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Nature · Economy

Ash yoghurt is a new international star

May 19th, 2015
in:Nature, Economy
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:ash yohgurt, fermented milk, Food Cheese Fair, pastoralist, preservation technique, Slow Food International

Members of a pastoralist community in Kenya have perfected the art of preserving their cow and goat milk, by making traditional yoghurt and then adding ash from a traditional tree believed to have preservative traits.

The venture has caught the world’s attention as a classic example of low cost preservation of perishables and has seen the pastoralists travel miles away to meet respected food producers in food fairs. It has however not always been this rosy. The pastoralists who keep livestock as a source of income traditionally struggled with surplus milk, as everyone had livestock, which would eventually go bad. But an age old tradition passed from their fore fathers became the spark that inspired what has now become a model preservation technique being replicated by surrounding communities.

After milking and based on the availability of milk, a large quantity of the milk is prepared at once or alternatively small quantities are poured into a prepared gourd, resembling an oval shaped tank, on a daily basis until it is full. The fermented milk provides the culture for the new milk and accelerates the process of ripening. The milk is left to settle in a quiet place.

Once it is coagulated, the watery part of the milk that remains after the formation of curds is removed and, subsequently, some more fresh milk is added on top. This process is repeated until the container is full. On average the entire process takes a week. As this happens, the trunk and the bark of the native Cromwo tree, which has traditionally acted as a disinfectant and preservative, are burned to get charcoal that is crushed into powder. The powder is then sprinkled on the fermented milk, giving it a distinctive aromatic flavor and speckled grey color.

And with the innovation pointing researchers to possible frontiers of preservation across various perishables, the pastoralists have received attention and support from Slow Food international, an international movement dedicated to providing alternatives to fast foods by preserving traditional and regional food and encouraging the farming of plants, seeds and livestock that are in line with local ecosystems.

The group has worked closely with the pastoralists to monitor livestock feed and steer the pastoralists off conventional feeds, aware that the quality of milk will be determined by what the pastoralists feed the livestock on.

Cows, for example, are only allowed to feed on natural pasture with supplementary organic feeds like millet and sweet potatoes, with napier grass being allowed once in a while.

Members of Slow Food International from Kenya, having graduated from the International University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy founded by Slow Food, have trained the pastoralists on good livestock keeping practices including feed management and veterinary services.

Such meticulous details have seen Slow Food connect farmers to the international markets. A journey that starts under the humble trees in the far-flung arid West Pokot area of Kenya, culminates in the glamorous hotels and food fairs in Turin Italy, and has now attracted a fan base of curious food specialists globally. It’s a journey guided by discipline and commitment. Before any milk can be processed for sale, stringent rules are set for anyone interested, including providing a statement of activities specifying the location of their farm and the history of milk production of the cattle. This is then submitted to the Slow Food Western Kenya Office and to the pastoralist group for approval.

Once satisfied with the production standards, the milk producer is issued with a certificate declaring the yoghurt is produced in accordance with the required rules. In case of failure to comply with the standards, the milk producer is penalized, with a special committee set up to review, based on the severity of the case, disciplinary action against the producer. This may include suspension of the mark of quality, which is key in selling the milk to the export market.

Peter Namianya, a graduate at the International University of Gastronomic Sciences, who has worked with the pastoralists including accompanying them to the Cheese fair in Italy, is very strict about quality. “International buyers are very strict about what they buy. That is why right from milk fermentation to the sprinkling of the ash, we have to be meticulous and ensure that the milk producers understand why we are doing this. We are glad they know the importance and it has paid off for them,” he said.

And pay it has. The ash yoghurt has been on display at the Slow Food Cheese Fair, a biennial event in Italy that brings together cheese makers and cheese lovers globally. Since 2011 the pastoralists have been invited to showcase their unique milk while meeting prospective buyers. “It has been an incredible journey. Even as the world has changed and adapted to modern techniques, we hang on to our tradition. It is good to see the world loving and embracing our milk preservation techniques,” said Pkosing Kamket, one of the active farmers who has had his ash yoghurt showcased at the Fair.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author
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