Camel spells alchemy in the forests of Holland.
5.30am. Last time I work up this early was to dance and chant with the Hari Krishnas I hung out with at university. No less of an ideology but with a little less saffron and waving incense, my incentive this morning is CHEESE.
Boots, hair nets and aprons on, we are greeted by 1,200 litres of warming milk. Dutch cheese farm Boerderij Hoekelum (www.hoekelum.nl) is producing Gouda with truffle and herbs this morning.
I'm surprised to find myself in Holland at all. As part of a small film team (www.whattookyousolong.org) traveling the world in search of camel cheese (yes, camel cheese) I don't bat an eyelid at being in Mongolia, Somalia or Uzbekistan. But the Netherlands?
From the first day we heard about Frank Smits we knew he was something special. A young dutch farmer battling government legislation and animal activists, pioneering the scientific research, inventing the machinery and importing the first camels to see Dutch soil, perhaps ever.
Starting just four years ago with five camels Frank has led a stellar career, seeing news crews at his quiet rural farm in Berlicum up to three times a week. Kamelenmelkerij (www.kamelenmelk.nl) now has 40 camels, 15 of which can be milked. Frank read about camel milk's healthful properties (high in iron, anti-bacterial, anti-infection, good for diabetics and the lactose intolerant) on the Internet and just had to try it. His father, a sleep neurologist at Gelderse Vallei Hospital in Ede has conducted studies that so far agree with the claims made by Bedouin tribes and herders from Mauritania to Kazakhstan. The established dairy now sells raw frozen milk, milk soap, powdered milk, and has even made the impossible happen -- camel cheese.
Interviewing media-weary Frank Smits we asked the same question we have asked throughout Central Asia, China, Mongolia and East Africa. But rather than the usual answer, "no, it's impossible to make camel cheese", we got a vaguely non-plussed, "yup".
"Yup. We gave the milk to a cheese farm and they made camel cheese."
Later that day cheese-farm owner Diederick Van de Kamp picks us up from the train station. "The cow rennet worked faster than the camel rennet to make the cheese. It's just stronger" Van de Kamp tells us. "You can make cheese from any ruminant (an animal with four stomachs), so we thought it must be possible to make camel cheese."
Gerrie Slammer, a local who has worked at Boerderij Hoekelum for the past 21 years, makes cheese once a week at this time of year, and in the busy months of the summer two to three times. She was also one of the first people to produce, by hand, the first batch of camel cheese, made with just 15 litres of milk two years ago. "We used the recipe for Gouda" Gerrie elaborates, "but we had to cut (the curds and whey) faster and drain sooner."
Van de Kamp's farm, set in the forests of Holland, has literally done the impossible producing what no one (we know of) has done before -- a hard European-style cheese from the milk of a camel with rennet from a cow.
Of course, laid-back technical engineer turned farmer, Van de Kamp, isn't fazed. His small farm makes magic happen every Tuesday when locally produced cow milk undergoes six hours of heating, churning and pressing to create their delicious Gouda.
Full of reverence and awe we hold the aged camel cheese in our hands and sniff its distinctive camel-ly scent. But we can't try a slice of this treasure as Van de Kamp has just three trophy wheels left from the one-time production two years ago. "It was nice for us to see the special qualities of camel cheese ourselves. When the rind breaks on a cow cheese bacteria can get in, but with the camel cheese we saw it heal itself. We saw the anti-infection properties we read about online in action" says Van de Kamp.
Another reason they can't get too excited is the cost. Per kilo the cheese costs a whopping 80 Euros, covering the six Euros per litre of milk (camel cheese needs 11 litres for one kilo compared to the nine litres per kilo for cow milk).
Nancy Abeiderrhamane, a British woman, with the help of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) has been producing a soft camel cheese called Caravane in Mauritania for almost 20 years. Collected from herders around Mauritania the milking process is not mechanised and so does not adhere to current EU regulations meaning the Tiviski (www.tiviski.com) brand may never see a European shop counter.
The chemistry behind the milk's difficult nature lies in the proteins which are shorter than the layman cow's. This makes the curds very delicate and the water difficult to separate. "We had to be very fast, draining after just 15 minutes rather than 30." Gerrie tells us. The milk is also, understandably, rare in this part of the world. Frank Smits' camels produce six litres each per day which he sells in local Middle Eastern shops and to the Vermeulen & Den Otter (www.vermeulendenotter.nl) bakery to make camel milk chocolates.
"We would love to make it again, but don't know when that will be", says Van de Kamp. "The milk is expensive, so we can only make it for special order."
Just like Frank Smits, Van de Kamp is happy to experiment. And we are happy to learn that our journey is not in vain. Perhaps we won't find any more camel cheese, but the word is out.
So the big question: What does it taste like?
"I was not disappointed by camel cheese", says Gerrie "the fat is not so soft, so it is dryer and not as smooth as cow cheese."
"It tastes like the barn and like the animal", according to Van de Kamp.
It all begs the question, are there other renegade camel cheese makers out there? The What Took You So Long (www.whattookyousolong.org) film team will continue its search in another 10 countries starting in Morocco. But after Holland anything could happen. If there are any camel cheese makers in your neighbourhood, let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org).