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 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 outgrew the space. It became clear we needed our own kitchen designed for our own needs and a place 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 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.