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Koumiss, or kumiss, is fermented mare's or ass's milk, as drunk by the nomadic peoples of west and central Asia. The standard brew is fairly inoffensive, at only about 2 per cent alcohol, but a more potent drink, also called koumiss, can be distilled from it. English acquired the term (which originated as Tatar kumiz) in the late sixteenth century, but to begin with it was frequently confused with cosmos: ‘As the Arabians, so they [Tatars] delight in sour milk, or cosmos’ (Robert Johnson, The World, or an historicall description of the most famous kingdomes or commonweales therein, 1601). In late Victorian England there was a sudden craze for koumiss on account of its supposed medicinal properties. Mare's milk was in limited supply, even in those days of horse-drawn transport, so cow's milk koumiss was made instead, a sovereign remedy for anaemia, phthisis, and ‘catarrhal infections’: ‘The koumiss cure is growing greatly in popularity. … Sometimes patients spend six or seven summers at the koumiss establishments’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 15 September 1884).

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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