Ghee Artisan Sets up Shop in Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on May 6, 2011 · 30 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses

Matteo Girard Maxon owns Ancient Organics, a local food business that specializes in making ghee, a saturated fat heralded for its culinary, health, and healing properties in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional, holistic, healing practice. Ghee is what you make when you take butter, boil away the moisture, and separate the milk solids. Revered in Indian cooking it is considered a richer, nuttier tasting version of clarified butter.

And while it has been popular for some time among natural health types and yoga aficionados, ghee is gaining a reputation as a go-to cooking oil among serious food lovers too. Maxon makes most of the company’s ghee himself, using organic sweet butter from Straus Family Creamery, and the company recently built out its own kitchen in West Berkeley, to meet growing demand for its ghee.

Ancient Organics Ghee is sold online (a 16-oz. jar retails for $18.75, a 32-oz. jar costs $32.50, such prices put this product in the high-end gourmet goods category), at Marin Farmers’ Markets (where 6-oz. jars of spiced ghees sell for $10) and in Bay Area health food stores, including Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, and Yoga Mandala.

A business major, Girard Maxon never set out to become a ghee maker. An artist who enjoys working with his hands, he moved to Santa Cruz in 2004 to assist a stone sculptor. In 2007 he found himself doing high-end woodwork for Peter Malakoff, a scholar of Ayurvedic medicine who returned from a visit to India and began making ghee for family and friends in West Marin.

Interest in his ghee grew and it became apparent that Malakoff would need to move to a commercial kitchen and find a partner to help produce and market the product on a larger scale. Girard Maxon, who grew up in New Mexico and shared an interest in alternative health modalities, jumped at the chance to come on board. Until a week or so ago the company cooked out of The Artisan Kitchen, a cooperative kitchen space in Richmond.

Girard Maxon, 29, lives in West Berkeley with his wife and young daughter. We spoke this week at Ancient Organics’ newly-leased facility, which is awaiting final permit approval from the city before Girard Maxon can begin production, just a few blocks from his home.

Do you consider yourself a chef, a food producer, or a food artisan?

Well, I like to cook a lot, but in terms of the ghee I think of myself as a food artisan because we’re using the highest quality ingredient we can find to make a food in a traditional, old-fashioned, way by slowly boiling this batch-churned butter in large stainless steel pots over an open flame. We make¬† small batches by hand, we have complete control over the process and don’t rely on automation, which to me are the trademarks of artisan production.

We intentionally caramelize the milk solids on the bottom of the pot so the ghee imparts its full flavor. Industrial ghee producers use different equipment and a different process, which is faster and more convenient, but we believe detrimentally affects both the taste and the quality of the ghee. Ghee has the highest flash point of any oil, which means it can reach a very high heat without losing nutrients or becoming harmful to consume. In India it’s considered a divine, sacred food and a carrier for the body to absorb nutrients from other foods it’s cooked or consumed with, all of these things make it an artisan product, in my mind.

Why did you move from the Artisan Kitchen in Richmond to West Berkeley?

The Artisan Kitchen was a great place to start our business but we just outgrew the space. It became clear that we needed our own kitchen designed for our own needs and a place of our own where we didn’t have to work around other food producers’ schedules. We can’t be making a batch of ghee when someone is cooking garlic and onions, for instance.

What do you like about your new space?

Well, it formerly housed Vik’s store, so I like the synchronicity of these two food businesses with an ancient Indian energetic connection. And I like that I’m in West Berkeley, which is fast becoming an incubator space for chefs and food artisans. June Taylor Preserves shares a wall with me. Next door is the cooperative, commercial kitchen The Cookery, around the corner is Trumpetvine Catering. And I really like that I can walk three blocks and I’m at work.

Why do you only make ghee during the full or waxing (growing) moon?

The best metaphor I can think of to explain this practice, which is still followed in other parts of the world today in food production, is to think of the tide in the Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, which ebbs and flows. Would you rather sail with the tide, supported by nature, which helps you?¬† Or would you rather sail against it, which forces you to work harder and you may not end up where you want to be? It means we only have 14 days of each month in which we can make ghee. But there’s plenty to do during the rest of the month when you run your own small business.

Why do you play a Sanskrit mantra while you make ghee?

To make the best ghee possible it’s important to have a positive, harmonious, and relaxed environment. The vibrations of the space we’re in effect the healing powers of the ghee. The Mahamrtunjaya Mantra is a traditional prayer played during ghee making, known for its healing and balancing effects. When we played it at The Artisan Kitchen, everyone just chilled out. It really sets the intention of a space.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

The Artisan Kitchen in Richmond: A Cooperative Cooking Space
June Taylor’s Artisan Way With Fruit
Produce for the People at Berkeley Bowl

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristina Vanni May 7, 2011 at 6:03 am

Love your blog! So many great stories and insights. I didn’t get a chance to chat with you at Camp Blogaway, but I look forward to learning more about you through your writing here!

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Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 6:38 am

Hi Kristina, Thanks for saying hello. There were 90 of us at Camp Blogaway, so it was tough to talk with everyone, but I’m glad we can connect here. Cheers.

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Kerry May 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm

thoughtful questions and answers. thanks, Sarah.
Kerry´s last [type] ..Highlanders Farewell- Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas

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Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Pleasure, Kerry, and kind of you to say so.

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Lentil Breakdown May 8, 2011 at 10:31 am

Interesting article and was surprised to hear that ghee has the highest flashpoint of any oil since butter has such a low one. It was great to finally meet you. Happy Mother’s Day, Sarah!
Lentil Breakdown´s last [type] ..Travel Bite- Portobello Road- London

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 5:54 am

Why thank you, Adair. Nice to meet you “offline” too.

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Sheryl May 8, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I’ve often wondered about ghee. I never realized it was actually made from butter. I wonder how it got its name – do you know?

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 5:56 am

Great question, I don’t know the answer, though I suspect it has something to do with its Indian origins. I’ll check and let you know, Sheryl.

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amee May 10, 2011 at 11:29 am

ahhh ghee.. Ghee is wonderful for it’s high smoke point and terrible for your cholesterol. But it is ideal for frying, I think. Do you know how hard it is to wean my baby boomer indian parents off of ghee? Ghee is a Hindi word/origin…just a word in a another language, no further etymology of that. It’s not like “butt-er” originated from you know…hind parts…or did it!?!? :P
amee´s last [type] ..Cinco de Mayo- Tableside Grown-Up Guacamole

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Thanks for the linguistic insights, Amee, and hilarious ones at that. And for your candid account of ghee’s impact on cholesterol. Not surprising, though, since it is indeed a saturated fat. Moderation, right?

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Donna May 10, 2011 at 11:36 am

So happy to know about ghee ! Thanks for this post – I’m def going to order some.

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Look forward to hearing what you think of ghee and how you use it in the kitchen, Donna.

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Jeanine Barone May 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I didn’t know much about ghee at all. So I found this very informative. Thanks.

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Pleasure, Jeanine. Curious to hear if you’d consider using ghee in your own cooking.

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jeanine barone May 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Actually, I like to try new things so I definitely would try ghee. Really an informative post. Thanks again.

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Vera Marie Badertscher May 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for educating me. All I knew was that tigers turn into ghee in “Little Black Sambo”–a totally out of production story due to its non-correct name!
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Afghanistan- The bad and the good

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Wow, thanks for that fascinating factoid, Vera Marie, I think I only know that book by reputation. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually read it.

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Vera Marie Badertscher May 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm

I remember vividly the pictures of the tigers running faster and faster around a tree until they were a yellow blur, and the book says, “They turned into ghee, which is what they call butter in India.”
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Quincy Around the Internet

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NoPotCooking May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I’ve never had ghee! I’ve got to try some.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Buffalo Roll

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Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm

I wonder if ghee would work in your parchment-based baking projects, NPC.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart May 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm

I’ve done a ghee-based cleanse before, but never anything this fancy … just what I could get at the store. My yoga teacher recommended it, where you have increasing amounts of ghee first thing in the morning, then eat only lean proteins and veggies the rest of the day … with the biggest meal midday. I’m not sure I saw huge results, but the idea of a good fast or cleanse I think is a good one.

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Sarah Henry May 11, 2011 at 7:13 am

A ghee-based cleanse, hey? New to me. Do you eating ghee on its own, Roxanne, as part of the regimen?

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Jane Boursaw May 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

I consider myself somewhat of a butter connoisseur, but haven’t tried ghee before. Will look for it at our local food-co-op.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Five Reasons Why Pirates 4 Will be the Best of the Franchise

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Sarah Henry May 11, 2011 at 7:13 am

Let me know if you like it Jane.

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merr May 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Fascinating that I should find this today. I visited a naturopath yesterday and one of the foods she mentioned was ghee. I have never heard of a cleanse though. Sounds utterly mysterious and exotic! Cool!

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Sarah Henry May 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

There’s usually something to such synchronicity, merr, so have you picked up some ghee?

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MyKidsEatSquid May 13, 2011 at 11:31 am

Cool. I love ghee. Interesting about his comments on the full moon. As a teen I worked on the L&D floor of the hospital–we always prepped extra beds on full moon days because they always had more babies born then.

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Sarah Henry May 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Love this factoid, MKES, thanks for sharing.

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