Looking for Bulgarian Yogurt? Try Japan

When Francis I of France suffered a stomach disease, a renowned doctor was summoned from Constantinople, soon arriving in Paris in unusual company – a flock of about 40 sheep. The good doctor got to work fermenting the sheep milk and offered it as a remedy. The King made a swift recovery.

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Homemade yogurt in a bowl with wooden spoon
The celebrated Bulgarian yogurt, a staple of the region's cuisine, has gained worldwide fame in far-reaching places like Japan. Photo: Fortyforks / Adobe Stock

This, according to some sources, is how Bulgarian yogurt, known for its healing properties, made its international debut back in the 16th century. But today, if your idea about the process of making that same yogurt includes recipes passed down from generation to generation, and happy cows grazing on pristine green pastures, think again. Bulgaria has been losing its grasp on the good old yogurt for years. What happened?

Yogurt consumption is hardly a novelty in this region. It has been proven that abundant yogurt consumption, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, slows down aging. In 1905 in Geneva, at the age of 27, Bulgarian-born microbiologist Stamen Grigorov studied the Bulgarian yogurt and found that the cause of fermentation is due to a one-rod line and one spherical bacteria. In recognition, the strain was called ‘lactobacillus bulgaricus‘ by the scientific community.

Later, in the 1950s, Bulgaria patented a specific blend of bacterial strains in an effort to market “official Bulgarian yogurt.” Sold in mason jars before it was hip, the yogurt was simply called “kiselo mliako,” or sour milk. No brand name, no label. For Bulgarians used to putting yogurt on everything, this wasn’t necessary.

From Bulgaria to the shores of Japan

In the 1970s, Bulgarian yogurt embarked on its most famous international journey when the Japanese Meiji company decided to use Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Meiji’s Plain Yogurt was received with initial reservations by consumers. After numerous improvements, today, the Meiji Company is the largest producer of Bulgarian yogurt in Japan, enjoying a 41% share in the yogurt market (as of April 2020-March 2021) and selling its products in Thailand, Singapore, and China.

But sadly, the last few years in Bulgaria have seen the quality of the local yogurt dropping. Foreign live starter cultures, other than those from two common Bulgarian yogurt strains of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus), are being used to speed up production. In such cases, the combination of milk powder and stabilizers brings the product closer to dairy cream.

Bulgarian yogurt and its substitutes

But the ‘substitutes’ achieve a specific effect. The milk is white and smooth. It also does not spill when the container is turned over and retains its consistency when poked with a spoon.

However, many customers are unaware that in order to achieve this desired effect, some tinkering with the original recipe is needed. Other cons of the foreign live starter cultures are that they do not have the same health properties as the traditional lactic acid bacteria.

“The use of substitutes has nothing to do with Bulgarian yogurt,” says Prof. Galin Ivanov, Vice-Rector of the University of Food Technologies in Plovdiv. “This is already a separate category, an imitation product.”

For those dedicated to replicating the taste of the original Bulgarian yogurt, the usage of milk powder is a dealbreaker. Further on, producers homogenize the milk in the process, which accounts for its silky surface. Another no for those in the know, as the homogenization process eliminates the little buttery parts that the old recipes call for.

Staying true to tradition

“We claim our products to be genuine because we do not apply homogenization. The milk, our raw material is good. It comes from organic farms in the mountains around Troyan in Central Bulgaria,” explains engineer Toma Bayatev, chief technologist at Harmonika, the go-to brand for fans of store-bought organic food in Bulgaria.

Bayat tells us that his company is committed to replicating as much as possible the old ways of making homemade yogurt, only in factory conditions. The company’s yogurt doesn’t have the stamp of approval from the Bulgarian Institute for Standardization, which sets the standards for producing yogurt, as it finds them outdated.

A recent study by Statista shows that Germany is the largest yogurt producer in the EU, with a 23% share in 2021. For comparison, Bulgaria had a 2% production share. Boyan Iliev, CEO of LB Bulgaricum, the state-owned company handling the export of live starter cultures for yogurt production, estimates that as many as 24 million Japanese customers reach for their Bulgarian yogurt every day. Back in Bulgaria, the average person consumes a modest 2.5 kilograms of yogurt per month.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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