Greece, Home of Yogurt Perfection
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
By a very strange coincidence, our yogurt man was Mr. Filippou, the grandfather (or the great uncle) of the present owners of FAGE , the company that has extended its yogurt business all over the world. From their little workshop in Patissia the family created the first yogurt factory in Athens. The name of the company--now one of the largest food businesses in Greece--is pronounced FAH-yeh, an acronym from Filippou Adelfoi Galaktokomikes Epicheriseis (the Filippou Brothers Dairy Company), a word that felicitously means "eat!" in Greek.
While working as an editor for a short-lived Greek news magazine in the late 80s, I interviewed Ioannis Filippou, one of the two brothers--the sons of our yogurt man--who created the yogurt empire. He told me that their biggest challenge was to convince people to exchange traditional parchment-paper-covered yogurt, with the thick skin on top, for homogenized sealed cups with a longer shelf life.
They decided to introduce it on a Saturday afternoon, as people rushed to finish their shopping and go home. Grocery stores closed early on Saturdays and people usually bought their essentials at corner delis that sold fresh milk, coffee, ice cream, candies, cigarettes, newspapers, and magazines. Vendors were instructed to place the yogurt cup in a brown paper bag, so consumers would not detect the difference before reaching home; cleverly, Mr. Filippou doubted that the consumer would return to exchange the "new" product.
"Once they tasted it, I was sure they would ask for it the next time," he told me.
And he was right. The sealed cup contained yogurt similar to today's best seller Total, the creamy thick yogurt now produced in a New York plant. Greeks loved it, and FAGE became the number one yogurt manufacturer in Greece. Later, the Filippou brothers acquired EVGA, the oldest fresh milk and ice cream producer in the country, and either bought or created various other food companies that produce frozen phyllo pastry, biscuits, fruit juices, etc. Recently they decided to disentangle themselves from fresh milk distribution--a fiercely competitive business in Greece--and focus on the expansion of their cheese production.
Exporting to Europe and the U.S.
When the company decided to start exporting yogurt to Europe in the 80s, Mr. Filippou told me, he approached tour operators from the UK and Germany in order to find out from which cities or neighborhoods their Greece-bound tourists emanated. Then he arranged to send trial crates of yogurt to groceries in those specific locations, relying on the impetus of gustatory memory.
He was sure that the people who had tried the yogurt in Greece would be willing to pay the premium. Again, the experiment was a success, and Total yogurt gradually found its place in the refrigerators of gourmet supermarkets throughout Europe. The company is currently trying a similar approach in the U.S.: instead of a costly national ad campaign, they are sending buses that distribute free samples in various parts of the country. The buses are currently touring California, Nevada, and Florida.
Needless to say, the Filippou family--the yogurt millionaires--are the equivalent of the Greek ship-owners of the past. They are patrons of the arts and at the center of the most talked about Athenian society events.
PS: As I was writing this post, I came upon the obituary of Daniel Carasso , the founder of Danone, a very important and influential figure, the man who singlehandedly made yogurt known to the Western world. The family built on his legacy.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
All yogurts are not equal
I don't remember when exactly we got our first electric fridge--probably sometime in the late 60s or early 70s--but we never kept pots of yogurt for more than a few hours, as nobody cared for yesterday's yogurt, with its sour taste. Any "leftover" yogurt was used for cooking or baking: for my aunt's yogurt cake, as an addition to greens or vegetable pies; to accompany stuffed grape leaves; to serve with any kind of rice pilaf.
All yogurts are not equal. We grew up eating mostly sheep's milk yogurt, often made with a combination of milk from both sheep and goats, as Greek shepherds mix the two when milking their flocks. That yogurt is sweeter and creamier than pure cow's milk yogurt, which is the most commonly available these days. But its flavor varies greatly according to the seasons.
Late spring and early summer sheep's milk is bountiful and wonderfully creamy, since mothers continue to produce in abundance to feed their erstwhile offspring--the spring lambs slaughtered for the Easter table . This is the period when sheep's milk yogurt is at its best. The flocks have had the chance to graze the fragrant wild greens and herbs of late winter and early spring, and the milk they produce is truly wonderful.
Later in the summer, when they are fed hay and other commercial feed, the blazing sun having scorched everything green, the little milk that sheep and goats produce is watery and tasteless, damning the yogurt to a similar fate. At its best time, full-fat artisanal sheep's milk yogurt has at least 6 percent fat, while cow's milk reaches about 4.5 percent.
There is a big difference between the homogenized commercial yogurt of today and the traditional one. There were no stabilizers in the yogurt we bought when I was a child, which is now becoming increasingly popular again in Greece. Traditional yogurt is not thick, and has a skin of delicious fat on the surface; we used to fight over who could capture more of it in the spoon while eating from the large family-size pots.
As you take spoonfuls of the soft traditional yogurt it separates, creating little pools of whey. If somebody is not eating the whole pot we immediately place a piece of bread, or paximadi, next to the remaining yogurt to absorb the liquid. Our dogs salivate over those dripping pieces. Each morning they eat not just this whey-soaked-morsel but at least a couple of tablespoons of fresh yogurt for breakfast.
In a very enlightening piece, Harold McGee explains the process and gives instructions for homemade yogurt, as well as a a brilliant recipe for making caramel with the whey.
If thick yogurt was needed to make tzatziki , for example, or to make a salad of yogurt, greens, herbs, spinach, parsley, and walnuts, I would have had to strain it, hanging the regular yogurt in a piece of cheesecloth. Some artisanal producers, especially the shepherds north of Athens, sold stragisto (strained yogurt) in the old days, but it wasn't something one could get easily until yogurt started to be mass produced in the late 70s.