A Cow in Exchange for a Kombucha Culture

The Triumphant March of Kombucha
Kombucha's Ever-increasing Popularity

© Günther W. Frank

A Cow in exchange for Kombucha

The use of the Kombucha tea mushroom, thought to have originated in the far east, penetrated some time ago into Russia. At the time of the First World War, use of the Kombucha mushroom spread further westward. Russian and German POWs seem to have played a significant role in its dissemination. By the mid-twenties, this tea mushroom was already widespread in Germany as a home and folk remedy. Dr. Harms (1927) remarked that, in some parts of Germany, for example in the Westphalian industrial region, the tea mushroom was already widely used. "The mushroom is eagerly sought after in certain circles, and is gladly passed on to others". In the inter-war years, the tea mushroom found wide distribution in Germany, and was sold in pharmacies under a number of fanciful names such as "Mo-Gu"' or "Fungojapon".

We have reports from Poland about the Kombucha mushroom dating from World War I. Waldeck (1927) mentions that, during the war, a polish pharmacist with whom he had been billeted had prepared for him a mild yet promptly effective laxative drink - with the help of an esoteric Russian home remedy called "miracle mushroom", "Volga mushroom" or "Tea-Kvass mushroom". What follows is an excerpt from his entertaining original report:

"It was during the World War, in 1915. I was lying in my quarters in a pharmacy in Russian Poland. Since I was plagued by stubborn constipation - the fault of head field rations - I sought out my host (who spoke good German but was rather taciturn) and asked him to make me a preparation of Rhizinus oil, for which I would pay him. The pharmacist replied that he didn't have a single gram of this remedy left in his inventory, because the military authorities had requisitioned his entire stock. When I then asked him whether he could give me some other kind of mild, harmless laxative, he first stared at me sharply and appraisingly for a while, then told me in a furtive whisper that if I could procure some tea, sugar and cognac or rum, he would brew me a sure-fire "miracle potion". Full of anticipation, I produced the requested items from my field pack.

The pharmacist poured a liquor glassful from my cognac bottle, took from my tea and sugar supply a tablespoon of each; all of this went into a rather unclean-looking teapot, out of which he then poured me a medium-large medicine glassful. When he noticed how very dubiously I was inspecting the cloudy, tea-like fluid, he poured himself a liquor glassful and, with evident relish, gulped down its brown contents.

To my curious question as to what this potion might be concocted of, he merely replied, "Miracle mushroom!" When I then asked what kind of extraordinary mushroom that might be, the pharmacist retorted roguishly, "It's a secret!" He told me to drink a half cup of this potion every morning and evening.

Back in my room, I sipped cautiously this Russian miracle mushroom potion". It had a somewhat wine-like alcoholic aroma and a by no means unpleasant sweet-sour taste. I would surely have consumed it with greater gusto, were it not for its murky appearance, and if it weren't also for the daily warnings at that time in the posted orders of the day concerning typhus and cholera infection. Nevertheless, I obediently choked down a half-cup of it.

Next morning, the hoped-for effect - mild, emancipating, and without the stomach discomfort that accompanies the use of other laxative preparations - made its appearance. During the next few days, I was able to give two of my comrades relief, who were suffering as I had been, with the help of the aforementioned "magic potion".

On the day before we were scheduled to move out to the east, my host bolted in a state of extreme agitation, into my room. Austrian soldiers were going to requisition his last cow, which he had anxiously been hiding behind his herb chamber. I intervened and managed to see to it that the soldiers - who were unable to produce any papers entitling them to confiscate anything whatsoever - left the pharmacist and his emaciated cow alone.

In exchange, I required that the pharmacist reveal the real name and composition of. the so-called magic potion. His joy at being allowed to keep his cow loosened the tongue of this normally closemouthed man. He told me that it was an obscure Russian home remedy, the so-named Miracle or Volga or Tea-Kvass mushroom. It is prepared much like the well-known, somewhat tart and easily digestible kefir drink, which is made, using kefir kernels and milk, by "inoculating" the milk with the mucous-gelatinous kefir-fungus culture; similarly, one simply transfers a little bit from the mucous mass of the miracle mushroom into sweetened tea. This is not transformed on the spot - as he had earlier led me to believe - but rather after several days of fermentative activity in the liquid which he had given me. Since he himself was a habitual constipation sufferer, he always kept some of it at hand, especially since it is also good against all sorts of maladies and, much like kefir milk or yogurt, successfully wards off the afflictions of age with its naturally formed acids, and thus helps ensure a long life. In the small circle of insiders, the miracle-or tea-mushroom, as it was known, had achieved enormous popularity.

Out of gratitude for my vigorous intervention on his behalf, the pharmacist gave me, next morning as we were pulling out, a small broad-necked flask containing a tough mucous mass. This was the tea mushroom culture, with which I could prepare as much "miracle potion" as I wanted as often as I liked."

And that is Dr. Waldeck's report, to which I should like to add the following comment: tea, sugar and the Kombucha tea mushroom are the required ingredients for the Kombucha drink so highly praised in folk medicinal circles. The Polish pharmacist then added cognac or rum to it, which is by no means necessary. You, the reader, have it easier than Dr. Waldeck did back then: you can obtain a Kombucha mushroom with which to make your own delicious as well as healthful Kombucha Tea, without having to help a pharmacist retain possession of his cow. For more information read the Kombucha book "Kombucha - Healthy beverage and natural remedy from the Far East" by Günther W. Frank. If you would like to know where to get this book in the US and Canada, click here. If you are having difficulties locating a source in your country, you may contact the author directly: frank@kombu.de.

Don't be like the Polish pharmacist and treat Kombucha as if it were your own personal secret: if you have good results with the Kombucha tea, then you should consider it a moral obligation to tell others about it. There's an ancient saying from China, the presumed homeland of the Kombucha tea mushroom, that says: "Mutual assistance enriches even the poor."

Günther W. Frank
Genossensch.-Str. 10
75217 Birkenfeld im Schwarzwald

© Copyright Günther W. Frank 1996. Permission is granted to freely copy this document in electronic form, or in print if the publication is distributed without charge, provided it is copied in its entirety without modification and appropriate credits are included. On the WWW, however, you must link here rather than copy it. Any other use requires explicit permission by the author.

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