Greece, Home of Yogurt Perfection

For the yogurt-based recipes mentioned in this audio slideshow, try dip with garlic, cucumber, and fennel; salad with parsley, spinach, and walnuts; almond cake with lemon syrup; or pie with vine leaves.

Summer afternoons under the shade of our fig tree; my father just up from his siesta, drinking coffee; the yiaourtas (yogurt man) delivering the red clay bowls of freshly made yogurt, not yet completely cold.

These are among my fondest childhood memories, and I can still imagine my mother rushing into the kitchen to return yesterday's cleaned pots, which our yogurt man placed on the top shelves of his tin delivery cupboard. With the cupboard in hand--it looked almost like a briefcase--brimming with freshly made yogurt pots covered with parchment paper neatly crimped at the rim, he delivered to all the homes around our neighborhood.

We lived in Patissia, where houses were surrounded by vast gardens, and we often had to chase away stray sheep and goats that sneaked onto my grandfather's vast property, parts of which he rented to flower growers (the hungry animals were bad for the flower business). Back then the area was on the rural outskirts of Athens; today it is completely unrecognizable, as it has become one of the most densely built sections of the city.

Until the mid-1970s yogurt was produced by artisans exclusively, by the very people who raised sheep and goats.

Dinner or Dessert

I guess every neighborhood had a yiaourta. Until almost the mid-1970s yogurt was produced exclusively by artisans , by the very people who raised sheep and goats on Athens' periphery. Daily they brought their products to people's homes, and we would consume the fresh yogurt that same evening.

aglaia june4 yogurt pots post.jpg

Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Fresh bottled milk was not delivered to our house, only to the center of the city. We grew up drinking a terrible evaporated milk imported from the Netherlands, I think. It was diluted with an equal amount of water, but that did not mitigate its toxic effects on my body. I was forced to drink it, and immediately suffered stomach cramps. I was probably lactose intolerant, but my parents thought I was feigning illness; there was no way I could avoid drinking that horrible milk that made me suffer each morning at school. Evaporated milk is still very popular in Greece, although now most people drink fresh milk.

In my family we followed my maternal grandmother's dictum: a pot of yogurt every evening, with bread or paximadi (twice-baked dry bread) and some fruit, for all grownups. As children we had to eat at least a few tablespoons of yogurt every evening, on top of anything else we were fed. Lunch was, and still is, the main meal for my family. Yogurt was supposed to be no more than a light dinner, but often it served as dessert for those of us who devoured copious amounts of leftover lunch in the evening.

The night "snack" turned into the family joke--"I wonder why you still have high blood pressure, since you never forget to eat your yogurt at night," my father would tease my grandmother, who considered yogurt a panacea. She tried to eat less food in general, but she had a great appetite, and it served her well: she died at 98, with almost all her teeth, and she was only mildly senile...

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