Of Bulgarian yoghurt, “friendly” bacteria and the man who discovered it

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Bulgarian yoghurt may be famous all over the world but few people know who actually discovered lactobacillus bulgaricus – the “friendly” bacteria used in its making. In 1905, Dr. Stamen Grigorov described the lactic acid microorganism which causes milk to ferment. Born and raised in the country, the ninth of twelve children in the family – who would have thought that the little boy from Stouden Izvor village would end up in Montpellier and graduate science at the university there with honours? With the support of patriotically-minded Bulgarians he went to study in Geneva where his perspicacity was noticed by foremost bacteriologist Prof. Léon Massol. It was he who assigned Stamen Grigorov the task of studying the flora of Bulgarian yoghurt. At that same time, Nobel prize winner Prof. Ilya Mechnikov was looking into the causes of ageing and ascertained that the greatest number of centenarians were to be found in Bulgaria. Regrettably, this is no longer so. But can one of the reasons for this phenomenon be found in Bulgarian yoghurt?

“Many manufacturers prefer to use cheaper starter cultures of lower quality,“ says Yulia Grigorova, chair of the Dr. Stamen Grigorov foundation and his granddaughter. “In recent years many leading companies have been very careful about quality and have been manufacturing excellent yoghurt. Of course it tastes different, because they have to make it marketable, more durable and give it a certain thickness. Whereas homemade yoghurt does not have the same density or consistency but it is this kind of yoghurt that has an excellent effect on the body’s microflora. As to longevity, the drop in consumption of real yoghurt is not the only reason. Many Bulgarians opt to live in the country when they retire and with good reason – the air there is very different.”

Organic food is growing more and more popular abroad and Bulgarian yoghurt can be said to be the purest food in our lands. But here too, there are problems, says Yulia Grigorova:

“This sphere too leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately some of Bulgaria’s top researchers have gone to work at laboratories abroad. They work in Japan, in China, countries that have been successful on this market, not to mention the former Soviet republics. Interest in organic food has been growing worldwide but we have not been taking full advantage of all of yoghurt’s qualities. And sometimes researchers in other countries know more about it than their colleagues here, in Bulgaria.”

And one more interesting fact from Dr. Grigorov’s biography – by an odd confluence of events, his name has not gone down in history as the father of the tuberculosis vaccine. So, it was Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin who put their names down as the men who discovered it.

“Before his return to Bulgaria, Dr. Grigorov started work on tubercular cells and continued his research as head physician of the hospital in Trun,” Yulia Grigorova goes on to say. “In 1906 - three months before the two Frenchmen made their discovery – he created the vaccine but there was no institution in Bulgaria powerful enough to back him, so it was the other vaccine that gained popularity. What is more, senior medical staff in this country paid no heed to his research or the excellent results he obtained. That is the reason why he left for Milan where he hoped to have the vaccine approved. As a matter of fact, his vaccine is not just for prevention but also for treatment. Nowadays, researchers base their work on it.”

The 110th anniversary of Dr. Stamen Grigorov’s discovery was marked with a science conference held in Sofia and a yoghurt festival in the town of Trun. Locals displayed their homemade yoghurt and cheese, took part in a competition for best animal product food; for the children a quiz was organized with questions about the life and work of the prominent researcher. In the words of Trun’s mayor Stanislava Alexieva from now on the small town will be staking more and more on green tourism.

“In future we shall endeavor to have demonstrations of how yoghurt is made at the museum in Studen Izvor village and we shall combine them with rural tourism. With the help of the local people who are engaged in animal husbandry, we shall organize a yoghurt tour – showing visitors how it is made, from the milking to the ready product.”


English version: Milena Daynova


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