It’s a global health fad with millions of fans in Europe and the United States, and yet in Greece, many people have never heard of “Greek yoghurt”.
Equally surprising in an age when billions are spent on marketing, the term is basically a quirk of fate.
“What is known abroad as ‘Greek yoghurt’ is called ‘straggisto’ (strained yoghurt) in Greece,” explained Prokopis Ploumbis, a cheesemaker in the rural outskirts of Athens.
“The secret lies in the milk.”
Creamy, rich in protein and low in fat, strained yoghurt made from cow’s milk is increasingly prized by health-conscious consumers, and it has benefited from the growing popularity of the Mediterranean diet in the Western world.
And yet, in terms of marketing, neither the Greek state nor any Greek company had sought to stamp a patent on the product, unlike feta cheese which is now a protected EU term.
No court would have accorded protection for “Greek yoghurt” when the term is not even used in Greece.
It therefore lay open for the taking.
Sensing an opportunity, Turkish entrepreneur Hamdi Ulukaya was able to make a killing on the American market with his yoghurt company, named Chobani, which comes from the Turkish word for shepherd.
It is also similar to the Greek word for shepherd, and Chobani packages prominently call it ‘Greek yoghurt’ in the US.
Meanwhile, the Greek company that first broke open the US and European markets decades ago, Fage, features ‘Greek strained yoghurt’ in smaller type on its packages.
In just seven years, Chobani’s ‘Greek yoghurt’ has become the best-selling yoghurt brand in America, and strained yoghurt now accounts for 35 per cent of the US yoghurt market, from only four per cent in 2008.
“Because it was introduced in this country by a Greek company, they called it ‘Greek yoghurt.’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s Greek yoghurt or Turkish yoghurt, as long as it’s a good yoghurt,” Ulukaya told Fortune magazine in 2011.
Fage fought back.
“Fage is the one that made known to the world the creamy texture of Greek yoghurt, its protein concentration, its rich taste,” said the company’s commercial director Alexis Alexopoulos.
However the 88-year-old Athens-based family company, which exports dairy products to 40 countries, eventually had to concede defeat in the US.
But it moved to protect its 95-per cent share in the British market.
In British courts, Fage based its argument on the fact that unlike Chobani, its yoghurt is actually made in Greece, and won the case on appeal in January.
Chobani now markets its yoghurt as ‘strained’ in Britain, and ‘Greek’ in the US.
Fage sells its product in Britain as “authentic Greek yoghurt”.
Strained yoghurt is also popular in Greece, where it also serves as a key ingredient for staple dishes like tzatziki dip.
But for traditionalists, there is also a significant yearning for non-strained and more fatty yoghurt made from sheep’s milk.
Yoghurt made from sheep’s milk has 6.5 per cent natural fat, compared to around 2.0 per cent in cow’s milk.
All over the country there are hundreds of traditional yoghurt-makers catering to the countryside or island markets.
Many of these products are consumed locally and never reach the big supermarket chains in Athens.
“Greek ewes graze in the mountains and receive no additives in their food,” said Ploumbis, the cheesemaker in Vilia, some 60km west of Athens.
“The best milk comes in the spring. The animals eat hundreds of different plants, it’s an unimaginable richness,” he added, pointing to the valley around the sheep pens, covered in shrubs and almond trees in bloom.