Mon, Oct 02, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Land of the long-life yogurt

Yogurt from a Bulgarian village has become a sensation in China, and dairy companies are milking it for all it’s worth

By Dimitar Dilikoff  /  AFP, MOMCHILOVTSI, Bulgaria

The village of Momchilovtsi, nestled in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria.

Photo: Wilimedia Commons

The Bulgarian villagers hunker over their books, struggling with their Mandarin words and characters. But they are not going to China — the Middle Kingdom is coming to them. Because of yogurt.

“It’s difficult. You have to be quite tough not to give up,” says pensioner Tsvetka Radkova, 66, as she puffs and pants in the classroom in the village of Momchilovtsi in southern Bulgaria. But her daughter Veselina, 37, accompanied in the lessons by her nine-year-old girl, trots out whole sentences in Chinese, to the cheers of her classmates.

Few Europeans, and not many Bulgarians for that matter, have heard of Momchilovtsi, perched high on the slopes of the Rhodope mountains in south-eastern Europe near the border with Greece.

But in China, Momchilovtsi conjures up images of mystery, wonder and longevity, having given its name to a kind of drinking yogurt that is all the rage for Chinese consumers.

This summer Momchilovtsi played host to hundreds of Chinese visitors attending the village’s third Chinese-Bulgarian yogurt festival.

Signs in Chinese are everywhere, directing visitors to the village hall for lectures on yogurt’s prodigious health benefits or to yogurt and cheese tastings.

Children run around chirping nihao (你好, “hello”) and giving out festival brochures and village maps in Bulgarian, Chinese and English.

MISS YOGURT

A beauty pageant on the festival’s second day picked the new “Yogurt Queen” to adorn the Momchilovtsi packaging.

“There’s two things every Chinese knows about Bulgaria — yogurt and roses,” said one visitor, Lei Lin from Shanghai.

The people of Momchilovtsi have been used to the sight of Chinese visitors ever since Chinese firm Bright Dairy in 2009 took back home the bacteria found in the local yogurt.

Crucially, the strain enabled the company to develop drinking yogurt for Chinese consumers. Drinkable with a straw, it’s much easier to consume than the thicker stuff and doesn’t need to be chilled either.

But Bright Diary didn’t forget its roots, branding its product “Momchilovtsi,” the label featuring a Bulgarian maiden in traditional dress, it began cultivating links with the village.

Known in Chinese by the shorter name mosilian (莫斯利安), it’s the top seller in this booming sector, on sale in most supermarkets and its adverts a common sight on bus stops and on television.

Its popularity has been helped by the contaminated milk powder scandal in China in 2008 pushing many towards brands seen as international or traditional and therefore safer.

With its slogan “The miraculous secret of the village where people live a long life — Momchilovtsi,” sales were US$910 million last year, a company spokesman said.

“Momchilovtsi has been famous as ‘the village of longevity’ because of the high number of centenarians living here,” Pan Jianjun (潘建軍), the spokesman, said on the sidelines of the festival.

Indeed, at least three participants in the language course — for which 40 locals have enrolled — said they had family members who had lived to be over 100.

“Our research showed that one of the secrets of this longevity is the local yogurt,” Pan said.

OFF THE TOURIST TRAIL

The 1,200 inhabitants of Momchilovtsi already host about 1,000 Chinese tourists annually out of a total of 5,000 to 6,000 visitors, mayor Siyka Surkova said.

“The numbers are growing every year and this is only normal considering the huge advertising campaign for the yogurt in China that also benefits us,” she added.

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