"Drinking camel milk is very common in Morocco," says political lecturer-turned-cheesemaker Abderrazak Khoubbane. "Making camel milk cheese, however, is not."
It's time to throw out any "one hump or two in your tea?" jokes as La Fromagerie, Khoubbane's goat and camel dairy and restaurant on the outskirts of the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira, is making ingenious use of a local liquid that's in plentiful supply.
Away from the hauls of freshly caught fish grilled in little blue shacks by the port, or the mint tea and pastries served in bohemian cafes in the medina, Khoubbane offers a unique taste of north west Africa from his countryside venue.
In this neck of the woods, camels are as common as sheep are in Wales. And when you've got vast herds of these mammals, roaming across one of the driest parts of the earth, it makes sense to use their produce in everyone's diet.
Camel meat is eaten here regularly and is said to taste like a cross between lamb and beef. Camel milk is drunk not only for its convenience, but because of the health benefits. It has higher levels of potassium, iron, and vitamin C than in cow's milk, it has low levels of cholesterol and it's suitable for those on a lactose-light diet.
It's also said to be an aphrodisiac, with an old Arabian saying of the stuff: "One litre a day, five times a night"—which must be exhausting if you're lactose intolerant in Morocco.
So, while everyone from camel herders to country folk have been guzzling camel milk—warm, frothy, and straight from the teat—for centuries, it's taken until recently to consider turning it into cheese.
Khoubbane offers me a welcome drink of the local gris wine, mixed with lemonade and a dash of cherry liqueur.
"In Moroccan cuisine, everything has to be fresh, whether it's fish, meat, or vegetables," he says. "There's a lot of use of spices, so while drinking camel milk straight from the camel has been done for many years, the idea of cheese in our diets is not something we would eat. When you look at our cuisine, there's no fermented food at all."
Khoubbane's right. While the local food markets in Essaouira are packed with all sorts of herbs and spices and ingredients like olives brined and marinated, there seems to be no appetite for slightly funky food. But back in 2007, after six years of making cheese—all self-taught, and always made by hand—he decided to try out some extreme cuisine, thanks to a challenge from an American chef exploring out-there foods from across the world.
"I suggested making camel cheese, as although we drink the milk in the countryside, no one would ever think to make cheese from it," he says. "I'd never made it before, so it was a bit of an experiment. I said to the chef, I'm taking a chance here, if it's not working then it's tough shit, there's nothing I can do about it! But I succeeded."
Khoubbane's experiment wasn't without it's problems, though. Thanks to its composition, camel milk is very difficult to curdle and won't coagulate well.
"The milk is too light to curdle, so you have to trick the milk," explains Khoubbane. "I tried several things before I had my 'Eureka' moment with this ingredient, but I can't tell you what it is, as it's my secret."
He is happy for me to check out La Fromagerie's cheesemaking, though. Through the back of the cheerful little restaurant terrace is the dairy, where his team make an average of 12 goat and camel cheeses, depending on the season.
"This current season, from October to the end of June we make about 14 to 16 cheeses, in total. But during the summer, we make only eight," says Khoubbane. "There's a cow cheese we make all year long, which is a harder cheese, almost Italian in style, so when it's hot, it's not a problem for this cheese. It's aged for about a year and a half, while the other cheese is aged for more like three to six months."
The most popular, he says, is the "Brick" cheese, called that, simply, "because it looks like a brick". The camel cheese, he calls "Dilbeek," named after a Belgian couple from the region who visited a few years ago and loved it.
"We're not making a hard cheese from it yet, so it's a very soft, fresh cheese," he says. "We cure it for about one month and we don't cook with it yet, as it's better to serve up fresh—I think it's the best way to enjoy it."
After taking a peek at all the rounds of freshly made camel cheese in the dairy, it's time to try it out for real. I join one of the chefs in the kitchen as she rustles up a sweet-savoury salad with lettuce leaves, peaches, apple, kiwi, and a good handful of salt, pepper, and thyme. She places a big spoon of the glistening soft cheese on top.
It looks a little like ricotta or a cottage cheese and as I take a mouthful, it tastes like—well, what you might expect fermented camel's milk to taste like. It's light in texture but has an unmistakable sour tang that properly kicks you in the throat on the way down. It seems fitting that it's referred to as an "extreme cuisine," as it's probably a taste for extreme cheese heads only.
The rest of La Fromagerie's menu is far more appetising. All devised by Khoubbane, it features lightly fried beansprouts with fenugreek and toasted goat cheese, a beef tagine, and a plate of cheeses that also come from the dairy.
"I hate the feeling when I go to a restaurant and I leave and I try to remember later on, 'What did I get?'" he says. "I want to have that, 'Ah, that was good!' feeling provoked within me, so I try to recreate that moment here, and try to make dishes for that special moment."
From his herd of about 200 goats and 42 camels—which all roam freely in nearby fields—combined with the workers in the dairy and the restaurant, which he opened three years ago, it's enough to sustain a community of almost 125 people in the area.
"That was the deep thought behind this action," says Khoubbane. "I am 59 now and at a certain age, you start to think, 'What can I do for others?' So I started putting things together in my mind, which is why I set up La Fromagerie. I also love meeting people from all different horizons—we've had people visit from New Zealand. Australia, Brazil, India. I think it helps that we're in Essaouira. People come here because of the spirit, you can go everywhere in Morocco but there's nothing like the feeling you get when you're in Essaouira. You get the feeling that you're always part of something."
Much like Khoubbane's camel herd, happily grazing on the great outdoors outside the restaurant's entrance.