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The secret of Bulgarian yogurt

Rayna Breuer
November 8, 2023

Bacteria to optimize digestion and extend life? Here's the story of an ancient superfood and what makes it so special: Bulgarian yogurt.

Homemade chilled tarator with ingredients on wooden rustic background.
Bulgarian cuisine is unthinkable without yogurt: Tarator is a cold yogurt soup with cucumbers, dill and a handful of walnutsImage: Oksana Shufrych/Zoonar/picture alliance

Narrow, winding roads pass through thick forests cloaked in heavy fog that is both cool and seemingly impenetrable. The drive to northwestern Bulgaria is not for those prone to carsickness. But though the area may be one of the economically poorest in the European Union, it's rich in stories, like that of goatherd Dimitar Vitanov.

"I'm actually a bookkeeper by trade, but I decided to help my father on our little goat farm here in the village. It's less stressful and hectic in the countryside than in the city, although the work is physically more demanding. But I have considerably fewer worries, I have peace and quiet, I feel better — I can't really describe it," says Vitanov, who is in his mid-40s. He says he and his father have 130 goats.

On the trail of an ancient superfood: Bulgarian yogurt

When Vitanov isn't making cheese and other goat milk products in his small dairy, he spends the day with the goats on surrounding meadows. "Sometimes I take a little radio along," he says. "But sometimes I forget to take it, and then I spend the hours alone with nature, the animals, and that's it."

On some days, a neighbor from the village takes the goats out to graze while Dimitar Vitanov and his father make cheese — a white feta-like variety called Sirene and a yellow cheese called Kaschkaval. "We have to carry out the process in a very precise manner," says Vitanov, explaining each step of cheesemaking in careful and minute detail.

Every Wednesday, he drives to the capital Sofia, where a farmers' market is held in the city center. It's an effort that's paying off. "We can't keep up with demand for our products," says Vitanov. "People even come out to the farm to buy our products!"

He says their goat-milk yogurt is especially popular. The reason for that is simple, says Vitanov: "It helps you live longer and cures illness," he claims. But is that really true?

A man walking with a herd of goats in a field, hilly landscape in the background.
Finding peace in the mountains of northern BulgariaImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

Bulgaria's bacterial cultures 

So what makes Bulgarian yogurt so special? It lies in the tiny microorganisms, bacterial cultures, which occur naturally in milk and which are native, and specific, to Bulgaria.

In 1905, Bulgarian scientist Stamen Grigorov analyzed the composition of yogurt from his home country. He brought a traditional Bulgarian clay pot called rukatka, filled with homemade yogurt, from his village to his lab at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, to analyze it as part of his microbiology research. He soon isolated and identified the lactic acid bacterium responsible for allowing milk to ferment and become yogurt.

Black-and-white historical photo of Stamen Grigorov, in a WWI uniform.
Dr Stamen Grigorov, the discoverer of microorganisms in yogurtImage: gemeinfrei

Grigorov's research into the exact composition of yogurt was continued by the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Elie Metchnikoff, who was born in Kharkiv Oblast in what is now Ukraine. In his book, "The Prolongation of Life," published in 1908, Metchnikoff established a connection: Bulgarian farmers who consumed large amounts of this yogurt also tended to live longer.

That sealed the reputation of Bulgarian yogurt, which in the following decades enjoyed great popularity and rivaled other well-known yogurts, such as the one from Greece.

There's a fundamental difference between Greek and Bulgarian yogurt. Greek yogurt is put through a sieve, resulting in its creamy, mild consistency. The Bulgarian variety is tart and somewhat firm because it is not strained. Thus the whey, which contains high-quality protein and minerals, is preserved.

Historical portrait of Ilya Metschnikov.
Ilya Metschnikov made Bulgarian yogurt famousImage: EW/dap/picture-alliance

The yogurt is called "sour milk" in Bulgarian and is used in a variety of dishes — like tarator, a cold soup of yogurt and cucumbers or snezhanka, a kind of tzatziki. It can also be consumed as a refreshing drink diluted with water and salt, or just as is, spooned straight from the pot.

Gripped perhaps by a bit too much national pride, some Bulgarians even assert that yogurt was invented in Bulgaria, a claim that can't yet be proven. Was it the Thracians in the Balkans or nomadic Turkic peoples in Central Asia or the Persians who first made yogurt? Where or who first fermented milk in this manner is not known. There's no patent on it either.

The Bulgarians are apparently content with the fact that the microorganisms in yogurt that are said to improve digestion and strengthen the immune systems have been named after their country: Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

You can find out more about Bulgarian yogurt and the history of humanity's millennia-long relationship with milk in the DW podcast "Don't Drink the Milk," hosted by Rachel Stewart. It can be found on all popular podcast platforms and on the YouTube channel DW Podcasts.

This article was originally written in German.