If, as Clifton Fadiman so memorably phrased it, cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality, then yogurt must be its first step in that general direction. How milk got culture is actually a bit of a mystery. Most likely, the earliest yogurts were spontaneously fermented by wild bacteria in goatskin bags. Wherever it took place, the result— particularly when eaten with honey—has been known as food of the gods since ancient times.
Here’s what happens: A host of bacteria (usually lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) ferments lactose to create lactic acid; this in turns acts on milk protein to give yogurt its firmer texture and characteristic tang. A thick version of this, from which the watery whey has been drained, is eaten around the world. It goes by various names, including yogurt cheese, labneh and zabedi, among many others. Some American marketing genius introduced this remarkably rich and creamy manna as Greek yogurt, and the rest is history.
The Greeks, in fact, do eat it —but so do the Indians, Russians, Mexicans, Turks, Nepalese and Middle Easterners. In Greece, it’s often made from sheep’s milk yogurt, and this is the kind I like best. Paradoxically, it’s nearly impossible to find in America. But it’s possible to seek out sheep’s milk yogurt and from there a little straining is all that’s required to achieve the desired texture. This process removes some of the lactose, so the resulting yogurt is actually a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates than the unstrained kind, though the taste belies this.
My preferred method is to dump two cartons of plain organic sheep’s milk yogurt into a cheesecloth, tie it up with a bit of string and hang it to drain for most of a day over my kitchen sink. By the time it has decreased to about half its original volume, the yogurt has become wonderfully dense and rich. Stir in some cucumber, garlic, olive oil and salt for the classic Greek dip, tzatziki, lovely with grilled lamb or warm pita. Or spoon up a bowlful adorned only with a few chopped walnuts and an unrestrained drizzle of honey. Think of it as your divine right.