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First artisan yogurt plant opens

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Husband and wife team Scott DiGuistini and Merissa Myles are opening the Island's only small-batch yogurt company, Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt. The non-homogenized cream-top yogurt will be available at local retailers and at the Comox Valley Farmers' Market.

A trip to France and a taste of small-batch yogurt inspired a Royston husband and wife to try their hand at producing their own yogurt using local, natural ingredients.

The result, Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt, will be in stores on November 1.

Unlike many other yogurts, Tree Island is made of whole, non-homogenized milk; no gelatin, no skim milk powder and no artificial sweeteners - just milk, bacterial cultures, local honey and vanilla beans. Tree Island is Vancouver Island's only small-batch yogurt producer.

Husband and wife team Scott DiGuistini and Merissa Myles were based in Greater Vancouver -DiGuistini was a PhD student in microbiology at the University of British Columbia, Myles was a development manager with the YWCA -when the birth of their first child prompted them to sit down and really think about how they wanted to live their lives. That was almost five years ago, and the couple decided they wanted to leave the big city behind and start their own business.

Once DiGuistini finished school, the couple began exploring B.C. for a place to call home. Not long after, on a trip abroad, they were taken with the freshness of the natural yogurt available.

"We always wanted to do a natural product business," said Myles. "We were at a conference in France because Scott had a job offer and we were exploring that. We kind of had the option of going on a scientific track but part of us was always wanting to do a natural product business, so we just happened to be there and I was eating yogurt and going, 'Mmm, this is really good,' and 'Why don't they have anything like this at our house?' And we said, 'We could do this.'"

Fast-forward a number of years and the couple had purchased the Royston land, begun construction on the facility, completed plenty of research on yogurt production and started the long process of receiving government approval and licensing to produce dairy products. DiGuistini spent hours in the couple's kitchen, figuring out the proper way of cooking the milk and the correct type and amount of bacteria to add to create the taste and consistency they wanted.

Opening a family-run dairy-based business in a system designed for large-scale commercial production is no small feat, and the couple has jumped through a number of hoops to get to this point. After settling on the idea of a yogurt business, they looked for a local farm that could supply the high-quality grass-fed milk they were looking for.

They selected Birkdale Farm in Comox, where the Ayrshire cows feed off the natural pasture. The slow cooking process means the dairy fat rises to the top of the yogurt, creating a thin layer of cream that can be eaten off the top or stirred in. At 3.5 per cent milk fat, the yogurt tastes both light and creamy, and it has less fat than many of its commercial counterparts.

"We're really happy because we're sourcing our milk from a local farm," said Myles.

"Most dairy cows are the Holstein cows and they are known for producing a lot of milk. These Ayrshire cows have more milk solids and it's creamier, so there's a different flavour and a different texture." She added that pasture-fed cows tend to produce milk that's higher in omega-3 fatty acids than cows that eat predominantly corn.

The couple built the production centre in an existing outbuilding on their property. The rustic look of the building's outside belies the clean, cool white and stainless steel interior where the milk is pasteurized and combined with the bacterial cultures before being packaged, refrigerated and delivered.

"This job is about 85 per cent cleaning," joked Merissa. "It has to be really clean so there is washing. Every day, there is washing and sanitizing."

Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt comes in three flavours.

"The first one is natural, plain. The second one is honey, and we're using Vancouver Island honey, which is super special because most yogurts on the shelf are just flavoured with sugar. And the third is vanilla bean, and so it has real vanilla flecks and it's sweetened with honey," said Myles.

It will be featured on the menus of the Breakwater at the Kingfisher Resort starting Oct. 23. On Saturday, Oct. 27, the couple will be selling it at the Comox Valley Farmers' Market at the Native Sons Hall and on Nov. 1 it will be delivered to local retailers. On Nov. 7 Edible Island will host an in-store demo and tasting.

"We are so excited. We can't wait," said Myles.

For more information and a full list of retailers visit www.cultured-dairy.com.

lbroadley@comoxvalleyecho.com


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