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In this photo essay we elaborate on artisanal dairying practices in the European Alps and Mongolia. By comparing these geographically distant dairying practices, we view milk fermentation as a multispecies, multidomain food ecology that links bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and humans in unbroken cycles of production and reproduction that have endured for millennia. We focus on how peasant dairy producers actively engage with microbial communities in form of their starter cultures, which carry locally specific values with them and form biosocial assemblages of heritage. Finally, we introduce the Dairy Cultures Ethnographic Database as an open access resource that documents local and comparative analyses of dairy practices, techniques, and embedded cultural frameworks.

Dairying is ancient. As a prehistoric technology, it first emerged more than 9,000 years ago in the Near East (Evershed et al. 2008) and spread with migrating herders and agropastoralists throughout much of Eurasia (Salque et al. 2013; Wilkin et al. 2020) and Africa (Bleasdale et al. 2021; Tishkoff et al. 2006). Over time, dairying practices have proliferated and diversified to form distinct culinary traditions around the world, contributing to foods as diverse as sbrinz and reblochon in the European Alps and aaruul or airag of the Mongolian steppe.1 Despite their geographic distance, these traditions nevertheless retain shared features and core elements that give clues to their common origins and to the biological constraints of transforming highly perishable milk into stable, storable dairy products, typically with the aid of microbial cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. This visual essay follows this transformation closely to show that dairying is more than an ordinary food technology. It is a multispecies, multidomain food ecology that links bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and humans in unbroken cycles of production and reproduction that have endured for millennia.

However, given the global distribution of these specific dairying traditions, it is difficult to observe and compare local practices and varieties of dairying. In accordance with Dunn et al. (2021), who argue that there is a strong need to establish comprehensive databases to compare the global and regional diversity of fermented foods and the practices connected to them, we here introduce the Dairy Cultures Ethnographic Database. Starting in 2017, we have conducted anthropological fieldwork in Mongolia and the European Alps, two regions with long-standing traditions of peasant dairy production. At (Reichhardt et al. 2021) we have established a database of audiovisual material including photographs and footage of dairy production, landscape and livestock documentation, folk songs, oral histories, and interviews, the latter of which are accompanied by transcriptions and translations. We aim to contribute to the broader movement of “open data” in the sciences, arts, and humanities. For diverse reasons, social and cultural anthropologists are particularly challenged in providing open access to raw data, and in some cases the safety of our interlocutors prohibits this approach altogether. Our work, however, which focuses on the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of food production, is less sensitive to these issues and provides a case study for how open ethnography and open data in the qualitative branches of the social sciences and humanities might develop. In this photo essay, we use the Dairy Cultures Ethnographic Database to explore selected connections and points of divergence between contemporary dairy production in Mongolia and the European Alps.

Dairying Diaries

Dairying days start early, both in Mongolia and the European Alps. Often, dairy women and men rise before dawn to milk animals, make fire, and prepare their microbial starter cultures. During milking (fig. 1), animals and humans engage in a close, sensory form of communication that is mediated by physical contact, vision, sound, and smell. In both places, milkers palpate the teats of their animals before starting to milk. This has a double purpose: the udder massage leads to the flow of milk and informs the milker whether the animal is healthy. A hot or hard udder indicates potential infections. Many milkers also examine the first few strokes of milk for blood or clots. In Europe, this milk is considered nonhygienic and discarded. Dairy animals, in turn, recognize their humans by their smell, touch, and sound.

Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 

Milking in Mongolia (left) and Switzerland (right). Credit: Björn Reichhardt (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

In Mongolia, pastoralists and their herds move between a number of seasonal pastures, following an annual cycle that is organized around the needs of both humans and animals: livestock transform grasses into milk and meat for food and dung for fuel, while herders manage and care for their animals’ health and safety (Fijn 2011). A central element of this cycle is the milking season, the lactation period of the dairy livestock, which lasts from May to November. In the area around Khatgal, a village in northern Mongolia’s Khövsgöl region, pastoralists mostly rely on the milk of their yaks, which are well accustomed to bitterly cold winds and long, icy winters. During the short summer months, they are milked once or twice a day in the cooler hours of the morning and evening.

In the European Alps, dairying has changed dramatically over the past century (fig. 2). Even in small-scale mountain farming, selective breeding has multiplied daily milk yields, and dairying has become almost completely separated from meat production. Milking is fully mechanized, and large stables have been built where 50 years ago cows were still milked by hand under the open sky (Grasseni 2005, 2016; Landolt and Haller 2015). By now, the majority of mountain dairies have road access too. What is still widespread all over the mountain ridge is the seasonal migration of the overwhelming majority of the local animals to the mountain pastures at high elevation during summer (Netting 1981). Still, the number of animals has declined, and large areas of pastureland have become forest again. In Mongolia, on the other hand, since the end of socialism and with the privatization of livestock, the number of livestock head has tripled, leading to pasture degradation due to overgrazing in many places.

Figure 2. 
Figure 2. 

Dairying landscapes in Mongolia (left) and Switzerland (right). Credit: Christina Warinner (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

Despite the differences in dairying practices and recipes across Eurasia, the transformation of fresh milk into storable forms always involves two main steps: heat (fig. 3) and the addition of microbes (fig. 4). Together, they enable dairy practitioners to transform perishable raw milk into safe, consumable foods by gradually changing its texture across a spectrum of liquid and solid states, enhancing its nutritious characteristics, and suppressing the growth of pathogens. Through a practice called backslopping, fermentation practitioners around the world use old batches of whey or yoghurt to inoculate a new production with a stable and safe microbial community, analogous to how bakers make sourdough bread (Gatti et al. 2014). Their keystone species are lactic acid bacteria and yeasts, two groups of microbes with remarkable qualities: they metabolize sugars into acids and alcohol, two products that typically inhibit the growth of other microbes, such as those that cause spoilage. Most humans, however, seem to enjoy them.

Figure 3. 
Figure 3. 

Dairy production begins with heating the milk in Mongolia (left) and Switzerland (right). Credit: Björn Reichhardt (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

Figure 4. 
Figure 4. 

Preparing starter culture in Mongolia (left) and Switzerland (right). Credit: Zoljargal Enkh-Amgalan (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

While the practice of backslopping works similarly for both sourdough- and milk-based starter cultures, the latter are much more fragile and therefore need more attention and care. In the Alps, cheese makers test and taste the acidity of their starter cultures every morning (Rest 2021). In Mongolia, herders constantly care for their dairy products through taste, smell, touch, and listening. When Mongolian herder Dalaimyagmar (fig. 5, top) makes yoghurt, she puts cultured skimmed milk to rest for a whole day and wraps it in blankets to keep it warm. Airag (usually fermented mare’s milk, but also yak’s milk) is made in large bags made from cowhides or in tall wooden barrels. When made from yak’s milk, it is placed next to the stove as it needs warmth, whereas airag made from mare’s milk needs to be stored in a cool place. Listening to the fizzing sound of airag and checking for the presence of bubbles dancing around on the top are two methods used to check whether the ferment is alive and healthy. While Mongolian herders do not speak of microbes in the context of milk fermentation, they do point to the intimacy and sensitivity of dairy production, explaining that dairy products need to be cared for like a human baby or child. Comparing dairy fermentation to childcare points to processes of microbial care and interspecies mothering, a reflection of how we all—microbes, livestock, and humans—rely on milk in order to grow. In this way, microbial starter cultures are widely viewed as precious.

Figure 5. 
Figure 5. 

Cheese making in Mongolia (top) and Switzerland (bottom). Credit: Matthäus Rest.

In Mongolian, the term khöröngö translates as both starter culture and wealth. It is passed down through the generations from mother to daughter, and in this way it applies knowledge from the past to supply nutrition for the future (Reichhardt 2021). Mongolian pastoralists rely on diverse methods for making starter cultures. In one recipe, households put aside a small portion of fresh tarag (yogurt) every day during summer and use it for making the next batch on the following day. With the end of the milking season by November, when outside temperatures begin to drop below freezing, a portion of yoghurt is either frozen or pulverized and dried for winter storage. It can be revived and reused in the coming spring when new batches of tarag will again be produced daily.

Despite the reliability and endurance of backslopping techniques, starter cultures remain sensitive ecological assemblages, and artisanal milk fermentation is occasionally prone to failure. Should a yoghurt-based khöröngö become too sour or unexpectedly not induce fermentation, alternatives are needed. One option to find a suitable substitute is to ask respected and trusted neighbor households for khöröngö. However, given the ambiguous meaning of the term, it is important to ask for ekh—which means source, origin, and mother—instead of khöröngö, because referring to the latter would mean that one intends to take away a household’s economic resources.

Whereas such procurement of khöröngö from other households can be a somewhat delicate procedure, herder women in northern Mongolia can also resort to other traditional techniques. According to Dalaimyagmar, even silver jewelry and flowers such as cutleaf anemones (shar yargui, Pulsatilla patens ssp. flavescens) can be used as khöröngö. Through all of these entanglements, khöröngö forms complex biosocial assemblages. Herders often pointed out that techniques for making starter cultures are ancient practices, but the experience and skills to do so are decreasing across the country (Bat-Oyun et al. 2015). This is a predicament of small-scale peasant dairies across Eurasia today.

In the Alps, a small minority of cheese makers still rely on backslopping cultures. Most mountain dairies use freeze-dried, lab-grown cultures for their daily production or receive weekly deliveries of liquid culture concentrate from state-run biobanks. Even those who still engage in backslopping keep freeze-dried culture on hand in case their whey culture “crashes,” and they start every season from these laboratory-grown cultures instead of trying to maintain stocks over the winter. Freeze-dried cultures save time while also being relatively inexpensive. When widely applied, they lead to more homogeneous cheese and reduced microbial diversity.

After milking on the pasture or in the stable, the rest of the morning in both Mongolia and the Alps is spent making dairy products (fig. 5). There is a wide variety of recipes to turn liquid milk into solid dairy products across Eurasia, but almost all rely on combinations of heat, fermentation, and straining (fig. 6) to transform and separate the components of the milk into solid curds and liquid whey (Donnelly 2016). What differentiates alpine from Mongolian cheese is rennet. Rennet is the umbrella term for a number of animal enzymes—originally sourced from the stomachs of slaughtered calves but today also produced by genetically engineered microbes—used to curdle milk at low temperatures. Mongolian cheeses are not made with rennet. Instead, dairy recipes in Asia typically use a combination of much higher temperatures and acidity to achieve coagulation and formation of a curd. In both locations, and depending on the recipe, making cheese takes up to four hours of constant care to produce a desirable curd.

Figure 6. 
Figure 6. 

Straining the curd in Mongolia (left) and Austria (right). Credit: Björn Reichhardt (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

Curds and whey have fundamentally different properties, and therefore different uses. Curds are generally further processed through drying or aging into long-term storable products like aaruul or cheese (fig. 7). Mongolian sour curds are dried under direct sunlight as quickly as possible within a few days, and they can be stored for about a year without spoiling. Cheese in Europe, by contrast, is often stored in humid aging rooms or caves, where a secondary microbial fermentation takes place that requires further care.

Figure 7. 
Figure 7. 

Finishing the curd in Mongolia (left) and Switzerland (right). Credit: Björn Reichhardt (left) and Matthäus Rest (right).

Preserving whey is a more challenging endeavor. The yellowish liquid still contains heat- and acid-resistant proteins, as well as most of the milk’s remaining lactose sugar after the curd has been removed. Cheese makers in Europe and Mongolia have come up with diverse solutions for how to access this energy. In the Alps, whey historically was boiled after cheese making. The addition of sour milk was used to curdle the more accessible whey proteins, and a dry curd similar to Mongolian aaruul was produced. The remaining lactose-rich liquid was then used to fatten pigs. With pork prices as low as they are today, however, whey is now often considered waste.

In contrast, for pastoralists in Mongolia, whey has a multitude of uses. Children are bathed with whey to strengthen their immune system, as Dalaimyagmar explained. It is used as a starter culture for making soft cheese. Moreover, hides and harness are softened with whey, while dairy equipment is carefully washed with it. Baasan (figs. 1, left, and 4, left), an elder herder from Khatgal, told us that in the old days, whey was spilled over the soil around the stove in the center of the yurt in order to harden the floor and prevent rising dust from contaminating food prepared on the stove.

As this essay has shown, peasant dairying forms complex biosocial systems that rely on the constant interaction between, and the mutual care of, humans, livestock, microbes, and the environments they inhabit. The Dairy Cultures Ethnographic Database facilitates local and comparative analyses of dairy practices, techniques, and embedded cultural frameworks. Through the creation of the database, we aim to explore how these multispecies interactions take place in specific regions where peasant dairying faces an uncertain future in light of ongoing processes of industrial growth, agrarian intensification, and antibiotic sterilization. We hope that the launch of this media-rich, open access resource will contribute a starter culture for the growing body of research on cultures of fermentation.

We want to thank the Alpine and Mongolian herders who generously participated in this study for sharing their knowledge about unique dairying practices. This research is part of the project “Dairy Cultures: Gene-Culture-Microbiome Evolution and the Ancient Invention of Dairy Foods,” funded by the European Research Council (Starting Grant 804884).


Björn Reichhardt is a PhD Student at the Social Anthropology Unit, Department of Social Sciences, University of Fribourg, Switzerland () and Guest Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. Zoljargal Enkh-Amgalan is a Student Research Assistant at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and BA Student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin. Christina Warinner is Principal Investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology; University Professor of Biological Sciences at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany; Associate Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University; and Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Matthäus Rest is a Social Anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany).

1. Sbrinz is a very hard alpine cheese from Central Switzerland, reblochon is a soft cheese from the Haute Savoie in France; both are made from whole raw cow’s milk. Aaruul are dried sour curds made from different kinds of milk, and airag is fermented mare’s milk with an alcohol content of around 3%–10%.

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