If the cultures in my kitchen could talk, they’d likely tell tales of their travels — both where they’ve come from and where they’ve gone. Of course, they can’t talk, so I thought I’d tell their tales instead.
Water kefir was my starter culture, so to speak (it’s pictured at top). It was the first culture I tried when I enrolled in the GNOWFGLINS Fundamentals eCourse in 2010. I ordered the grains from Cultures for Health, which was located in Oregon at the time (it’s now in South Dakota). The water kefir grains weathered the trip to my home in Arizona just fine.
After rehydrating them, I put them to work, and they’ve been brewing on my countertop nonstop ever since. As they’ve multiplied, I’ve shared them with at least four local friends — one of whom moved to central California a couple of years ago and took them along. For another friend, I actually dehydrated some grains so that she could take them to Singapore last summer to share with her family there. Apparently, they rehydrated perfectly and kept producing for at least a month or two.
Water kefir grains possible distance traveled: more than 11,000 miles.
Sourdough was the next culture I acquired, and its story is perhaps my favorite. Named the Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter, the original wild-caught yeasts supposedly traveled west on a wagon train from Missouri in 1847 with a family who eventually settled in eastern Oregon. One of the family’s descendants, Carl Griffiths, learned to use the starter while working at a family sheep camp at age 10.
Carl grew up and practiced law — and sourdough baking — in Oregon, Utah and California before retiring in Washington state. Carl was famous for giving away some of the sourdough starter to anyone who asked — or who sent him a self-addressed envelope. He died in 2000, but his friends have kept his sourdough legacy going.
Intrigued by the story, I sent away for some of the starter just as I enrolled in the GNOWFGLINS Sourdough eCourse in 2010. After mailing $1 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to a volunteer in Maryland, I received a small envelope containing about 1 teaspoon of dehydrated starter from another volunteer in an unknown location. I rehydrated it and have been baking with it regularly ever since.
I’ve also played a part in sharing Carl’s legacy, giving away starter to many local friends — two of whom have moved to California, where they continue to bake with it.
Sourdough starter possible distance traveled: at least 7,500 miles — possibly more.
Kombucha came next in my kitchen — and somewhat unexpectedly. I’d been considering brewing it, but I was still getting the hang of maintaining my other two cultures. When a local friend offered me an extra kombucha scoby in 2011 — plus some Oolong tea from her native Taiwan to brew it in — I couldn’t resist. Although the process was a bit different from brewing water kefir, I quickly fell into the routine of caring for both cultures and enjoying both of the resulting probiotic beverages.
My original scoby flourished for two years, and as it grew I shared an extra scoby with two local friends, one of whom — you guessed it — moved to California and took it with her.
Early this year, however, something went wrong, and my kombucha developed mold for the first time ever. I tried to salvage it, but the culture wasn’t strong enough to come back.
Fortunately, Wardee rescued me when she visited Arizona this spring, bringing along part of her scoby from Oregon. I started over and have once again been successfully brewing kombucha ever since. I’ve shared some of the new scoby with two local friends — including one who uses the continuous-brew method.
Kombucha scoby possible distance traveled (including tea from Taiwan): about 13,500 miles.
I’ve dabbled in dairy kefir using cultures from local friends, but I don’t currently have or maintain any grains for making it. (I’m spoiled because I have a farming friend who milks goats and regularly makes and shares dairy kefir made with their raw milk.)
And aside from the whey I occasionally drip for lacto-fermenting vegetables, most of the other cultures I’ve tried (piima yogurt, Caldwell’s vegetable starter) have come from Cultures for Health.
I’m not sure what I’ll try next. But maybe a mesophilic culture for making sour cream. Whatever it is, it will probably have travel tales of its own to tell someday!
What about your cultures? Where have they come from, and where have they gone?
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