Q: On a recent European holiday (Paris/Lisbon), I enjoyed and sampled all types of delicious cuisine, but the yogurt was really special. Even the low-fat is rich and creamy, with an almost custard-like quality. LibertÃ© yogurt is very good, but why is the European yogurt just so much more satisfying? -Pamela Dean
A: The University of Guelph's website for dairy science says yogurt originated centuries ago and evolved from many traditional Eastern European products. The word yogurt is from the Turkish yogen, which means thick. No matter where it's made, the basic ingredients and manufacturing are essentially consistent, the university says.
Yogurt is most often made with cow's milk; sheep and goat milk are also used. According to the National Yogurt Association website, aboutyogurt.com, the milk is first pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. Good bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, are then added.
The yogurt association says the process is similar to making beer, wine or cheese, in that these beneficial organisms ferment and transform the basic food. In the case of yogurt, the fermentation process turns milk into a thickened product with a unique, tangy taste.
As Pamela discovered, the flavour and consistency of yogurt can vary from one region to another.
"I believe that the milk and bacteria are the key components that make Bulgarian or European-style yogurt different than the yogurt produced in North America," said Pat Crocker, the author of the information-packed book The Yogurt Bible (Robert Rose, $27.95).
Crocker said if sheep or goat milk is used, the protein content in the milk is higher, and that results in a richer consistency in the yogurt, even though the fat content may be lower. She said it might also be that in Europe, along with the L. bulgaricus bacteria, another bacteria could have been introduced by shepherds who added juice from the roots of indigenous plants, which contained a unique bacteria that produced a thicker yogurt. "This unidentified bacteria might now be part of the bacteria used for European-style yogurt," Crocker said.
Greek-style or strained yogurt, where the whey is strained away, is also something Pamela might have also tried in Europe. This type of yogurt, which is available in Canada, is thicker and creamier, even when low-fat. You can make this style of yogurt at home with plain yogurt. See the "Note" at the bottom today's soup recipe.
On her blog, foodgal.com, award-winning writer Carolyn Jung queried French food expert Hugues De Vernou as to why French yogurt seems so much richer tasting. De Vernou said it was because French yogurt is made with milk from Normandy, the best there is. On Jung's blog, French yogurt is described as tasting more like dessert, with a gentle tang and incredibly luscious, fresh, milky taste.
However, other places in the world also claim to have the best milk. On LibertÃ©'s website, liberte.qc.ca, the Montreal-based company says they use the best milk in the world to make their yogurt, the milk from Quebec cows.
I hope this gives Pamela some insight into why yogurt can vary in taste and texture. Fat content will, obviously, also affect how rich tasting it will be. I also believe eating a food near the area it was produced always makes it taste better. Leisurely eating French yogurt in a Paris cafÃ© while you watch the world go by would certainly enhance its flavour.
Eric Akis is the author of the recently published Everyone Can Cook Slow Cooker Meals. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
CURRIED SWEET POTATO SOUP
The taste combination of the curry and the sweet potatoes, along with the coconut milk, make this complex and mildly spicy soup a great starter for lunch or for a soup/salad combo. This recipe is excerpted from The Yogurt Bible by Pat Crocker (c) 2010 Robert Rose Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Makes: 4 servings
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp curry powder
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
1 cup chopped carrot
3 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup chopped raisins
1 tsp salt
1 can (14-oz.) coconut milk
1/2 cup drained yogurt (see Note)
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
1. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add onion and curry powder, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes. Stir in sweet potatoes and carrot. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.
2. Stir in broth. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add raisins and salt and cook for 5 minutes or until all vegetables are soft. Remove from heat.
3. Using a potato masher, roughly mash sweet potato mixture. Stir in coconut milk and drained yogurt. Return to medium-high heat and heat through (do not let boil). Ladle soup into 4 bowls. Divide bell pepper evenly over each bowl. Serve immediately.
Note: Pat Crocker says to make drained yogurt, you should first place plain yogurt in a cheeseclothlined strainer set over a bowl. After 10 minutes, much of the liquid in the yogurt will have drained away. The resulting yogurt is thicker and creamier, similar to Greek-style yogurt. Two cups of plain yogurt will yield about 1 1/2 cups of drained yogurt.
If there is a cooking issue that has you scratching your head, send your question to Eric by email at eakis@timescolonist. com, by fax to Ask Eric at 250-380-5353 or by regular mail to Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., V8T 4M2