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Mongolia by proxy #4

by Bernard H. Wood on March 1, 2013

Trips and Tales (Part 102): Something about mare’s milk

Now here’s a thing that I have been hearing about over and over again since looking – from a distance – into Mongolian culture. MB has mentioned it too: you just can’t get away from fermented mare’s milk. OK, I don’t really do dairy; but I am interested nonetheless, so I quiz MB some more.

The first thing that strikes me is the seasonal aspect to this strange brew. He tells me that in the fall, the drink has quite a kick (no pun intended), and is something “like beer”. Yes, it’s alcoholic and there appears to be several permutations on the same basic theme. I deduce afterwards that the particular strain that MB is referring to is probably kumis – with several deviations on the spelling depending upon whom you ask.

Processing mare's milkMB informs me that a mare – with foal – is milked every two hours, and a quick skirt around the web throws up anecdotes on the relative trickiness of the job: requiring a bucket hung over your thigh, a foal to start the milking off, and to be kept subsequently in contact with the mare to keep the process going.

The raw product is then deposited in a sack of oiled-up cow skin (OK in modern times that could also be a plastic drum, etc.), with a “live” culture of the stuff already resident – in a process that appears to have at least some parallels with the way we produce live yoghurt here in the West.

The concoction is subsequently agitated with an implement resembling a large spud-masher, in order to disperse the resident culture and further the fermentation/conversion process. This can be quite a lengthy ordeal in itself. MB speaks of 45 minute stints of agitation and 1000′s of stirring repetitions (across several days) to ensure the chemical reaction delivers perfect results. Those are judged to-taste of course. And, when it’s ready, apparently it is consumed or decanted straight from the sack, revealing a creamy, foamy beer-like brew with an acidic after-taste. The more the fermentation process is allowed to continue, the greater the kick apparently.

In this way it seems that quite potent brews can be formulated, enjoyed by the hardiest of locals and unleashed mischievously upon unsuspecting, game tourists – no doubt to much native amusement.

So from the middle of June until early October, the milking season continues, with up to 1200 kg of milk produced by a single mare. This is split roughly 50-50 between foals and humans, with seemingly enough to go around.

Most of us here in the UK have only cow milk to compare – perhaps goat (again: no thanks), and in contrast horse milk, I am told, has less fat and protein but 40% more lactose in its native form. During the length of the fermentation process, the lactose is increasingly converted into ethanol, carbon dioxide and lactic acid, resulting in a more palatable brew with potentially very low lactose content.

There are cautions against taking mare’s milk raw, where serious intestinal problems may result even with the ingestion of less than 200ml of the stuff – not least because of it’s highly (dangerously?) potent laxative qualities and (in non-fermented form) the super-high lactose content.

So, if you fancy trying some – yes, there can be etiquette issues here on Ger visits – then you’d better know your capabilities, sensitivities and options beforehand. Also, of course, as there are no EU kumis standards, then it would be fair to expect differing tastes, fermentations and potency amongst the Mongolian home-brew fraternity. Quite an adventure then.

Bottoms up.

[Photo by jrubinic]


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