A fresh dairy case in a modern American supermarket isn’t a place where you find much variety. It pretty much contains your standard selection of milks and creams plus a couple of fermented products like sour cream, cottage cheese and yogurt. Sure, every so often in a specialty store something pops up on a shelf to remind us there’s more to the fresh dairy life out there. A little crème fraîche, maybe. But by and large most dairy cases nowadays are, how shall I put it, homogenous.
That’s why it surprises most people to learn that the world of fresh dairy was once not unlike the world of cheese, bread or wine in that it contained hundreds of different kinds of fresh fermented foods and drinks, most of them local, the products of hundreds of years of dairying tradition. What were these things? Yogurts, kefirs, sour milks and creams, some of them smooth and runny, others firm and chunky, ranging in flavor from refreshing to tart to gamey to alcoholic, even carbonated. Yes indeed, Northern and Central Europe, Scandinavia and Western Asia were once a hotbeds of fresh fermented dairy activity, though the vast majority of that tradition is gone and forgotten now.
What created all the variety? The answer in a nutshell: microbes. Even here in the US there was once much greater variation in the consistency and flavor of milk and butter, which had to do in part with the different micro-critters that inhabited different areas (animal diets and processing also played a part). Once upon a time, local dairies left their milk and cream out to sour naturally, a process that could involve up to several dozen different kinds of different-tasting lactic acid bacteria (Lactococci and the more diverse Lactobacilli). Nowadays, however, for reasons of expediency, cost and safety, most dairying operations use only a few different types of fermenting bacteria to do various jobs, all of which are cultured in labs.
Eurasian immigrants back in the day would never have stood for such a plain vanilla approach to dairying, of course, which is why dairymen headed for the New World would often soak pieces of cloth in their local dairy cultures, dry them, and bring them along on the boat (not unlike the way bakers were known to carry starters). Just another way people coming to the New World tried to bring a little piece of home along on the adventure. Sadly, it was not to last. The good news is that thanks to the internet and some renewed interest in fresh fermented dairy products, some of that diversity is starting to come back.