Why are we so obsessed with yoghurt?

I have one word for you. Yoghurt.

It’s big and getting bigger. And I’m not exercising any discrimination in my use of the word; I’m talking about yoghurt of all stripes — from Greek to fat-free, from pale, lush and creamy, to technicolour, frozen, sickly sweet and covered with a lewd array of ridiculous toppings. A global trend breathtaking in both size and cynicism.




A couple of years back, UBS Investment Research announced that Greek yoghurt could become the fastest food category growth sector ever. Fast forward to March this year, when The New York Times declared, “Greek yogurt is having its moment”. (As in, “you know Greek yogurt is having its moment when an artisan in Brooklyn is making it from an old family recipe, downtown mixologists are using it in a cocktail and chefs are pairing it with fried brussels sprouts and green cauliflower.”) In April, Time magazine reported that Americans had spent $1.6 billion on Greek yoghurt in the past year.

Greek yoghurt even has a rich-lister. Forbes magazine has dubbed Turkish-born businessman Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani yoghurt, the “Steve Jobs of Yogurt”. Yoghurt has given Ulukaya an estimated $1.1 billion fortune, a “man cave with a pool table and big-screen TV” and the world’s biggest yoghurt factory — a plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, the size of 20 football fields. (Greek yoghurt has little to do with Greece: the label generally describes heavily strained yoghurts; the reduction in whey content results in a thicker, creamier product. Traditionally, it was made with full-cream milk, often goat’s milk; these days, many commercial “Greek yoghurts”, including Chobani, are made with skim milk.)


Neil Perry's yoghurt pannacotta. Image by William Meppem

A quick look at Dairy Australia figures shows that, on average, Australians eat 7.5kg of yoghurt of all types a year — nearly a kilo more than we did six years ago. I lurked for a while near the yoghurt cabinet in my local supermarket one day recently to see if I could spot any Australians carrying that extra kilo. I studied the belly of an old guy as he studied the yoghurts and decided that it was highly likely he was.

He noticed me looking. “This one very good, very popular, the blueberry,” he announced in a thick accent. He directed my attention from his belly to “Dairy Farmers Thick and Creamy Blueberry Fields 98% fat free”. Sure enough, the shelf was nearly empty. As the old guy shuffled off with his Thick and Creamy, another oldie in a pineapple-littered Hawaiian shirt and slippers shuffled in. He grabbed three. It was clear I was missing out on something. I rushed the last two containers to the cash register before I had to fight over them with a pensioner.

At home, I studied the Blueberry Fields label. Turns out, I was missing out on skim milk, milk solids, sugar, water, blueberry (min 5%), cream, halal gelatine, thickener (1442), flavour, acidity regulator (331) and live yogurt cultures (L.Acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and S.Thermophilus). And that sugar? It hits the scales at about 27g per serve. You might as well eat a couple of Tim Tams. One 170g tub of Blueberry Fields has 172 calories; two Tim Tams have only 18 calories more.

Yoghurt surely makes a food marketer’s life easy. It’s the double-action effect: use skim milk and proclaim its “low-fat” benefits then coast to the finishing line on the sense of goodness that the very word “yoghurt” conveys. No wonder then, that in the States, those glorious words “Greek yoghurt” are plastered on processed food from one supermarket aisle to the next.


Greek yoghurt, the real deal

Another word — “bandwagon” — just keeps popping into my head. In Manhattan, some crazy funsters have launched the “Yappy Treats Cart — An All-Natural Frozen Yogurt Dog Treat Co”. And I feel obliged to tell you about one of BuzzFeed’s recent cutesy lists — “18 cats who learned about yogurt the hard way”. Cue a series of disturbed, possibly maltreated cats with their heads stuck in plastic yogurt containers. Whether these are emphatic signs of the rising power of yoghurt in our age, or yet more evidence of the decline of human civilisation, is hard to tell.

Some claim that the yoghurt explosion itself is contributing to the decline of civilisation; that yoghurt has a dark, dark side. According to the new Modern Farmer (an oddly sexy magazine with headlines such as “Which Chicken is Right For You?”, “Who Can Stop These Adorable Pigs?”, “Ode to a Hardware Store”, and “From Malawi to McDonald’s”), the waste-whey by-product of yoghurt is a toxic headache. And strained yoghurt, Greek yoghurt, the one that’s top of the charts, produces more waste than other varieties — more than 150 million gallons in the North-East of the US last year alone, according to Modern Farmer.




I’d venture that there’s an even darker side to the yoghurt explosion. The frozen yoghurt shop explosion. Let’s not mince words: they’re a pox, a blight on our urban landscape and our food culture. Of course, we didn’t start this thing. Blame the Americans, blame New Yorkers. But in New York at least, where opportunists opened outlets with names like Tasti D-Lite, Yorganic and Lorax Frozen Yoghurt, and then added nutty stuff like cheesecake bites and cookie dough to their product, the trend seems to be as over as big facial hair and nerdy glasses.

The backlash has begun: “The Village seems to be the hardest hit,” wrote Kim Velsey in The New York Observer, “its streets a fluorescent wasteland of yogurt shops.” Noted Village Voice writer Mallory Stuchin: “This Dionysian dairy fixation has got to end.” She pointed to actor John Stamos’s appearance in a commercial for Greek yoghurt as the sultry straw that broke the camel’s back.

But I remain disconsolate. The frozen yoghurt shop thing here is only just beginning. “That’s right peeps,” gushes the Yogurtland website, “Yogurtland has arrived.” The American franchise company has six stores up and running, another 12 slated to open by year’s end, 50 more over the next three-five years. A business plan powered by the company’s Kona Coffee Blend perhaps?

And there are more of them: Yogurt World and Bloo Moo (“innocent pure frozen yoghurt”), Igloo Zoo (“Australia’s first culture bar”), Yo-get-it, Tutti-Frutti, Twisted Frozen Yoghurt and Smoothies, The Yoghurt Shop, Cacao Green, Orange Leaf, Crave, WOWCOW and Yogurberry, all churning out loyalty cards, new outlets, health claims and exotic flavours in a mighty lactic frenzy.

I’ll admit it, I’m a late starter. I had my first frozen yoghurt experiences this month. I’m also a spoilsport. The word “ghastly” comes close to describing my feelings about the experiences. I’d rather be strapped to a chair and force fed Mr Whippy soft-serve for a month — with Greensleeves on tinny repeat — than pay these shops a return visit.


Photo by Melanie Faith Dove

Where do I start? Is it their deeply unoriginal, deeply derivative nature, the sense that someone with a few coins to rub together has racked up a healthy tax return or two exploring frozen yoghurt shops in the United States? Is it the idea of all those silly little dishes of toppings sitting there gathering who knows what germs as the hands of the great unwashed hover over them with tongs? Is it that any resemblance to yoghurt flavour is purely an accident? Is it that the idea of sticking jelly lollies, Smarties and chunks of cheap chocolate on the top of yoghurt shouldn’t be deployed anywhere but a bad children’s birthday party? Is it that you just know that any health claims made are nonsense? Is it that you know that sugar is a key ingredient? Is it that it all just screams “GIMMICK!”?



I say, if we’re going to jump on the yoghurt bandwagon, let’s do it properly. When in January, Bon Appétit magazine put yoghurt in the number nine spot of its list of food trends for 2013 it wasn’t talking about low-fat Greek yoghurt or frozen yoghurt from a chain store. It was referring to D.I.Y. yoghurt, homemade yoghurt, the sort of yoghurt that starts with the most expensive milk you can find in the cold cabinet of an organic shop and finishes swaddled in blankets on your kitchen bench.

And if you’re at all interested in trends, you should know that there’s a rather delicious collision of them happening here. OK, so you know yoghurt is a fermented product. It’s the result of a few types of heroic bacteria, or cultures, getting their hooks into the lactose in milk and turning it into lactic acid, which coagulates the liquid. OK, so we’ve established that yoghurt is huge — you also need to know that fermented foods are about to be huge (think yoghurt, plus sauerkraut, kimchi, vinegars, tofu and anything else you care to mention). Remember this name: Sandor Ellix Katz, aka Sandorkraut, a big-moustached guy who has been fermenting since 1993 and is the author of The Art of Fermentation. More on him and the benefits to your health and your gut of eating fermented food another day.

I think Mr Katz, and indeed Matthew Evans, would be impressed with my own fermenting efforts. See, a couple of weeks ago I used Matthew’s recipe to make my own yoghurt. I bought myself my first kitchen thermometer (yeah, I know, what took me so long?). I bought the most luxe, full-cream unhomogenised milk from cosseted cows that I could find at my local Wholefoods House. I bought a little container of plain live yoghurt to use as my starter (you want one that gives the names of the specific cultures — e.g., lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidobacterium and lactobacillus casei). I spent an interminable amount of time sterilising the jars I would put my yoghurt in.

And then I made it. In a nutshell: Heat the milk to 92°C. Cool down quickly. When the temperature reaches 38°C, add yoghurt/culture. Mix. Pour mixture into jars. Incubate for 10-12 hours or so at between 35 and 43°C. Easy.


DIY yoghurt, image by Marina Oliphant

There was a bit of dicking around in the process: the sterilising of the jars, the constant monitoring of temperatures, especially while bringing the temperature down quickly (I ran cold water around the base of the saucepan while it sat in the sink) and during the incubation process (I sat the jars in warm water in a little Esky and every hour or so for 10 hours I added more warm water to keep the temperature at the right point). But the result was superb — quite sour, but divinely creamy — and the sense of satisfaction and sanctimony was considerable. I used one jar as plain yoghurt and strained the contents of the second to make labne.

And a chat with Pierre Issa, Sydney’s Mr Butter, aka Pepe Saya, the child of a Lebanese father and Scottish mother, revealed that I needn’t have made the process so tedious. Pierre, who makes rather special cultured butter, buttermilk and crème fraîche to sell, makes yoghurt at home every week for his family.

He sets his yoghurt in the same saucepan in which he heats the milk (pot-set), so eliminating the need for sterilisation; he lets the heated milk cool down on the stove at its own pace before adding the culture; and then, to incubate the yoghurt, follows his grandmother’s method, wrapping the pot, now with a lid on, in an old woollen blanket, packing away the thermometer and letting the yoghurt be for eight to 12 hours (the longer it’s left, the more sour the result). His only caution: don’t bump it. “You can scare the cultures if it’s disturbed — that’s my yoghurt superstition.”

If you use unhomogenised milk, your yoghurt is going to have a rich yellow fat crust. When he was growing up, Pierre remembers his mother keeping that for herself. “She’d eat it with a bit of sugar. But if you want a creamy texture with no fat, you’d use homogenised milk.”

So you haven’t the energy for the process. Fair enough. I’m not sure I do either on an ongoing basis. But since the Lebanese boyfriend in my past, it’s been a fixture in my fridge. For breakfast with poached fruit, for lunch with olives and crudités, for dinner dolloped on a lamb casserole with fresh mint and parsley or on top of moussaka, or beside a pilaf, or minty with a curry, or in a marinade for chicken, or in a garlicky sauce for poached eggs, or in a cake with lemon...

So I’m willing to follow Pierre’s preferences in the matter of natural yoghurt brands: Country Valley, biodynamic full-cream Jalna and Hastings Valley Dairy. You should know that Pierre has nothing to say on the matter of Chobani Greek yoghurt. And nothing whatsoever to say on the matter of frozen yoghurt shops.