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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Brie on the lookout for local cheeses: here's our guide

We chat with the region’s cheesemakers about the need for regional offerings, and how you can make your own at home

Cheese platter with fruits on a wooden table
Cheese platter with fruits on a wooden table

Cheese is one of life’s guilty pleasures. Served as an appetiser, main or dessert, it’s one of the most versatile foods in the world – and with about 2,000 varieties of cheese on the planet, there are enough options out there to suit even the pickiest of palates. You can find just about every kind of cheese in supermarkets across the UAE – most ­imported from afar – but take a closer look and you’ll find an increasing number of cheeses produced right here with ­locally-sourced ingredients.

Carla Thetford, an artisan cheesemaker in Dubai, found Deena Organic Farm while searching for someone – anyone – in the region to help her turn her cheese-making dream into a reality.

“They were the only farm that didn’t laugh me out of town when I suggested we make cheese with their unused milk,” says Thetford, who hasbeen producing cheese with the farm located in Al Khawaneej near the Dubai/Sharjah border for a year. “I started with just a few fresh goat’s cheeses to see if there was interest,” she says. “I am now making 10 types of cheese. I’ve sourced cow’s milk too, which enables me to make cheese year-round. When the goat’s milk runs dry in the summer, the cows still have an amount I can use.”

Carla Thetford, an artisan cheese-maker in Dubai, founded Deena Organic Farm. Carla Thetford
Carla Thetford, an artisan cheese-maker in Dubai, founded Deena Organic Farm. Carla Thetford

Using milk from the herd of goats on the farm, Thetford makes goat’s curd, peppercorn chevre, halloumi, ricotta, ashed, bloomy, hard alpine rind and reblochon cheese. She also makes reblochon from cow’s milk and is working on a blue cheese she says will be ready for the market soon. She gets the cow’s milk from the neighbouring farm. “Passion for creating something keeps me going,” says Thetford. “It’s great to be able to buy small and often,” she says. “We process milk every day, so we can keep on top of the orders to make sure everything is as fresh as possible.”

Goat's cheese is a simple, creamy cheese. Stephanie Mahmoud
Goat's cheese is a simple, creamy cheese. Stephanie Mahmoud

That freshness matters when it comes to taste, she says. But that’s not the only reason she encourages people to seek out locally-made cheese. “I cannot understand why you would want to import food that can be made here,” she says. “This cuts down on air miles, helps the environment and improves the community as you see the person making your food. Buying local is extremely important. You help the local community. It supports local jobs. It’s a no-brainer.”

Italian Dairy Products, an artisan cheese factory in Sharjah, also uses ­locally-sourced milk to produce their cheeses. The cheeses pumped out at this factory are all Italian and include varieties of mozzarella, scamorza, ricotta, burrata and more. Italian Dairy Products imports all its cheese-making equipment from Italy to preserve the Italian cheese-making tradition. Their cheese is sold at Carrefour, Choithrams, Geant, Spinneys and Waitrose shops around the emirates. You can also find it at the Ripe Market every Friday in Dubai’s Zabeel Park. They even open their doors for school groups to tour the factory to learn how the cheese is made.

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Another source for fresh homemade cheese is right at your fingertips. Oliver Sutton, retail manager at Jones the Grocer, says the first step is, “buying the best quality non-homogenised milk you can find. Cheese is, after all milk, so the quality of the milk will play a significant part in dictating the quality of the cheese,” he explains.

Jones the Grocer is now selling cheese-making kits at all its locations (Dh195 each) to help novice cheesemakers get started. The kits contain everything you need to make your own feta, halloumi, mozzarella and goat’s cheese including cheese moulds, rennet (a necessary ingredient in cheese-making that’s hard to find in the UAE), citric acid, flaky sea salt and more. Sutton says: “Kits are a great way to start, as you have everything you need and a clear process to follow. They’re all based on fresh cheeses, so the process is relatively simple.” The kits contain enough ingredients to allow you to make several batches of cheese. But a kit may not even be necessary for adventurous cooks, says Sutton. “It’s absolutely possible to do it without a kit as the internet offers ‘how to guides’ for almost everything these days.”

Thetford says the key to making good, homemade cheese is “good milk, cheese cultures, rennet and a lot of patience”. She’s continually working on ways to add more cheeses to her repertoire. Her focus now is on Middle Eastern cheeses. “­Traditional Middle Eastern cheeses are so widely available here that I had no intention to make these, but with growing customer demand, we started to make halloumi.” Customers are now asking for feta, so she’s planned a trip to Greece to master the art of feta cheese and research the difference in styles. When production slows in the summer, Thetford researches and experiments with new products. She says: “Up next is Nabulsi cheese from Palestine, feta cheese and shanklish, which a Syrian friend is helping me with. I’m sure by the end of the year there will be more. Exploring cheeses of this region is going to be a never-ending project. The more people I connect with, the more I connect with the history, culture, food and the cheeses of this area.”

Three cheeses. Stephanie Mahmoud 
Three cheeses. Stephanie Mahmoud 

You can get Thetford’s cheese through Deena Farms home delivery, or the stall at the Farmer’s Market on the Terrace in Dubai. Greenheart Organic Farms also sells her cheese through their delivery service, as well as at their shop in The Light Tower, Arjan, Dubai. Even Jones the Grocer shops have a small selection on offer.

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