fruit pulp to make a second layer. You can keep going higher, but I only had two of those drilled cutting boards, plus my “frame” wasn’t tall enough for more than that.



Top With Whole Cutting Board and Car Jack
Top With Cutting Board and Car Jack




Next, just top the layers off with a whole cutting board and a small car jack.




Pressing Cider
Pressing Cider


Finally, you just pump up the jack to press the juice from the fruit. Soooooo much more efficient than that old fashioned press! I had about 15 lbs of pear pulp, so I had to do this a few times.  I ended up with a gallon and a half  of juice! The pulp was darn near dry – too dry to cook down, so my chickens were very happy to eat the dehydrated pulp.

Okay, so the set up is a little more involved, but honestly it was a lot better all the way round. I don’t mind a bit more work upfront if it has better results.

I strained the juice into a  gallon glass carboy and a 32 oz growler, added a smidge of yeast nutrient to each,  added about a tsp of cider yeast to the one gallon carboy and 1/2 tsp of cider yeast to the growler, and topped them both off with a bung and an airlock. I’m happy to report that my perry is bubbling away next to the small amount of apple cider fermenting with wild yeast. I’m so anxious to try them both, the wild cider and the perry! I sure hope my perry will taste as amazing as the Swedish perry I drank all those years ago….


Making Mead

I am on a quest to make a mead that my husband will like…. and that I will like too. I know a lot of mead makers, but the sad truth is that most meads are too hot, meaning that there are too many phenols and they overpower the subtilties of the honey resulting in drinks that taste more like fingernail polish remover than the drink of the gods. If you are a mead maker and you are insulted, I mean no disrespect – I’m just being honest. Now let’s talk about the happiness that is mead.

I made my first mead last January in honor of a dear friend who had passed away last year. Ken Stout made some of the most amazing meads I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Ken was like a mad scientist in the kitchen on brew days, throwing random amounts of various spices or fruits in his mead must. Nothing was ever measured nor written down, and no two batches ever came out the same. Once he gave me his basic recipe. I took that recipe and made a gallon of mead from a random wildflower honey I got at the grocery store. The mead came out tasting like fingernail polish remover. It is sitting in a wine rack aging now. I don’t know what Ken the Meadmeister did that made his mead so darned good and I guess I never will. Hopefully after a year or so of aging the phenols will dissipate and it will taste nice, but in the meantime I decided to try something different.

Some friends of mine up in North Carolina make lovely, sweet mead in large quantities that they share at various events we go to sometimes. I called my buddies to get some advice. The first thing they told me was to not bother boiling the must – just mix your honey and water then toss in the rest of the ingredients. The second thing that makes their mead special is that they add tea leaves to the must – it helps clear the mead. And finally, they stop the fermentation after six weeks by adding crushed Campden tablets. By leaving many of the fermentable sugars in their mead it results in the delicate sweetness of their meads.

I tried their method with a local wildflower honey from a source I trust. While that was fermenting I heard Ken Shramm, champion mead maker extraordinaire, interviewed on the Basic Brewing podcast. He had lots of great advice and so I decided to read his book The Compleat Meadmaker in an effort to make the elusive great mead. I learned that two of the things I had read in recipes and had seen people do can have negative effects on the overall flavor of mead: boiling the must and using the wrong type of yeast.  There are lots of other little things he talks about in the book and if you are seriously interested in mead making you really must read it yourself.

My second batch, the unboiled, wildflower mead, came out tasting okay. It was ready to bottle by six weeks without using Campden tablets to stop the fermentation. It still had a bit of a phenol flavor, but was much better than my first attempt. One of the things that Mr. Schramm recommended to make a good wine great was to oak it. I happend to have some untoasted French oak chips, so I put 1/4 cup of them in a muslin bag and let it sit in the mead a few days. Since the chips have more surface area touching the mead than a barrel would have, it only took a few days for the mead to take on a slight oak flavor. I am happy with that mead, but I still wanted something better.

My hubby and I decided to up our yeast game. Until around May of this year we had been using relatively cheap, dry yeasts for our beer, wine, cider, and mead. So we did some research and went to our local home brew store with a laundry list of yeasts we wanted to try, mostly from White Labs or Wyeast. For mead and wine I ended up with White Labs WLP720 Sweet Mead/Wine yeast.  The main difference between the dry yeasts and the liquid yeasts is that the liquid ones are live, active cultures.

For all my little experiments I only brew one gallon at a time. I really don’t want to spend a tremendous amount of money on something that ends up tasting nasty, so one gallon batches suit me fine, at least until I figure out what works best. I didn’t want to use the whole tube of my fancy new yeast on one gallon of mead (it can ferment up to five gallons), so I split it between a single variety mead must (using purple starthistle honey) and a gallon of blueberry wine (using organic berries we had picked at a local farm). Using another bit of advice from Mr. Schramm’s book, I made a yeast starter and let the yeast multiply for 24 hours before pitching it in the mead and wine.  This allows the yeast to multiply and boosts the little critters’ ability to eat up the fermentable sugars and turn them into alcohol.

My blueberry wine was ready to bottle after six or seven weeks, but my mead lingered on actively fermenting. After two months I decided it was time to at least rack the mead off of the sediment. We tasted it and I must say, it is really good! The flavor of the honey is still perceptible with a slight citrus flavor and  no phenol flavor or aromas. Eureka!!!

But how to stop the fermentation? I could go with the Campden tablet thing, but I really didn’t want to add chemicals to this delicate mead. Then I remembered that a friend of mine in Charleston told me that he used sunshine to stop his mead fermentation. Anything you read about brewing or fermenting always includes a line about keeping your precious ferments away from light. I decided to give it a try and it worked!

Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine
Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine

I left the mead out on my deck all day yesterday to soak up the South Carolina sun. It is still nice and warm here and the mead may have gotten up to 90 degrees or so. It was still fermenting away most of the day. Every once in a while I would go by and shake the jug a little to help degas the mead. Then around dark I brought it inside. We have an opossum that visits once in a while and I wouldn’t want him tempted by this jug of liquid gold. This morning I got up thinking I would set it outside again today, but when I looked at the airlock the liquid had gotten sucked back into the chamber closest to the mead. I’ve only ever seen that happen when fermentation is completely finished. So yea for sunshine!!!

The mead still isn’t clear. I had added tea leaves in the beginning, but it is still cloudy. My first couple of meads were clear by this point. So I just added another tea bag to the mead and 1/4 cup of French oak chips. Hopefully I’ll be bottling it in a couple of days!