Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yogurt

On our first trip to France we learned about yogurt as a mainstream food. Back home in St.Louis, at that time, yogurt was sold only in health food stores -- my introduction was from Miss Morreell, a family friend, who thought it would have some miracle effect. In French student dining halls and cheap restaurants, yogurt -- plain and natural -- was a frequent choice for dessert, served in a little glass bottle, and eaten with sugar. I assumed that it had always been a basic element in the French diet.

When we returned to the US, we moved to Berkeley, where yogurt had also become a normal food. It was packaged in coated paper containers, and came in several flavors such as strawberry and peach. We enjoyed yogurt, which of course became an American staple soon after that. We always fondly remembered the special tart taste of French yogurt in the little glass jars, with still-crunchy sugar added as we ate.

I had no idea of the history of yogurt as a popular food first in France, then in the US, until I read the obituary of a remarkable man, Daniel Carasso, who died last week at the age of 103. Danone was a nickname for Daniel -- used by his father, founder of the Danone group (which owns the US Dannon corporation). The first Carasso yogurt business began in Barcelona in 1919, but Daniel moved to Paris where he began to expand the brand. To my surprise, this was the introduction of yogurt, an eastern Mediterranean dish, into Western Europe.

From the article, Daniel Carasso, a Pioneer of Yogurt, Dies at 103 by William Grimes:
"Mr. Carasso was born in Thessalonika, Greece, where his Sephardic family had settled four centuries earlier after the Jews were driven out of Spain. In 1916 his father took the family back to Spain, where he became disturbed by the high incidence of intestinal disorders, especially among children.

"Isaac Carasso began studying the work of √Člie Metchnikoff, the Russian microbiologist who believed that human life could be extended by introducing lactic-acid bacilli, found in yogurt and sour milk, into the digestive system. Using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Isaac began producing Danone.

"At the time, yogurt was exotic. Although a traditional food in Greece, the Middle East, southeastern Europe and large parts of Asia, it was known elsewhere only to a small population of health faddists. Early on, Danone was marketed as a health food and sold by prescription through pharmacies. Gradually it found favor as a milk product that did not spoil in the heat.

"In 1923 Daniel Carasso enrolled in business school in Marseille and, the better to understand yogurt, took a training course in bacteriology at the Pasteur Institute.
In time to avoid the war, Carasso moved to New York, where he began to introduce yogurt to Americans. Business took off slowly, but eventually he realized that American preference was for a sweetened version with strawberry jam. His business acumen was obviously a factor as well, since the Danone group is now one of the largest food conglomerates in France.

I'm fascinated by this story. I hope Dannon Yogurt won't mind my displaying their publicity photo.

No comments: