I’m not usually intimidated by food packaging. It’s there, it contains the food, sometimes it has pretty pictures or useful words printed on it. But the last time Sir Loin and I were at the Ferry Building, I had to hustle him past the Saint Benoît yogurt stand. The stacks of empty ceramic yogurt containers were just too scary. Why were they selling empty pots? Did you select one and get it filled up from a tap? Did you bring your own yogurt and pot it yourself? How did you close them? Or maybe you never did close them and everyone knew it but me. No, no, best to just hurry past the mysterious pots and see if Fatted Calf had any duck liver mousse left.
Then I just forgot about them, and we went to Mexico, where I caught something really really powerful. Five days later and ten pounds lighter, I knew I needed to replenish my intestinal fauna but I don’t really like many yogurts. They’re too sweet, and kind of gelatinous, some of them. I figured I’d just buy some plain and choke it down. But there, in the Whole Foods dairy section was my answer. Pleasant ochre pots of Saint Benoît. Full! Of yogurt! And closed, with tinfoil lids and everything! And (oh my goodness) THREE DOLLARS EACH. I almost fainted. I liked the story on the label, though. “Artisinal French-style yogurt made in small batches in Bodega, CA.” The ingredients just said "Whole Jersey milk, lemon curd (Meyer lemons and sugar), living cultures." The pots had a nice heft to them and I suspected their contents would be good. I bought two and took them home.
Just the right texture, not too sweet, nice yogurt tang with a little sugar to take the edge off. And the thing with the scary pots was that you were supposed to take them back to redeem them for a dollar and a quarter. Like milk bottles. And I’m not afraid of milk bottles!
I vowed to use this new information to conquer my fears of the St. Benoît stand. Yesterday, with Sir Loin in tow, I marched right up to it to have a sniff around. And I met Benoît himself! Cool. Together with his brother, Benoît de Korsak started the yogurt operation a few years back. They didn't really have any yogurt experience except that in France, he said, everyone makes their own. At first they only sold their yogurt at the Ferry Building, but now they have distribution in local WF stores and a few other places. Why, I asked him, do you use those ceramic pots?
Turns out they keep the temperature of the yogurt more constant and cool, they’re reusable (obviously) but the neat thing is that they also preserve the taste of the yogurt. The plastic containers leak plasticness out all into the yogurt and taint the flavor, according to Benoît.
The yogurt is traditional or post organic or whatever you want to call it in other ways too. It contains no stabilizers or thickeners and it’s very low in sugar – just enough to make the jam for the locally sourced flavorings (plum, strawberry, lemon, honey). This means that the shelf life is very short, just two weeks or so. The herd that provides the milk is 100 percent Jersey cows, and their milk has a richer and better tasting than the Holsteins that are usually used. The milk is pasteurized, Benoît says, but it’s a kind of low temperature pasteurization that preserves the milk proteins better that conventional treatment. Also, they don’t homogenize the milk, which means that the fat content varies. The fat info on the label is just an average for the year – your individual pot could be more or less depending on what the cows are up to. I like that lack of industrial uniformity. These ladies, by the way, are mostly pastured, and when they’re not, they get no corn, just hay from the very fields that they graze in the summers. The dairy is Valley Ford in Bodega. I’d like to go out and see them one day.
So where can you get this magical yogurt? Turns own, it’s local oblige. Benoît and his brother can’t sell it outside the greater Bay Area because the infrastructure for returning the pots doesn’t exist (or it would be too expensive – they’re heavy!) Furthermore, he'd have to increase the shelf life, which would mean adding more sugar to the recipe, and we don’t want that! For now, then, you’ll have to come round to our ‘hood, and if you see them at the Ferry Building, don’t fear the pots. They’re not scary at all.