After eight hours of scouring back issues of Culture, a magazine devoted to cheese, I was ready for a silky spoonful of that burrata in the fridge. Switching gears, I hit www.narrative.ly and was faced with a headline: “Capturing the briefest of lives.” Call it a one-track mind. Call it fried. But it took me 15 seconds of staring at the word “briefest”, wondering what an article about babies had to do with a cheese party, before I figured out what it actually said.
Hard as I tried in my junior year of college, one cannot live on bread alone. And unless scurvy is your idea of a good time, I wouldn’t advise it. But among all the wonderful things to put on, or in, a slab of bread, cheese rises to the top like the cream from which it’s made. A snack – or even a meal – of bread and cheese has its own quiet poetry. During meditation, my happy place is a grassy riverbank with cool running water, a baguette and Brillat-Savarin (the cheese, not the man).
In Santa Fe, my daily bread is an airy ciabatta with a crackly, amber, paper-thin crust and a crumb so tender and squishy it sort of melts as you chew. It isn’t sturdy enough for sandwiches, but it makes a great snacking material, fantastic toast, and is the perfect vehicle for cheese. But when I’m in the UAE, I rarely bother with breads that aren’t flat. When baked commercially in the US, Middle Eastern breads tend to lack elasticity.
Floppy saj flatbreads, translucent like buckwheat crêpes, become as fragile as gold leaf when toasted and reminiscent of crispy, unleavened local bread called rgag. But it’s the yeasty smell of Arabic bread that really gets me and when it’s fresh from the bakery, there’s nothing better. (You may know it as “pita”, but good luck finding an Arab who acknowledges the similarity.)
Cheese in the Arab world tends toward white, rindless, salty and generally mild, as cheeses go: briny akkawi, ropy majdouli with Nigella seeds and eaten like string cheese. How could anyone not love milky nabulsi, which originated in the West Bank and is used to fill desserts such as kunafeh, which can be folded for the ultimate bread and cheese to-go? Popular imported cheeses, such as kashkaval (kashkawan), feta and halloumi are comparably versatile, good hot or cold.
Cypriot salt-lick halloumi could even be described as bread-like, and because it has such a high melting point, it can be grilled or fried as in Greek saganaki, without losing its shape. Wisconsin cheese curds and Indian paneer have a similarly compelling rubberiness. And I would love to sample Leipäjuusto, or Finnish squeaky cheese with a baked, caramelised crust. Traditionally made from cow’s beestings (first milk), it’s often eaten warm with a tart jam.
Sammoun is a diamond-shaped Iraqi bread baked in a brick oven, and most Emirati bakery versions have little to do with their Iraqi counterpart. But these soft loaves, found everywhere, are split and spread with creamy processed cheese spreads – such as Puck or Kraft – to create the Emirati national snack. It’s an unfussy, single-serving antidote to meaty, aromatic, family-style meals: a cheese sandwich. It’s a perfect little thing.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico