I didn't exactly chug my first glass of camel milk. Tentative, wary and braced would better describe my approach to what looked and smelled pretty much like a glass of cow's milk. Surprise! My glass of Camelicious didn't taste radically different either, except for a hint of salt - "minerally" is what Martin van Almsick, the general manager of Al Nassma, the Dubai chocolatier that crafts chocolates with camel milk, calls it.
It was altogether drinkable, though maybe not in one great gulp. (Even dedicated camel milk drinkers say to go easy at first.) I admit that most of my first glass was blended with frozen fruit for a smoothie, but still. I was doing my body a favour. Camel milk, the milk of choice across the Gulf and North Africa, has a lot going for it. Closer in composition to human milk than cow milk, it's loaded with potassium and vitamins B and C, and contains 10 times more iron. What it doesn't have is a lot of fat (only 1.8 per cent) and lactose. And thanks to a high concentration of an insulin-like protein, it's believed that camel milk can help control diabetes.
Though the need for camels as transport has greatly diminished in the UAE, their milk is still popular. Van Almsick, originally from Germany, drinks it every day. "I've drunk camel milk in Egypt and Sudan," he says. "It was always warm and foamy and wonderful. Really nice, gentle milk, with no scent." Now, of course, he says, "there are so many issues about drinking raw milk". The Camelicious dairy - located 15 minutes outside Dubai and home to 3,000 camels - is a model of pasteurisation technology. "This is 21st-century camel milk," says Van Almsick.
Al Ain Dairy is the only other camel-milk producer in the UAE. And Al Nassma, Camelicious's partner, is the only local company producing chocolates made with camel milk. "'Camel milk chocolate?' That's people's first reaction," Van Almsick says. "Then they taste it and love it. We have a solid fan base here." One fan is Josef Teuschler, the executive pastry chef for the Emirates Palace, who created a special cake for National Day last month using Al Nassma chocolate for the mousse filling. "It has a nice smooth texture, not overpowering at all," he says. In honour of another UAE special event, the Al Dhafra Festival - a celebration of camels and heritage starting Saturday in Madinat Zayed (www.aldhafrafestival.ae) - why not venture a sip yourself? Or ease in to the camel milk experience with these recipes.
This recipe adapted from The Camel Milk System: A Five-Step Plan That Will Change Your Life Forever by Ahmad al Shamsi and Ahmad Sari al Mazrooi may not manage all that, but it is delicious and nutritious. Serves 2.
Ingredients 375ml camel milk 1 ripe banana, sliced and frozen 5 large frozen strawberries 60g frozen mango chunks 2 tbsp plain, full-cream yogurt 1 tbsp honey 1 tsp vanilla Method Pour the camel milk into a blender. Add the frozen banana, strawberries and mango and blend until almost smooth. Add the yogurt, honey and vanilla and blend until very smooth. Drink right away.
It is easy to substitute camel milk for cow milk in a recipe. This one contains two of our national treasures: dates and camel milk. Makes 12. Ingredients 350g plain flour 2 tbsp caster sugar 2½ tsp baking powder ½ tsp salt 120g unsalted butter 100g chopped dates 2 eggs, lightly beaten 80ml camel milk 2 tbsp caster sugar ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Method Preheat the oven to 220°C. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar (first measurement), baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (fingers work, too) until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in the dates. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and camel milk. Add to the crumb and date mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon, just until blended. Do not overmix.
Turn the dough (it will be soft) onto a lightly floured surface, and with floured hands gently knead the dough 10 times. Pat it into a 23cm-by-15cm rectangle. Using a floured knife or a dough cutter, cut the slab into six 8cm-by-8cm squares. Then cut each square diagonally in half. Carefully place the triangles on a buttered baking tray. Mix the sugar (second measurement) and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the scones. Bake for 12-13 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.