Dairy country

Dairy country

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Matt Harvey

Chtaura, we had decided, was definitely a bit of a dump. It didn’t help that we had passed through the place about twenty times, always on the way to somewhere else, or that the weather had been unfailingly bad on each of these occasions. But there was something decidedly seedy about the place.

Amal told us that she remembered Chtaura from her childhood as a summer resort, but today the inland town’s main purpose was as a handy stopover point on the Beirut–Damascus road. The shops were either money exchanges or cheap and cheerful kebab restaurants, and most of the people we saw were suspicious-looking service taxi drivers on the hunt for extra passengers to fill their cars.

On this particular morning we were passing through on our way to Tanaïl, a village in the hills east of Beirut. It had been snowing and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. We crawled along the single-lane highway trapped behind a Lebanese army truck, the soldiers inside heavily rugged up against the cold. As we climbed further up the mountain, we entered a cloud of dense, wet fog. When we finally drove out of it we pulled over to the side of the road to take in the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us.

Our destination in Tanaïl was the Massabki Dairy Shop, where we would meet Mr Bassam Hajjar, one of the co-owners. We were early and decided a mid-morning snack was in order. Perusing the glass cabinet in the front of the shop, Greg announced, ‘I’ve got to have an arus bi labneh.’ These sandwich snacks are standard fare for Lebanese schoolchildren and are simply floppy big squares of sorj – mountain bread – spread thickly with yoghurt cheese, drizzled with olive oil and rolled up. Extra refinements might include a sprinkling of za’atar or fresh mint leaves.

As we finished our arus, we were ushered through the back door for a tour of the dairy. My memories of visits to cheese factories in Australia always included Wellington boots and white hair-nets, but things seemed a little more relaxed here. The large whitetiled room was filled with huge troughs of warm, wobbly yoghurt and the cool-room was lined with shelves stacked with neat white blocks of haloumi cheese.

Mr Hajjar offered us coffee while he gave us the dairy facts and figures. Massabki is a relatively large concern by Lebanese standards, processing four thousand litres of milk every day for cheese and yoghurt production. Between April and September they also work their way through an additional three thousand litres of goat’s milk a day, which mainly goes towards making labneh balls.

The large display cabinet in the shop held a bewildering array of dairy products. Familiar favourites such as ricotta, haloumi, double crème, crème fraîche, shanklish and labneh, but also other names we didn’t know: ackawi, chelal, nabulsi and aricheh.

Most of the cheeses looked remarkably similar – they were all white, smooth fresh cheeses, with varying degrees of saltiness and firmness. One particularly interesting one, chelal, looked like long strands of white fettuccine, twisted into a neat little skein.

According to legend, the Middle East was the birthplace of cheese, discovered accidentally by a nomad who was carrying a saddlebag of milk across the desert. Despite this, the region’s dairy tradition is far from developed and there is nothing like the range of cheeses that we have in the West. Sheep and goats have always been the main source of dairy foods here, as cows are just not suited to the typical Middle Eastern terrain of dry scrubby hills and arid desert. Olive oil rather than butter is the primary cooking medium and milk is rarely consumed as a drink. And although fresh curd cheeses are popularly eaten with bread as a snack, cheese is mostly used in cooking.

Yoghurt is a different story, however. Middle Easterners eat vast quantities of the stuff, although not the over-sweetened and artificially flavoured varieties that Westerners tend to prefer. Sourness is a virtue in the Arab world, and yoghurt makes an appearance at just about every mealtime. It is consumed as a refreshing drink, served as a dip or accompaniment to all kinds of savoury dishes, and is also used as a cooking medium in soups and casseroles. Thick, drained yoghurt and yoghurt cheese (labneh) are readily available in Lebanese supermarkets, something to be envied – in Australia, if you want labneh, you have to make it yourself.

Our next stop, the Convent Dairy, was just a short drive away. We turned off the main road and into the well-kept grounds of a large stone church, hidden from the road by tall cypresses, and we continued down the long shady driveway to the farm. Orchards in blossom lined the road and ahead of us, in the bright sunshine, were fields of newly planted corn.

We passed through an archway into a cobbled courtyard, where there was quite a collection of parked cars. Inside, a long queue of customers were waiting to stock up on supplies of butter, yoghurt, cheese, eggs and freshly baked bread, for the Convent Dairy is reputed to make some of the purest-flavoured and best-quality fresh cheese and yoghurt in Lebanon. People obviously think nothing of making the 45-minute journey from Beirut to stock up.

As we were waiting, Father Paul, the head of the convent, came up to introduce himself. He was wearing an informal jumper and trousers rather than priestly robes. After a few fumbling attempts at conversation, half in French and half in Arabic, Father Paul put us out of our misery and chatted to us in fluent, barely accented English. As it turned out he had spent a fair portion of his youth in Sydney.

We learned that Father Paul had expanded the dairy’s cheese repertoire to include boiled, pressed, Gouda-style cheeses, some flavoured with caraway. Later, the head cheesemaker, Tony Rabai, took us down to the underground cellar where row upon row of shelves were stacked with round yellow cheeses at varying stages of maturity, ranging from two months to a year.

The Convent Dairy differs from most other dairies around Tanaïl in that it has its own herd of some 150 Friesian cows. The twice-daily milkings produce around one thousand litres of milk, which is piped directly from the milking shed to the dairy. As well as the Gouda-style cheeses, Tony and his offsider, Georges Farquah, make yoghurt and labneh, ricotta, butter and ghee and kishk.

Tony also took us into the dairy itself, where most of the day’s work had been completed. Georges had just finishing cleaning out the boiling tanks and was giving the tiled floor a quick mop. The air smelled sweet and there was a general sense of contentment to the place.

In one of the cool-rooms enormous bags of yoghurt were suspended, dripping over a metal trough. ‘Labneh,’ explained Tony, waving his hand in their direction. ‘These have been hanging since yesterday. Soon they will be ready.’

In another cool-room we came upon uneven balls of shanklish. This is a type of fermented cheese, very popular in Lebanon and Syria, and one that Greg loves for its strong, almost blue-cheese flavour. Shanklish is something of a curiosity, and Tony laughed when we asked how it is made.

‘You want to know how we make shanklish? Well, let me tell you that here at the convent we make it properly. Most of the shanklish you buy is a hotchpotch of stuff. It is just bits of cheese rejects scraped off the dairy floor or from wherever, and mashed together. They put so much spice and flavouring in it that you can’t tell it’s bad stuff.’

We looked suitably concerned at this news and Tony continued. ‘You know, shanklish is actually an ancient Arabian cheese. They used to make it in the desert and keep it buried in the hot sand for a year to mature. The proper way to make it is with arisheh. That’s a sort of whey cheese, a bit like ricotta. You boil it and drain it and then leave it in the sun to dry. It becomes a dry, lumpy powder that you press together with your hands to make these balls.’

We noticed that there were several types of shanklish. ‘Yes. They all have spices in them, but some we roll in za’atar, and to some we add spicy red pepper. Some we leave natural.’

We stocked up on tubs of yoghurt, labneh and shanklish on our way out, plus a big bag of the convent’s special tisane – a herbal tea concoction made from dried flowers, leaves and twigs and some rather strange vegetable matter that looked a bit like hay. It was reputed to have excellent digestive properties, and I had a feeling that over the next few weeks it would come in very handy.

Recipes in this Chapter

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