When it comes to foods that are as old as the world, such as yogurt, the name Pliny the Elder pops up again and again and I’ve mentioned him countless times in this blog. In fact, one of these days we’ll have to dedicate an article to our friend Pliny, the notable Roman author and natural philosopher who lived between 23 AD and 79 AD.
As a well-educated man, and one who was clearly fascinated by the subjects of his studies, he kept records of much of his findings and musings. These have become invaluable resources for modern historians trying to understand the origins and evolution of human customs and dietary habits.
Thus it is to Pliny that we turn, once more, to find yogurt in its proper place in time, for the most ancient recorded evidence of the existence of fermented milk occurs in his writings, where he notes that even those nations that were considered barbarous in his time knew how “to thicken the milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity.”
There is speculation that cultured milk may have been an accident, for in spite of documentation such as Pliny’s, it is not clear when the process of making yogurt became intentional. Genetic analysis of the bacteria present in cultured milk suggests some may have occurred on the surface of a plant, which would in turn suggest that dairy product had to come in contact with these plants, perhaps accidentally, in order to be “infected.” A plausible hypothesis is that animals may have come in contact with such plant, allowing said bacteria to be transferred to the udder. This makes one wonder if not all milk product was at least slightly on the verge of becoming yogurt, which brings up an interesting question: What came first under the udder? Yogurt or milk?
How people in ancient times, barbarian or not (and it’s a matter of perspective), figured out how to purposely make yogurt is not clear. Or is it that yogurt came first and what they figured out is how to turn it into milk? Hah-ha! The word yogurt comes from a Turkish verb that means, “to thicken” or “to be curdled.” Interestingly, if indeed it does mean “to thicken,” this alone implies purposeful action. Hah-ha again!
While its consumption was widespread in Europe and much of the “old continents” for centuries, it is only in the early 1900′s that yogurt became widely consumed in America.
A dairy product is called yogurt when two essential bactieria are present: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. While in America yogurt is generally produced from cow’s milk, in other parts of the world it is as commonly made from camel, goat and sheep milk.
The process of making yogurt is simple. Milk is heated to approximately 200° Fahrenheit for up to 30 minutes. The longer at high temperature, the thicker the resulting product. Following this first step, the milk is cooled rapidly. This is when yogurt starter containing the necessary bacteria is added. Then, the mixture is placed in containers for incubation. The incubation process requires a temperature of 100° and lasts at least four hours. Longer incubation times result in a more tart flavor since this allows more acidity to develop.
I wonder if, upon seeing some of our challenges in human relations (and yes, we are only human after all) Pliny might reflect upon our modern home yogurt making techniques and write, “Those barbarians can still make yogurt!” Pliny, my dear, with all due respect, you seem to have a bit of an attitude. Eat some yogurt, it will help your digestion and improve your disposition.