The first time I saw a jar of Saint Benoît Yogurt on the shelves, I knew I had to try it. I’d never heard of the brand, let alone taste the product, but I was on a yogurt kick, and was getting bored of a rotation among Skyr, Fage and Clover Organics.
It was the packaging that did the trick. A glass jar, unadorned save for its nutritional label, sealed with a four-inch foil top. Against a sea of four-ounce plastic cups, finding a quart of yogurt in glass was unique enough for me to sit up and pay attention. I loved the simplicity of the packaging – no illustrations of cows and pasture, or a corporate logo – just the name and an image of their signature light brown ceramic cup, accompanied by the words “artisan French-style yogurt”. In slipping the jar into my basket, I took a leap of faith – if the yogurt disappointed, M would have a quart of the stuff to finish, a feat that even he, the most devoted of yogurt fans would be hard-pressed to do.
Obviously, this story has a happy ending. I had, serendipitously, bought a cream-top yogurt, made from the organic, full-fat milk of pastured Jersey cows that graze on the land right beside the creamery. Fresh, with a touch of sweetness and acidity, its thick, soft texture evoked notions of comfort – of settling into a familiar, well-worn leather armchair or of curling up under a luscious blanket on a cold night. For someone who’s had less than stellar experiences with yogurt (usually consuming out of necessity than desire), I guess you could say that the first spoonful of Saint Benoît Yogurt was my epiphany, as it was for many of their loyal fans.
Benoît de Korsak saw a business opportunity when his American in-laws raved about the joys of French yogurt on one of their visits to France. It wasn’t long before a business plan was drawn up, equipment purchased and purchase agreements were signed with John Mattos, a dairy farmer with 500 Jersey cows across 1,000 acres of land in Sonoma County. The de Korsaks (Benoît started the business with his brother, David, who has since left for other pursuits) opened for business in 2004 with a stall at San Francisco’s highly-coveted Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.
Unlike most Farmers’ Market vendors who have to contend with waiting lists, rounds of interviews and taste tests before securing a much-coveted booth, it was a breeze for the Saint Benoît team, simply by virtue of their product. Said Benoît, “We have a unique product and are probably the only producers who make artisan yogurt in the region, if not the West Coast.”
Today, the signature ceramic cups can also be found at Farmers’ Markets in Berkeley, Alameda, Marin and Palo Alto, grocery stores throughout the Bay Area as well as establishments like San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton and Alice Waters’ Café Fanny in Berkeley.
When I started Beyond the Plate, the creamery was on my initial ‘hitlist’ of artisans to profile, borne out of an appreciation for their product as well as a skepticism of the use of the term “artisan”. I wondered if it was another product of a marketing spiel. Together with Denise and our respective cameras, we drove right into the picturesque, rolling hills of Sonoma county to their modest production facility for a day of yogurt-making. Or at least the observation of it.
Like their packaging, the creamery is a simple affair. Formerly a milking parlor on the Mattos farm, the structure was repurposed with a main room equipped for yogurt production. A 200 gallon milk tank was installed as were pumps, foil-top sealers, incubators, chillers and dishwashers. About 1,200 quarts and 900 cups (7½ ounces each) are produced every Tuesday to Friday, each of them filled and wrapped by hand before being sealed with plastic.
Beyond the discourse of organic certifications and the local food movement, Saint Benoît Yogurt is driven by a commitment to terroir: to reflect the characteristics of Sonoma County in their products. This explains their use of local purveyors like Marshall’s Farm (for their honey-flavored yogurt) and organic jams from Lagier Ranches (Meyer Lemon marmalade, Strawberry, Blueberry, Plum) for their flavored products.
“Our jams are organic and have a lower refined sugar content,” said Benoît. “The blueberry jam, for instance, it’s 80 percent blueberries and 20 percent sugar. Most regular yogurt makers use a jam that’s equal parts fruit and sugar.”
We got to sample their Plum yogurt which was made a few days before. Buried at the bottom of the cup, the thin slices of fruit were nuggets of sweetness that balanced out the tangyness of the yogurt perfectly. Intrigued, Denise promptly went and purchased a cup of Meyer Lemon yogurt for herself the next day, which she used in these blueberry muffins.
A typical day at the creamery begins at around 6 in the morning, with the collection of 200 gallons of freshly-squeezed milk from the milking parlor just down the street. It’s then pumped into the milk tank in the main room where the pasteurization process begins. Because the milk is processed at a low temperature for a longer period of time (heated to 150F for 30 minutes) as opposed to the high heat pasteurization technique commonly used in the industry (161F for 15 to 20 seconds), the “good” bacteria that help break down lactose during digestion are preserved in the milk, making this yogurt suitable for everyone, even those with a lactose intolerance.
While the milk is being pasteurized, Benoît and his team – Sara, Nina and John – prepare their mise en place: pre-filled containers of jam or honey, storage trays, foil tops, sealing rings and kitchen towels to soak up overflows.
Once the pasteurization is done, about half a cup of French culture is added and left to sit for 10 minutes, starting the transformation of milk to yogurt.
It also starts the clock. The team have two hours to bottle and seal over 2,000 containers of yogurt before the milk starts to set in the vat and becomes difficult to dispense. It’s the eye of the storm and the essence of the day, with all hands on deck.
When Sara leaves halfway, with numerous trays of cups left to be filled, Benoît looks at me and, half-seriously, says, “Stop taking photographs, go and help Nina.”
I was thrilled.
Until I stepped up to the table to see how woefully inadequate my hands, accustomed to the leisurely exercise of keyboard typing and dough-kneading, were compared with the speed at which Nina dispensed and covered each cup with foil. I think she readied about five cups for every one that I did.
Each container is then incubated for six hours, to allow the yogurt to develop further, before it’s sealed with a plastic rim. It’s then refrigerated overnight and shipped out the following morning.
Standing in line, decked out in full production gear (hairnet + apron + gloves) and carrying on a cursory conversation with Nina as I did my best to wrap each cup as perfectly as I could, I thought about what “artisan” really meant, beyond the romanticized and commoditized ideals we’ve been sold.
It’s social. An artisan mode of production isn’t just about technique, it’s also about the people you work with to produce the food, the conversations you have, and the things you learn about each other in the process of working together.
It’s about keeping things small and sustainable, focusing on quality and simplicity instead of market share and economies of scale.
Because it’s small, it’s personal. It was strange to think that the cup of yogurt I was wrapping would be opened and consumed by someone – maybe me! – in the next few days. After my test stint on the production line, I will never look at a jar of yogurt the same way again, knowing the people who put it together in that production facility on one of their two-hour marathons against the clock, filling and sealing each jar for the market.
“Artisanal yogurt means keeping it small, simple and natural,” Benoît shared, when I asked about his views on the subject.
“That’s what we try to do here – our yogurts are very simple, made of only milk and culture. The 2,000 containers that we make each day are a tiny amount compared with most yogurt producers on the market. We plan to keep it that way, because small-batch production allows us to focus on producing high-quality products.”
Strawberry Cheesecake Ice-cream
Makes about 2½ cups (inspired by Desserts for Breakfast)
We left the creamery each with a jar of Saint Benoît Yogurt’s yogurt cheese in hand, and I took my time to figure out what to do with this precious 7½ ounces of what was essentially a healthy, low-fat cream cheese alternative. Thanks to Stephanie with her Pumpkin Cheesecake ice-cream, everything clicked. With strawberries in full production mode at the moment, I didn’t waste any time putting them to work in this refreshing ice-cream that’s actually healthy! The yogurt cheese adds structure and richness, providing the perfect canvas for strawberries to really shine. Because I wanted a contrast of colors, the purée is only stirred into the ice-cream at the end of the process, reserving the rest for a generous drizzle upon serving. You could just as well add the purée during the mixing process, in which case you’ll end up with a summery pink ice-cream.
- 7.5 ounces cream or yogurt cheese
- ½ cup sugar
- ¾ cup whole milk
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream
- ¼ teaspoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup strawberry purée (recipe follows)
- In a stand mixer, beat the yogurt cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth (about 2 minutes).
- Add the milk and cream, and beat on medium speed until you get a thick, smooth consistency (about 4 minutes). Add the lemon juice and salt, mixing just enough to incorporate. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- When you’re ready to make the ice-cream, churn the chilled mixture according to your ice-cream maker’s instructions.
- Measure out ½ cup of the purée and pour a thin layer at the bottom of the container that will hold the ice-cream. Top with a third of the ice-cream mixture, then gently mix the strawberry puree and yogurt cheese ice-cream with a wooden spoon, stirring just enough to create swirls in the cream without coloring the whole mixture pink. Continue alternating between puree and yogurt ice-cream until finished.
- Freeze for at least 2 hours before serving, with the remaining ½ cup of purée drizzled over each bowl.
Makes about 3 cups
- 1½ pound fresh or frozen strawberries, hulled and quartered
- ¼ to ½ cup sugar (depending on how sweet your strawberries are)
- Place the strawberries and sugar in a bowl or blender, and puree until liquid. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary.
- Refrigerate until ready to use. The purée can be kept, refrigerated and well-sealed, for up to 5 days or frozen for up to a month.