the story of how I learnt to make yoghurt

May 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

The story of how I learnt to make yoghurt is not a simple one. It spans some 5 years and two continents. It begins just after I finished my undergraduate degree, when I spent a year in India, getting lost and trying to find myself again. As you do when you are 24. During that time, I spent a couple of months volunteering in a Buddhist nunnery teaching English in the Gompa. The nunnery was in the far north of India, in a place called Zanskar, a mountain range that runs on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. Being in the rain-shadow of the tallest mountain range in the world, Zanskar is something like a desert, it never rains and vegetation on the surrounding slopes is scarce. But in the valleys where there are glacial streams, fluorescent green fields make a stark contrast to the moonscape hills. Here the grass grows with a certain urgency learnt through evolution in a land where warmth and water are ungenerous.

But signs of life are not restricted to the stream soaked valleys. On the hill tops prayer flags beat in the winds, some are very old, worn and tattered with almost all their prayers lifted to the breeze. Fossils scatter the myriad of paths that weave their way out of town along scree slopes and over mountain ridges. These benthic remnants a reminder that this very landscape was once hundreds of meters below the ocean.

fluorescent green fields

My journey to Zanskar begins in Leh, with a 26 hour bus ride covering some 400km to take me to the remote valley. As you can imagine, the road is very rough. Because I booked late, I don’t have a seat and so have to make do with the floor where I wedge my way into a somewhat comfortable space between the luggage that fills the aisle. I am not the only one and soon a man falls asleep on my back and another on my knees. After 10 hours of this and with the knowledge of 16 more to go, I begin to feel agitated, my legs and back cramped. From my place on the floor I glance up at a boy standing at the front of the bus without even room to sit. He is smiling and in his smile my anger subsides. The easy nature of the locals and their open acceptance of each situation is contagious. Like other times when I have traveled to developing countries, I am struck by what lessons we have forgotten in a privileged and wealthy world. Not long after, a girl sitting on the seat next to me offers me her lap to rest my head. Gratefully I fall asleep there for an hour or two. Later I find out she is from Zangla, the small village where I  will be teaching.

When we finally arrive, tired and dirty from the dusty road, it is late, so I spend the night with the girl from the bus in her family home. Their house is like all the rest in the village, made from mud and cow dung, two stories high, with a flat roof loaded with fodder, wood and dried cow dung to burn in the coming winter.

the glacial stream

The next morning I walk through a flowered field woven with a myriad of creeks and streams running to the river. There I wash in water clear as glass before walking the short distance to the Gompa that sits on a small hill on the far side of the village. I am nervous to meet the nuns as they have no way of knowing I am coming, but I am greeted with warm smiles and open laughter.

During my time at the monastery, my relationship with the nuns becomes more like a friend than a teacher and maybe this is why at times it is difficult to get them to come to class. Many of the nuns don’t have much of an interest in learning English, except maybe male and female body parts for which they have abundant enthusiasm. But it makes me question what I am doing. What is the purpose of teaching English? Is it not just another form of cultural imperialism? I still don’t really know the answer to this, but I do know that I am there with others who came before and after me. With a growing number of tourists visiting the region each year and with increasing access to the outside world, western influences are unavoidable. And in general, such change is welcomed by the locals, because with it comes a higher standard of living, the ability to join the rest of the world, to “develop”, to “progress”. I realise I am more sentimental than many of the locals in regard to the loss of traditions and the damage to land and culture that comes with such pursuits. But as I learn from the Buddhists that live there, nothing is permanent, change for good or for bad is inevitable. So perhaps as westerners we should focus on learning from our own mistakes and try to assist those who are following in our footsteps to take on a more sustainable path. Because of this I allow myself some small reassurance that in some tiny way, I am giving the nuns some of the skills they need to communicate with the outside world, so they can speak up and voice their needs and concerns in a shifting landscape. But it is small comfort in light of the stories of rapidly retreating glaciers, water sources drying up, the brain drain as educated children chose to live in far off cities, the introduction of white flour, sugar, packaged food and the plastic litter building up in a place with no formal rubbish disposal system.

nuns with umbrellas

hands

So I spend my time practicing the art of just being and trying to help where I can, teaching in the school with the younger nuns, offering small informal English lessons here and there and lending a hand with the cooking.

The kitchen is a good place to be because it is where the nuns meet. Warm and cheeky they laugh and hoot slapping one another on the legs as they sit cross-legged at the low tables lining one wall of the large room. This is where I watch them making yoghurt. Taken fresh, straight from Pashi the Gompa’s resident cow, they heat the milk over a large pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. Just as the milk starts to simmer but before it boils they pull it off the heat allowing it to cool to the temperature of a hot bath before stirring in a tablespoon or so of yoghurt left over from the last batch. The whole pot is then wrapped in a thick woollen blanket and placed in a corner of the kitchen until the next day when it is eaten with ladakhi bread and butter tea for breakfast.

I become very fond of Pashi and her calf Patel. They are a handsome pair, golden blond with strongly defined features. Their stable is next to my room and at night I can hear them moving around. They give me great comfort. In the evenings I bring Pashi back from the fields where she is tethered on a grassy knoll. The pleasure in the simplicity of it all, walking the cow home with the summer breeze on my face and playing in my skirt.

My room is also made of mud and cow dung, a little square that I can just lie down in. It has a small window and a small door I have to double over in to enter. When it is windy the roof sprinkles dirt to the floor.  The scene from my window is vivid.  At dusk small birds with round bellies and orange tails sit outside and I try to be very quiet then, any movement and they will fly away. As night draws, the moon illuminates the land with a pale yellow grey light and the shadows of the clouds play on the mountain tops.

my mouse hole room

Some days I walk to the river, its fast current tempting me, full of the energy of the mountains and sky from which it came. To get there I walk past Mane walls, ancient inscriptions on flat stones piled together. Who placed those first rocks there sending Om Mane Padme Hum to all ends of the earth? The valley big and broad with barely any landmarks, I lose perspective of distance, everything seems closer than it really is. Zhos (a cross between a yak and a cow) graze on the fertile strips where a creek meets the river’s edge. I watch the herders bring them together and drive them home. At the river the current is hypnotising, eddies run in all directions and waves appear to move upstream.

mane walls

The valley with the Zanskar river in the background

Other days I follow the small stream up behind the Gompa into a canyon that becomes narrower and narrower drawing nearer to its source. There in the rock pools I swim comfortably naked and alone among the pastel green, maroon, and orange of the boulders. The water as glass, streams crystal clear over the rocks, like cloth falling over the landscape, cool enough to make me gasp but warm enough to linger a while.

glacial stream

One night stands out to me in particular. It is nearing the end of my time in Zanskar when we can’t find Pashi. She is not in the field where we left her and must have broken her tether. One of the nuns and I go looking for her down by the river. The moon is half full in the sky and bright enough to lead the way, the stars half obscured by clouds. The green field in the flat of the river runs with small streams and shines moist. The beauty catches my breath. We spend two hours wandering along the water’s edge, through fields and along stone-walled pastures. Finally, defeated, we walk back to the village through the sweet smell of mustard in flower. Back at the Gompa we find Pashi tethered to her stable. One of the other nuns found her and brought her back whilst we were gone. By now it is late and I climb back into my mouse-hole room only to find I cannot sleep. The freshness of the night still on my skin and in my mind, the stars shining on me.

My last day in Zangla, I wake up from my small window to see the sun’s first rays on the fresh snow-capped mountains turning from grey to orange to yellow and finally to white as the day begins. My sleeping bag is slightly wet from rare rain that fell that night. After breakfast the nuns fill my bag with chapatis’ for my journey to Leh. Way to many for me to eat by myself but they insisted I take them all. We hear the bus coming so running out the door, kataks thick around my neck it finally dawns  that I am leaving and tears prick my cheeks. I climb onto the roof of the bus. From there the nuns look so sweet waving in their maroon robes framed by the Gompa and the Himalayas. The fresh morning and the smiling mountains feel good on my damp cheeks. I am full with the privilege to have lived a little in their world.

then nuns waving me goodbye

How to make Yoghurt

Before going to Zanskar, I had always been put off by the idea of making yoghurt as every recipe I had come across called for either a yoghurt-maker or thermometer, making it all seem far to complicated. But after seeing the nuns do it, I realised all you really needed was a large pot, a warm  place, a blanket and a bit of careful watching.

But still I kept putting it off and it wasn’t until a year ago when I was asked to give a fermentation workshop at CERES that I decided I better give it a go. I couldn’t even pretend to be an expert if I had never made yoghurt before. So I started researching. It turned out I didn’t need to go far.  In my bookshelf  was my much-loved copy of Wild Fermentation and in it a recipe for Yoghurt that doesn’t use a yoghurt maker or a thermometer. This was what I’d been waiting for.

The most important thing you need when making yoghurt is a warm and cosy place to rest it in. I usually pre-heat a small Esky by filling it up with hot water from the tap. I then empty it, dry it out and fill it with towels and if it is winter and really cold, a hot water bottle or some jars filled with warm water as well. But really what you need is a place  that will cool down very slowly. I have also heard of people making yoghurt in a thermos and I’m sure this could work too.

Yoghurt Recipe makes 1 litre

Equipment

1 litre jar
Insulated cooler/esky

Ingredients

1 litre whole organic milk
1 Tbsp fresh yoghurt (check it has live cultures)

Method

Pre – heat your jar and cooler with hot water, so that they won’t drain heat once you pour in your yoghurt.

Slowly heat your milk, paying close attention, until tiny bubbles start to form but before it starts to boil (if you have a thermometer, this is 80°C/180°F). Stir frequently to avoid burning the milk. The heating is not absolutely necessary, but it helps to get thicker yoghurt.

Allow the milk to cool until it still feels hot but is not so hot that you can’t keep a clean finger in it. You can quicken the cooling process by placing your saucepan in a bowl of cold water. But be careful it doesn’t cool too much. The optimum temperature is as mentioned above – about 40°C/110°F).

Mix the starter yoghurt into the milk. Make sure you don’t get tempted to add more yoghurt thinking it will help to make a thicker  end result as it will do the opposite. Poor into your jar, screw on the lid and place in your pre heated “incubator”. If you see fit, add some jars with warm water and/or a hot water bottle (with warm water in it) to help maintain the temperature. Leave in a place where it won’t be disturbed as it doesn’t like being jostled.

After 8 – 12 hours, check on your yoghurt. It should have developed a “tangy flavour and some thickness” .

Store in the fridge and consume within 4 weeks, saving some for your next batch.

Finally, make sure you have a look at how to make Labnah cheese from yoghurt here and some of the things you can do with Labnah here.

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