Yogurt was first cultivated in Central Asia by the nomadic Golden Crescent tribes when they began to domesticate sheep and goats. Whether it came about by design or accident we will never know but the fact that they would no doubt have been storing and transporting their milk in animal skin containers in warm weather points towards a happy accident. Whatever the facts of its origins, yogurt plays an important part in the culinary tradition of many ancient cultures and continues to do so. The Assyrians named it ‘Lebney’ which means life. The word ‘yogurt’ derives from the Turkey, where it plays a very important role, more of which shortly.
It is a foodstuff which has been horribly bastardised in the West. Pumped with sugar, additives and other awful additions. Toffee yogurt? Can we leave nothing alone? This wonderful, anetedeluvian substance is served in a myriad of ways around the world; Eastern Europeans make a chilled yogurt and cucumber soup called Cacik or Tarator with it, in Hindu ritual it is known as Panchamrita (one of the five elixirs of life), ‘Zabady’ is the Egyptian name for yogurt which they use during Ramadan to prevent thirst while fasting and so on and so on. It is revered and recognised around the the world as a life-giving, healing food.
Yogurt has been assigned many medical, magical and indeed mythical qualities from gastrointestinal benefits to longevity, especially – and famously – in Bulgaria. Despite being a place where all the economics markers which usually indicate a shortened life span prevail the populace boasts a much higher-than-average number of centenarians. Scientists have concluded this must be a result of the large amount of home-made natural yogurt consumed there. The particular strain of bacteria (Bulgaricus) which characterizes their yogurt is unique to the region due to their micro-climate; as soon as it leaves the area the organism mutates. Which is not to say that yogurt elsewhere is not of extremely nutritional benefit; it is. A substance so rich in calcium, protein, vitamins B6 & B12 and riboflavins can be nothing but highly advantageous to our health. It is particularly useful in negating the harmful effects of a course of antibiotics. It is also claimed to maintain good gum health which in itself is so essential to life. Healthy gums means healthy teeth, the lack of which causes numerous problems in the elderly not least of which is the ability to eat a wide range of foods.
In a report for Radio 4’s Food Programme Aylin Bozyap points out that patients in Turkish hospitals are given natural yogurt to aid their recovery. Traditionally, Turkish yogurt was made with sheep’s milk but due to the expansion of mass production and the consequent reduction in grazing for herds, authentic yogurt production is on the decline there and traditional methods have given way to factory production using cow’s milk. A fact much bemoaned by Professor Artun Unsal, political scientist, food historian and author of many books on the traditional foods of his homeland. The superiority of Turkish yogurt has suffered, he says, because the requisite quality of milk can no longer be obtained. Plus, supermarket culture has taken over in many parts of the country and housewives, who a generation ago would have balked at buying yogurt in plastic pots in favour of making their own now do exactly that.
This is such a shame because yogurt, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells us in his column is easy to make. It also renders good organic yogurt about half the price supermarkets charge but more than this, it’s unbelievably satisfying to produce something so ancient and primal in your own kitchen, akin to making bread perhaps. But far, far easier.