Yogurt is about as ancient as milk. Its beauty lies in its simplicity.
Plain Greek yogurt is a nutrient-packed snack that has many health benefits, helping you meet the recommended dietary guideline of three daily servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
Greek yogurt isn’t just a fad; the world’s love affair for this vitamin packed dessert shows no signs of stopping as exports are steadily increasing. This dairy product, which is different from Greek-style and regular yogurt (which contain preservatives/additives), has quadrupled in production over the past decade. Even over the last couple of years, Greek yogurt exports have been registering double-digit growth rates, spurring the biggest Greek dairy companies to strike partnerships with foreign enterprises either for the distribution of their brands or for the production of private-label products for supermarket chains. According to official data, yogurt was Greece’s 8th biggest export in 2015, ranking 5th in the top countries exporting it, after Germany, France, Saudi Arabia and Austria.
Below follows extracts from Daphne Zepos’ article, an internationally renowned cheese expert, judge and consultant.
Yogurt is about as ancient as milk. Its beauty lies in its simplicity; yogurt was the first and most immediate way to preserve milk by extending its life (hence nutritional value) for several weeks. The key is fermentation, which is triggered and controlled by the addition of two bacteria, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus.
The ancient tradition of preserving milk began around 5,000 years ago in Central Asia and the Middle East, where the climate is warm and the land lean, making it ideal for grazing ruminants.
Greek yogurt, renowned the world over for its quality, density and unabashed, delicious sour taste is a product of the country’s pastoral traditions. Up until fairly recently, yogurt production was ruled entirely by farming and seasonal conditions. Sheep and goats provided most of the milk Greeks consumed. Yogurt was always made with sheep’s milk and was seasonal, produced from late fall to early June.
There were two reasons for the seasonal production. Sheep produce milk from the moment they lamb until the summer, when the heat and the shortness of plants to graze on naturally will condition them to dry up. The heat of a Greek summer was never ideal for dairy production. Yogurt needs to be kept cool once it is set, and until the 1950’s refrigeration was rare outside cities. The storage cellars, cool enough from fall to spring, lose their chill in the summer.
Yogurt was made immediately after the milking, when the temperature of the milk is the same as the animal’s and ideal for the addition of the lactic acid bacteria that turn it into yogurt. The shepherd would simply add a little yogurt from the last batch as starter to the fresh milk. He would keep the containers covered and warm, probably in the room where he made his cheese. When people began boiling the milk that was used to make yogurt, they knew they had to wait until it cooled back down to ‘sheep’ temperature before adding the starter.
Yogurt, the quintessential shepherd’s product, was a specialty of the itinerant shepherds’ tribes that roamed much of Greece. In the mountains of Epirus in Northern Greece, the Vlachs, for example, were a pastoral people with a strong tradition of cheese making. They made yogurt in wooden tubs.
The wood was permeable enough to store traces of the lactic acid bacteria, which were moistened and revived with the milk of the following season. Today the Vlachs are no longer nomadic, but some continue to make a heavenly yogurt in wooden receptacles, called tsanaka. Although not strained, the yogurt is thick and very flavourful because the milk is boiled long enough to condense it.
Another common way to preserve the starter was to dip a cheese cloth in the yogurt, then dry it and carefully preserve it until the next season.
In most other parts of Greece the yogurt was set in terracotta bowls glazed on the inside, still a popular way to set yogurt today, and with good reason: the ceramic bowls are porous, thus enabling the whey (water content) to leak out slowly, beading up on the sides of the bowl. By losing water, the yogurt gets thicker and the natural sweating evaporates and cools the yogurt. In the cellar, the yogurt continues to ferment. As it ages it thickens and sours, which helps extend its preservation.
Temperature and timing are the secrets to making great yogurt. The milk has to be inoculated at a precise degree of heat and then has to sit, unmoved, in a precisely heated room (an incubator) for a specific amount of time. Finally it has to be quickly chilled.
Two cups of Greek yogurt per day can provide protein, calcium, iodine and potassium while helping you feel full for few calories. But maybe more importantly, yogurt provides healthy bacteria for the digestive tract which can affect the entire body.
GREAT WITH EVERY MEAL
Sheep’s milk is far richer in protein and fat than either cows’ or goats’ milk. The yogurt it produces is dense, creamy and flavourful. In Greece, yogurt is an addition to every meal: scooped over rice pilaf, dolloped in tomato sauce; served with stewed and fried vegetables, meatballs and grilled meats. It is used as a sauce, baked over chicken and certain beef dishes until it sets and thickens like béchamel. It is used as a condiment, stirred with shredded cucumbers and garlic to make the well-known dip tzatziki, or spooned onto savoury squash and cornmeal pies, a tradition in Greece’s northern mountain regions. In some areas it is even served as a cool summer soup or baked into moist cakes.
Swirled with honey or spoon sweets, yogurt is divine. Strained sheep’s milk yogurt was rare and used in lieu of cream in desserts such as roasted caramelised quince, or as a pudding with honey and walnuts.
A more regular treat, still a favourite with children today, is ‘yogurt skin’, scraped off the top of the yogurt and sprinkled with sugar.
STRAINING FOR TASTE
In Europe, the health benefits of yogurt were acknowledged early last century and yogurt production in the West catapulted into a huge industry. The large yogurt dairies in Western Europe are defined by two factors: they make yogurt with cows’ milk and they add fruit and fruit preserves. Cows’ milk yogurt is thin in texture and can be very acidic. Adding sweetened and preserved fruit makes the yogurt richer in texture and erases the sour flavour. Yogurt has become synonymous with a healthy, sweet snack.
In Greece, the dairy industry has also adopted the use of cow’s milk which is plentiful and produced year round. But instead of sweetening the sour and thin yogurt, it uses a time-old technique: they strain it. The result is astounding: a dense, creamy mass which has lost most of its sourness with the whey.