An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: A Few Words About Yogurt

Posted on February 8, 2015



It is a question that has plagued humanity since humanity was in a position to be plagued, and a question that keeps my chin full of little scratch marks on a frequent basis: just why are there so many Bulgarians living to the age of 100? Well, it turns out that this question no longer plagues humanity and has actually been answered, something that could have saved my poor chin the ignominy of this ridiculous pubic fluff that sits on it.

The answer, my esteemed brethren, is yogurt. It’s that simple. I could probably just end this essay here I guess, and leave everyone safe in the knowledge that eating Bulgarian yogurt means you’ll live to be old and (I assume) wise. Of course, this isn’t what is going to happen. Who discovered this fact? What led to the discovery? Can I bluff my way through more science? The answer to all of these questions is yes, although that doesn’t answer either of the first two and is most likely a lie for the third.

The man in question is (was) a young chap called Stamen Grigorov. Stamen was born on October 27th 1878 in a little village called Studen Izvor (90km or so from Sofia), which translates as ‘Cold Spring’. Inviting. It was in Sofia that our hero went to high school, before finding himself whisked off to Montpellier to complete his secondary education. A budding physician and microbiologist, Grigorov then zoomed off to Geneva. It was here that all of his dreams would come true. I say this on the assumption that your everyday microbiologist dreams of this sort of stuff.

Under the tutelage of Professor Massol, Grigorov was an impressive student. It was a rather exciting time for microbiological discoveries, and it wouldn’t take long before Grigorov got himself on the microbiological map, if such a thing exists. In 1903, the Russian biologist Ilya Mechnikov published a paper on the subject of ageing, believing that it would (and should) be possible to cure humanity of getting old. Part of his research took him to Bulgaria, a land famous for its high number of old codgers. The stars were about to align to for our hero, Gospodin Grigorov.

That man Massol would provide the impetus, suggesting that Grigorov dedicate his studies to the microflora of Bulgarian yogurt (or kiselo mlyako, to give it the native term). It’s almost as if Massol knew what was happening, and was pushing his student towards this prize. The prize wasn’t exactly nearby however, and it took Grigorov approximately bloody ages to hit gold. He eventually found a rod that caused the milk to curdle, a rod that wasn’t naturally found in the human intestinal tract. This rod somehow formed colonies in the intestines, which is a sentence that I do not understand. A name was needed of course, and a name was chosen. Step forward Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacillus. Scientists don’t really understand the art of catchy names.

Here’s a list of things I almost understand however; Bulgarian yogurt is choc-full of lactose, proteins and vitamins. The rod that Grigorov discovered is only found in Bulgaria, as in other climates the bacteria degenerates and ceases to be a thing. The Bulgarian relationship with their yogurt goes all the way back to forever ago, or the Thracians to be exact. Stockbreeders at the time would put sheep’s milk in lambskin bags around their waists during their journeys. For reasons. The very word ‘yogurt’ is thought to derive from the Thracian words for ‘thick’ and ‘milk’, a fact that I can’t deny or prove but am going to go with nonetheless. The first noticeable evidence of the healing properties of the yogurt were seen in the grand recovery of King Francis I (France). Stricken with tummy bugs, he called a Jewish doctor from Constantinople to see what he could do. The doctor fed him fermented milk-turned-yogurt, and voila, all was right with the king’s guts.

This fine Bulgarian yogurt can help treat various conditions, among them tuberculosis, ulcers, fatigue, stomach problems and even some gynaecological issues. It reduces cholesterol, increases calcium and also produces cancer-suppressing compounds. I’m not a scientist (I’m barely a writer), but this list of vitamins found in Bulgarian yogurt surely means it’s good for you. Here we go: B1, B2, C, A, D, E, PP and B12. I was only really aware of vitamins A-D, and even then because of Ribena. It would seem this yogurt is better for you than Ribena.

Back to Grigorov. He published his thesis, snappily titled Contribution to the Pathogenesis of Appendicitus and soon received the title ‘Doctor of Medical Sciences – Bacteriology – Internal and Thoracic Diseases’. Massol wrote to Mechnikov telling him of his student and his discovery, and Grigorov became a microbiologist in-demand. He lectured briefly in Paris, and was offered Massol’s post in Geneva when the great man called it a day. Grigorov declined the position however, preferring to dedicate his work and life to his homeland. He headed back to Bulgaria, where he became a district physician and the manager of the hospital in the city of Tron. Sure, he lacked lab equipment that wasn’t shitty, but his chunky brain led to various other discoveries. He also pinpointed two other bacteria, Streptobacillus and Streptoccus thermophiles. I don’t know what those words mean. Oh, and he also discovered the first vaccine against tuberculosis. Yeah, that too.

I prefer Ribena.

Stamen Grigorov died on October 27th 1945, as World War Two decided that everyone had suffered enough and left the planet in peace. More importantly he died on his birthday, putting him in league with Ingrid Bergman and William Shakespeare. Fine company, one would agree. I’m sure both Bergman and Shakespeare enjoyed the healing benefits of fine yogurt, except Shakespeare because he’s from the long long ago.