When I was growing up, we had goats. Their names – selected by us to denote perhaps the things we’d rather be eating – were Caramel and Honeybun. They had two kids, but I can’t remember what we called them – I think they were also named after dessert. The goats produced milk, which my mum turned into yoghurt. The yoghurt didn’t set awfully well – there were cracks in it filled with whey. There was often more whey than anything else.
When cold, the yoghurt was fine, but served at room temperature it was as if you were eating the goat’s soul. Warm, bloodless goat, white and liquid and slopping about in the bowl. I believe there was the odd hair. I loved the goats, but they were quite difficult. They were friendly in an aggressively needy way, rather like an elderly neighbour who berates you for never visiting. They’d often head-butt us with their knotty foreheads and bleat their metallic tuneless song whenever we approached. I loved their oddly smashed pupils. Their kids were sweet, but the smell of goat is unlike a horse’s (whose dung I wish someone would distill and market as a perfume). It is ripe. The animal equivalent of walking into an adult male’s bedroom after a bout of depression or prolonged illness.
In the Seventies in Devon, there were it seemed two choices: you grew your own food or you lived on Ski yoghurts, angel cake, Wagon Wheels and frozen carrots. We grew our own things, made our own yoghurt, and accepted it was on another planet to the stuff you could buy. One of the few concessions to the mainstream was an occasional chocolate yoghurt bought from the bakery opposite my school. It was tangy yet sweet and there was a thin layer of darkness where the chocolate had started to solidify. It was magic. This almost made up for the fact that my mother refused to paint her toenails.
Somewhere around this time, we went to Crete on holiday. There is a photo of my dad with long hair standing by a racing bike and a man who looked like Thelma from Scooby Doo, who no one could ever name. A man in the local corner shop raised his hand to a shelf and brought down a Milky Bar whenever I entered, and a wizened old witch peeled cucumbers into the fire and laughed like a she-devil. This had something to do with sex.
There was yoghurt here too. I’m fairly certain it was sheep’s yoghurt and it was white, like snow, and came to us in deep drifts in bowls with honey. It was sour and thick, but it was the colour that most appealed. I also ate snails, pulling them from their shells with a special prong. There is a smell, a Greek smell, that I very occasionally get a memory of. There is the sea and then the dried and peeling stucco paint from houses, the smell of heat and sand and oregano. Can you smell colour? If so, it is a pale blue and white side by side.
Then I got ill. This is much later. I was in my mid twenties and living and teaching in London. The goats had been sent to the farmyard equivalent of a nursing home. I was in Earls Court and getting progressively worse day by day, teaching in windowless rooms with a fan to recycle the air, my life an endless round of marking and preparing, and trotting backwards and forwards to the bathroom.
Eventually, Crohn’s disease was diagnosed, an inflammatory bowel condition. Cow’s milk was first in the firing line – the very mention would make your sinuses explode and your bowels run a mile, apparently. Food instantly became the culprit. I entered a world of herbal tea and rice cakes and endless discussions about wheat. I was re-introduced to goat’s milk, now suddenly an elixir.
Once ensconced, it is hard ever to wrest food away from this approach – as some sort of dull sport, in which the rules need to be explained to you by very boring people in stiff hessian sweaters. I remember walking past the Middle Eastern cafés in Earls Court, and gazing at the smoking falafel in the window, the bejewelled baklava, the aubergine, yoghurt and mint mounded onto flatbread, and having to walk on by, back to my brown rice and wilted greens.
It took me a long time to get well. I accept it will always be a part of my life, that it is here to stay. I cannot be an evangelist for a certain kind of Crohn’s diet. But I’m careful when I need to be; I pare things back, I cut out sugar. The only thing that has survived it all is the yoghurt. I love the alchemy that takes place under a bare light-bulb in the oven. The taste is unique, and nothing whatsoever like shop-bought. A clean swathe of white brightness – it makes me happy to create it.
The basic process is very simple – all you need is a big pot or bowl and a warm place to produce the yoghurt. A candy thermometer here really helps – there are people who do this entirely by feel; I haven’t yet joined their ranks. In a nutshell, you sterilize the milk by heating it, in order to kill the existing bacteria and so it can be fermented by the ‘starter’ yoghurt (Total Greek Yoghurt is good here). Then you have to keep it warm for at least 8 hours so that the culture multiplies and consumes the milk, creating your own yoghurt.
Adapted from Elaine Gottschall, Breaking the Vicious Cycle
Inspired by Claudia Roden, A Book of Middle Eastern Food
2 litres/quarts full fat milk & 125g/1/2 cup plain live yoghurt
1. First, bring the live yoghurt to room temperature. Put the milk into a clean pot, heat it and watch it as it starts to rise, and then simmer for 2 minutes.* The purpose in heating the milk is to kill any bacteria that might be present and interfere with the yoghurt making culture.
*Milk must be heated past 180F (82C) in order to sterilize it, but cow’s milk can tolerate temperatures of up to 212F (100C) while goat’s milk is more delicate and shouldn’t go beyond 185F (85C). This is where a thermometer is helpful.
2. Turn the heat off and allow the milk to cool to between 108F (42C) to 112F (45C) or until you are just about able to stick your finger in the milk and count to ten. Stir well before determining the final temperature. If the milk is too hot when the live yoghurt culture is added, the bacteria may be killed.
3. Beat the yoghurt so that it loosens and looks quite liquid. Pour a little of the milk into the yoghurt and mix thoroughly. Add this slowly to the rest of the milk and mix. Either cover the pot with clingfilm/plastic wrap or its own lid. Now gently place it somewhere warm for 24 hours* (or at least overnight). The airing cupboard is good, or an oven with the light on inside. A heating pad is helpful if you don’t want to give up the oven for that long. You will soon have a lovely softly-set creation; put the pot of yoghurt in the fridge where it will keep for about a week. After the yoghurt has chilled, you can strain it through muslin or cheesecloth to create more of a set, or go further and create yoghurt cheese – otherwise known as Labneh. Don’t throw away the whey; it can be used in soups or baking, and is rich in minerals.
*After 24 hours, the sugar in the milk has been eaten by the bacteria.
Yoghurt, garlic and mint dip
There are endless variations on this theme. It goes well with so many things; mashed into baked aubergine, poured over the top of French beans, and scooped up and dipped into, as the name suggests. You could experiment with other herbs, such as chives, coriander/cilantro or parsley, or add spices such as paprika and cumin.
200g yoghurt (strained, if you like a thicker texture) 1 garlic clove, smashed and finely chopped, 1/2 teaspoon salt, zest of half a lemon and juice to taste, a handful of chopped mint, with some leaves left whole if you like, olive oil. Mix all the ingredients together until well-combined. Dribble with olive oil. Good with flatbread, aubergine and roast lamb.