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Kumys - horse milk

It may not seem the most obvious of alcoholic beverages but fermented mare's milk is a Kyrgyz speciality and a much-loved tipple throughout the country. Kumys is made by storing mare's milk in a specially made and smoke-cleaned container, a chinach, for a day or two, before it is mixed with fresh milk and allowed to ferment in a warm spot. This is then churned in a special cylindrical wooden vessel called a pishpek to produce a mildly alcoholic drink with a high lactic acid content. The finished product is traditionally stored in anchor-shaped leather bottles called kookor, although in reality it often gets no further than a bucket from which it is decanted for use. Kumys keeps for just a few days before it goes off completely and so its manufacture only takes place at those times of year when mares are actively lactating.

As a by-product of horse rearing, kumys is very much a product of the Kyrgyz jailoo and in season it is widely sold from yurts at road sides to willing customers who rate the drink far higher than modern upstarts such as imported Russian beer or Coca-Cola.

The health promoting properties of kumys have long been established, both in Kyrgyz folklore and by 19th-century Russian scientists who firmly believed in the drink's restorative properties and used it to treat a variety of diseases. Both Maxim Gorky and Lev Tolstoy took kumys rest cures at Russian sanatoria in the late 19th century and Anton Chekov, who had long suffered from tuberculosis, attended a kumys cure resort for a period in 1901, although in his case he was not cured. News of the miracle cure spread far beyond Russia's shores, and in 1877 a treatise was published in the USA that extolled the health-giving virtues of the drink (The Great Russian Remedy for Wasting, Debilitating and Nervous Diseases), which dubbed the product 'Milk Champagne'.

Despite what some Kyrgyz might claim, kumys is found not only in Kyrgyzstan but also throughout the upland areas of the central Asian region. It has also been popular in Mongolia since time immemorial, where it no doubt accompanied the horseback armies of Genghis Khan on their plundering attacks throughout the region.

Indeed, it would appear that the drinking of kumys has been around for as long as man has had an association with horses. Hippocrates is said to have declared it to be a drink 'of longevity, joy and mental agility' and Herodotus in his 5th-century BC chronicle, Histories, describes the Scythian processing of mare's milk, The Flemish Franciscan monk William of Rubruck, who travelled through the central Asian region in the 13th century, described the affect of kumys thus: 'it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine'. In actual fact, kumys is not particularly intoxicating, having an average alcohol content of just 2%. Nevertheless, it is an acquired taste for most Westerners and drinking kumys can sometimes have a deleterious effect on the unprepared, making those unused to it become suddenly nauseous.

The art of preparing koumiss is of Mongolian origin. Skin is an ideal recipient in which to store fermenting liquids. The hide has been smoke-tanned, and the beverage fizzes like a new Swiss wine. A third of yesterday's milk is always mixed with the new milk: then it is allowed to settle in the warm temperature of the yurt before it is churned.   

Mares' milk is the only milk that does not clot during fermentation. During the first six hours koumiss is alcoholic and then it turns into lactic acid.

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy