After my book signing last weekend, one of my gardening buddies sent me an email telling me how much she enjoyed the book, and ending with, “Quark? Really? How did it get that name?” This made me think that I need to set things straight about my favorite dairy product, which, alas, is hard to find in the United States.
Quark has been around centuries before the physicist Murray Gell-Mann decided to name the elementary particles he discovered in the 1960s “quarks”. He borrowed the term from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, without any connection whatsoever to the food.
The German word Quark goes back to Middle High German spellings for “dwarf” (Zwerg) because small cheeses were formed from it by hand. In fact, in the German diary classification, quark is a cheese. Similar cheeses in Eastern Europe – Polish tvaróg, Russian tvorog, Czech tvaroh – derive their name from the same word source.
Quark was the first food I was fed as a baby, and I suppose that’s what started my infatuation. My parents repeatedly told me how I gobbled up the concoction they fed me: marrow from cooked beef bones mixed with low-fat quark. Yuck. My taste buds have much developed since. My passion for quark has remained.
When I first worked on Spoonfuls of Germany ten years ago, there was no sight of quark in stores anywhere. Therefore I included the recipe for homemade quark using rennet, an enzyme derived from the stomach of calves or from plants (vegetable rennet). The process requires patience and is finicky, and the result is always a bit unpredictable. But it was certainly better than living without quark!
In recent years Greek yogurt has become increasingly popular and available in the United States. To a limited extent, it works as a substitute for quark so in the new edition of Spoonfuls of Germany I included a few recipes that call for quark, for example, Schmand und Glumse, a spread with hard-boiled egg and chives from East Prussia where quark was called Glumse. Many regions in Germany, as well as Austria, where quark is also a staple, have their own names for quark.
Homemade quark and Greek yogurt are best used in uncooked desserts, spreads, dips and the like. In baked goods the results are not the same as with quark. Yet baking is one of the many uses for quark. It makes wonderfully moist and flavorful cakes and pastries, sweet or savory.
In November 2003 The New York Times published an article by Melissa Clark about quark. She praised its flavor, consistency and versatility and reported that in New York City quark was getting the attention of chefs. This, I hoped back then, would kick off a nationwide quark avalanche. It didn’t.
Sure, some local producers started to offer quark, or its French relative, Fromage blanc. I found a dairy farm in our area that made it but so infrequently and in such small quantities that I gave up trying to get my hands on it. And the high price of quark – $5 and up for 8 ounces is not unusual – makes me cringe. In Germany a 1-pound container of plain low-fat brand quark costs less than $1.50.
Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery manufactures a product labeled quark, and it is available in well-assorted supermarkets. However, with 40 mg per ounce, it contains a considerable amount of added sodium. Authentic German quark has no salt added.
After that email last week I once more wondered why quark is still so blatantly absent from American dairy shelves. It is not a food safety issue because quark is made from pasteurized, and not raw, milk.
While I did not find the answer to my question, I came across an article in Food Navigator USA about a new startup in California, Elli Quark, with an intriguing story. Preya Patel Bhakta and her husband Sachin Bhakta, stumbled across quark when looking for a healthy low-fat source of protein in their diet, and an alternative to sodium-packed cottage cheese and high-sugar flavored Greek yogurt products. After much experimentation in their home kitchen, a trip to Germany to study quark, and some adaptation of the production process, they started producing quark in a dedicated facility in California last spring. Their quark is made with vegetable rennet and does not contain any added salt. One serving (5.3 ounces) contains 60 mg sodium in the plain and in the lemon-flavored quark, and 50 mg in the other three flavored varieties. This amounts to about 11.3, resp. 9.4 grams sodium per ounce.
What I also find quite remarkable is that this enterprise was not started by German expats longing for quark but by two people in search of a healthy diet – just like my parents when they fed me quark with… well, let’s not dwell on this.
Quark combines the healthy with the delicious, and I hope more people will discover quark soon. It is a discovery not only for scientists!