The Gourmand: A contemporary food, arts and culture journal
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A Mother's Milk

  • White Moustache Spoon - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    White Moustache Spoon
  • White Moustache Spoon - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    White Moustache Spoon
  • White Moustache Whey - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    White Moustache Whey
  • White Moustache Labels - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    White Moustache Labels
  • Homa Dashtaki - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    Homa Dashtaki
  • White Moustache Front Door  - A Mother’s Milk - The Gourmand
    White Moustache Front Door

A Mother's Milk

  • My mother started making yogurt at home when my dad got cancer. Songul, our housekeeper, who grew up preserving food that lasted the frigid winters of her village in Turkey’s Anatolia region, guided her through the process of incubating the milk that was bought fresh from an old dairy farm in Ankara. My mom learned to put her pinky in the milk that had been warmed up in a steel pot and count to ten, testing the temperature before introducing bacteria in the form of a few spoonfuls of store bought yoghurt. Songul would then wrap an old, thick tablecloth around the pot and let it stand on a pile of newspapers for about eight hours. In the morning, she would strain it in a Tupperware with a holed tray in it’s bottom. My dad would eat the yoghurt and drink the whey, the liquid collected after straining, with his lunch.
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  • Like most Turkish people, I am a fan of yoghurt but as a city girl my yoghurt know-how is a recent acquisition. Although I am nostalgic for the yoghurt of my childhood, sold in glass jars by men on mopeds, I am fine with most store bought Turkish brands that come in plastic containers of all shapes and sizes. I enjoy squeezing and licking the thick, heavy strained kind out of its plastic bag as much as dusting powdered sugar over individual cups of Kanlica yoghurt. My favorite yoghurt is made with buffalo milk and set in beautiful clay bowls. I like to drink yoghurt too, in the form of salty, frothy ayran or a warm bowl of tarhana soup, made with wheat and yoghurt, fermented and dried. 
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  • In Turkey, yoghurt isn’t traditionally eaten for breakfast, it is, rather, a savoury side dish that can round off the flavours of stuffed peppers or tame the heat of a kebap skewer. A summer lunch would not be without a bowl of cacik, yoghurt mixed with herbs and ice cubes. My three year old son’s favorite dish is rice mixed with yoghurt, which in his words is “yummy in my tummy.” My mother has a small bowl of yoghurt with a mix of ground nigella, sesame and flax seeds every night before bed, a recipe she believes to be beneficial to her guts. 
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  • Indeed, yoghurt was first introduced to the US in the form of tablets to aid digestive troubles and it wasn’t until the 1940s, when Daniel Carasso and Joe Metzger started making it in the Bronx under the name of Danone Company, that it appeared as we know it today—as an official New York state snack, designated by Governor Andrew Cuomo. It crowds the aisles of bodegas and fancy supermarkets alike, with flavours ranging from sweet to savoury. I find myself to be indifferent to mango or pumpkin in my yoghurt and buy a plain, whole milk kind from an organic farm in Pennsylvania. It’s un-homogenised, with a pale layer of yellow cream on top. It can at times turn out unpleasantly watery, but it’s the kind of yoghurt I’m used to consuming on a daily basis. 
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  • Then, there is the exceptional White Moustache yoghurt, which is called on for special occasions. It comes in chubby, glass jars with a black and white sticker featuring a big, bold moustache and the quiet description: “Handmade Yogurt. Small Batch, Old World”. The sell by date is handwritten with a Sharpie and it comes in a few different styles and flavors: Greek or Persian, with Dates, King Mulberry, Quince or one that is curiously named Kiss—with orange blossom honey and walnuts and my favourite, the ever popular Sour Cherry.
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  • In the weeks following the birth of my daughter I’d take my sleep deprived, jaded self to the supermarket around the corner from our house for that jar of Sour Cherry yoghurt. I’d sit on the counter facing the street in the nearby park, hesitantly hit the fruit with my spoon and watch the burgundy cherry trickle through the creamy yoghurt as if in a marbled endpaper. I later fed the yoghurt to my daughter, her very first food. By this point I had become so possessed by my afternoon delight that I sent its maker, Homa Dashtaki, a love letter. She sent me the sweetest reply and we decided to meet on a sunny, summer afternoon. 
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  • Homa’s operation runs behind a bright green door on Red Hook’s Commerce Street, in close proximity to a distillery sourcing their grains from upstate New York, a chocolate factory founded by an aerospace engineer whose family owns a 100 year old organic cacao farm in Dominican Republic, and a Paletería, a Mexican ice-cream shop serving popsicles with flavours as unique as avocado or tamarind. Inside, the shelves are full with packing materials and raw ingredients used for making ricotta, granola and mustard in small batches by those Homa shares the space with. Through a further swinging door is the pristine kitchen where she spends most of her time, along with her small staff. 
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  • Homa is tall and lean, with sculpted features, her dark hair adorned with streaks of silver and cropped short. She is wearing harem pants and a charming demeanor. We start talking yoghurt as we sip her signature Probiotic Whey Tonic with Honey and Lime. She started making yoghurt by luck, saying it “was just the thing I knew how to make well.” The daughter of a Zoroastrian family from Yazd, Homa moved to Orange County, California from Iran when she was eight, at the time of the revolution and Iran-Iraq war. A good student, she went on to became a lawyer at a New York law firm. Then the financial crash of 2008 happened, she was laid off and found herself on an avocado farm.
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  • Homa’s plan was to take a few months off to figure it out: “And I wanted to use my body and not my brain. When I showed up though the guy was like, ‘but it’s not avocado season.’ She went on to teach yoga for a year before traveling back to Yazd with her father, taking a camera to film the old Zoroastrian people in their villages and capture their stories in a documentary which never materialised. Her relationship with her dad has been very close and always project-oriented, they decided that their next project should be making and selling yoghurt, named after his impressive facial hair. Homa already knew how to make the pleasantly tart, savory yoghurt she loved, she was built on that. All she needed was warm milk and probiotics, a bowl, a blanket, and a certain level of composure: “Yoghurt making forces you to slow down. If you boil milk to get it ready for yogurt, you have half a second to react right before it goes from fine to a disaster.” 
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  • They took over the kitchen of an Egyptian restaurant and started making yoghurt in the small hours. They sold jars of it in the nearby farmer’s market and people liked it: “Of all the other random stuff I wanted to do, this one just clicked” she says, “working with milk is very special. It sounds like a cliché but there is something about working with this living thing, it is a mother’s milk, that makes it a big deal. I feel very privileged to do that.” 
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  • Working with milk indeed proved to be a big deal. After a few months, Homa got a call from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, threatening to fine and arrest her unless she shuts down immediately.The concern being her suspected use of raw milk in her yoghurt production: “California was having all these raids on raw milk. SWAT teams would go in and confiscate it, I was dealing with a raw milk renegade group. And all this when in fact I was using already pasteurised milk that I bought from the grocery store, I was so small back then that I was buying half gallon bottles.” After two years of fighting and some false starts, Homa moved to New York where with the help of a friend, a cheesemaker and proprietor of Salvatore Bklyn, she set up in a shared kitchen. The NY State Department of Agriculture helped her to start the business in a way that retained her integrity, but the move was complicated by Homa’s past life there as an attorney: “as a 24/7 yoghurt maker, at first I didn’t know how to live here. I was very poor but I was just so driven. Maybe because I was working with milk, or because what I did was something so personal to my history, to my family, but I was so driven.” 
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  • Homa uses whole milk from Hudson Valley Fresh, a Dairy Farmer Partnership processing milk from Hudson Valley farms that are within 20 miles of each other. Her powdered culture is sourced from a man who learnt about probiotics and yoghurt starters after getting sick and now works as tenderly with them as she does with yoghurt. “I feel very protective of our space and process, which are so simple,” she says as she shows me the large white bowl she would wrap with fleece blankets to incubate yoghurt back in the days when the demand was more manageable. “All the blankets have been stitched by my mom’s boss, each bowl would get two. When I had to grow the business, I was freaking out and I started monitoring temperatures. I couldn’t just get fifty more bowls, so my dad and I had to figure out an alternative.” The bowls have now been replaced by one big vat, which regulates its temperature and is itself still covered with blankets. Homa adds, “I’d still rather have fifty grannies here doing their thing rather than figuring out the science of it.” 
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  • All the White Moustache flavours take their cues from the Middle Eastern palette, whether its mulberries and peaches in summer or quince in the fall. There is also moosir, a savoury yoghurt with shallots, typically Iranian and what Homa grew up on, “always at the dinner table to be eaten with anything from rice to chips.” Then, there is whey, the cool, tangy byproduct collected after the long straining process of making Greek style yoghurt. Its color shifts from pale yellow to neon green and it is laden with calcium and probiotics, “nature’s sports drink” as Homa calls it. Being left with so much, she decided to bottle it. Figuring that the American palette may not take it straight up, she paired it with lime and honey, ginger and pineapple as well as keeping back plain which she sells in gallons—to chefs and bartenders, who use it to marinate meats or as cocktail bases. 
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  • With both White Moustache’s yoghurt and whey being sold in glass bottles, Homa soon started a recycling system for her cult fans to bring back their empty jars in return for gifts of seasonal flavors. She adds: “We’d be nowhere without our customers. Every store would have dropped me. I am a pain in the ass to deal with, I make limited amounts, I self deliver, sometimes they have empty shelves. Financially, it’s not worth their time but people love our product. It’s been a real testament to the power of a customer and I feel very grateful.”