In my upcoming book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food, I interviewed more than fifty pickle, cheese, chocolate, and spirit artisans from around the country – many in person, some on the phone, and a few via the internet. While I found, unsurprisingly perhaps, that the majority of the cheese makers were farm-based, the remaining industries were primarily urban-centered. I may have had the pastoral vision of a pickle maker filling her large farm house kitchen with jars filled with produce from her own garden, but for the most part this was an idealized tableau. For safety (and legal) reasons, most food must be produced in a commercial kitchen – often rented and shared by start-up artisans. Also, most of these “craft” products are being made and sold in cities. One main reason for this is, deduced from my own research and from reading what others have written about this new “artisanal food revolution,” because cities are where the community resides that supports these artisans. Community is important because they buy the products, of course, but it is also integral to this “revolution” in terms of inspiration, camaraderie among small batch producers, and even the presence of more concentrated immigrant populations that have kept their traditions alive through artisanal food production.
Through my research for Small Batch, I stumbled upon or was told about many artisans whose stories or products were fascinating, but were outside the scope of the industries on which I was focusing, or perhaps for logistical reasons I couldn’t include. Leading up to the book’s publication date in October, I hope to share some of these stories in brief, highlighting artisanal foods around the country.
Sophia’s Greek Pantry is an unassuming store front, selling Greek and Mediterranean products on a busy road in Belmont, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. While the prepared foods Sophia makes fresh are delicious, it is the “yogurt” (really a fresh cheese more akin to crème fraiche) that is truly worth the trip. Sophia has been producing Greek-style yogurt for sale for over a decade – but had been making it for her family for many years before that. In a community with a strong immigrant population of Syrian, Greek, and other Mediterranean ex-pats, someone asked her not long after she opened if she would be selling Greek yogurt, which was at that time not easily available in the states. She decided to start selling the same yogurt she had been making for her three children from a traditional family recipe and starter culture, and slowly people found out.
Sophia’s is a bit of a not-quite-underground secret. Some top area chefs buy directly from her, and she only sells in a few other local shops besides her own. Yet she has been profiled in Edible Boston, The Wall Street Journal mentioned her, and a number of food blogs have written about her exceptional product. And for good reason – her yogurt is thick, tangy, and creamy – with none of that watery mouth feel that traditional low fat yogurt has. When spooned it stays in stiff peaks, and lends itself equally well to sweet or savory recipes – and is of course delicious on its own. While it is made with 2% milk – half sheep and half goat, sourced from small farms in Vermont – because Greek yogurt is drained of excess liquid the resulting yogurt’s nutrients are more densely packed, upping the fat content. It is truly a small batch, handmade product unlike any I have ever tasted in America.
While I make it a point to seek out Sophia’s every time I return to the area, what I love about this product beyond its story and its quality is that it reminds me to look in the most unlikely of places for artisanal foods that can change my perspective on how food can be created and taste. Once yogurt like Sophia’s was the norm – especially from countries like Greece and Lebanon where it is a staple in the traditional diet. Finding a small batch producer like Sophia – someone I would not have likely found had I not lived locally and shopped small grocers (like Sherman’s Market, where I first found Sophia’s) – remind me that there are countless artisans like her around the country and around the world. I want to remember that to support these small batch producers helps to keep alive food traditions that are often in danger of being lost in our large batch, mass produced world.