So, today I want to look at yoghurt – specifically the early Western experience of it, for the good reason that I can’t read very early references in Arabic or Turkish or other languages of its countries of origin!
The Oxford English Dictionary describes yoghurt as ‘a sour fermented liquor made from milk, used in Turkey and other countries of the Levant; now common in many English-speaking countries as a commercial semi-solid, often flavoured, foodstuff.’ It gives the first reference in English as appearing in 1625, as ‘Neither doe they [sc. the Turks] eate much Milke, except it bee made sower, which they call Yoghurd’ (S. Purchas Pilgrimmes II)
The Monthly Magazine, and American View for the Year 1800, in its section on Useful Economical Information included an extract from Eton’s Survey of the Turkish Empire which described the preparation of yoghurt in its native land, and which will serve for our recipe for the day.
The Arabians and the Turks have a preparation of milk, which has similar qualities to the kumiss of the Kalmuks: by the first, it is called leban; by the Turks, yaourt.
To make it, they put to new milk, made hot over the fire, some old leban, or yaourt. In a few hours, more or less, according to the temperature of the air, it be comes curdled, of an uniform consistence, and a most pleasant acid; the cream is in great part separated, leaving the curd light and semitransparent. The whey is much less subject to separate than in curds made with rennet with us, for the purpose of making cheese. Yaourt has this singular quality; that left to stand, it becomes daily sourer, and, at last, dries without having entered into the putrid fermentation. In this state, it is preserved in bags, and, in appearance, resembles pressed curds after they have been broken by the hand. This dry yaourt, mixed with waiter, becomes a fine cooling food or drink, of excellent service in fevers of the inflammatory or putrid kind. It seems to have none of those qualities which make milk improper in fevers. Fresh yaourt is a great article of food among the natives, and Europeans soon become fond of it.
No other acid will make the same kind of curd-: all that have been tried, after the acid fermentation is over, become putrid. In Russia they put their milk in pots in an oven, and let it stand till it becomes sour, and this they use as an article of food in that state, or make cheese of it, but it has none of the qualities of yaourt, though, when it is new, it has much of the taste. Perhaps new milk curdled with sour milk, and that again used as a ferment, and the same process continued, might, in time, acquire the qualities of yaourt, which never can be made in Turkey without some old yaourt.
They give no rational account how it was first made; some of them told me an angel taught Abraham how to make it, and others, that an angel brought a pot of it to Hagar, which was the first yaourt (or leban).
It merits attention as a delicious article of food, and as a medicine.
It seems that popularisation of yoghurt in the English-speaking world took more than three centuries from that first mention in 1625. It was still essentially unknown in the very working class post-WWII community in the North of England in which I grew up. I do not remember when I first tried yoghurt myself, or when it became part of my daily (almost) routine, but I do remember making it myself in the ‘80’s when we lived in the country with no shops nearby but a house cow which provided more milk than we could use.
Literary references suggest however that the better off and better informed in England did appreciate yoghurt before my time – although it is still surprising that the first mention of it in The Times newspaper was not until 1938, and the first of it being used in cookery not until 1961, in a brief mention of it being a good addition to briefly cooked shredded beetroot.
Quotation for the Day
I asked the waiter, 'Is this milk fresh?' He said, 'Lady, three hours ago it was grass.'