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Fresh from your local drome'dairy'?


Milking camels in Mauritania
(FAO/18820/I. Balderi)

For millennia, camels have provided transport for people and goods. But to consider them mere ships of the desert is to miss the boat. Camels are indispensable to the livelihoods of people in arid zones for many reasons -- their hair is woven into rugs, tents and clothes; their manure is burned for fuel; their hides are used to make water containers; and they are excellent sources of meat and milk in areas where growing and raising food is difficult.

While camel milk is already used for human consumption, it is rarely processed into cheese. One reason is that camel milk is more difficult to curdle than milk from other domestic animals. A FAO publication is helping people overcome the problem.

The basic principle in cheese-making is to coagulate the milk so that it forms curds and whey. Modern cheese-making methods help the curdling process by adding a starter, a bacterial culture that produces lactic acid, and rennet, a substance obtained from calves that contains a coagulating enzyme. This enzyme speeds up the separation of liquids and solids.


Camel milk collected from shepherds is prepared for cheese-making at a dairy in Mauritania. (FAO/18822/I. Balderi)

"Making cheese from the milk of a cow or a goat or even a yak is easy," says Jean-Claude Lambert, an FAO dairy specialist. "Everything is known in terms of technology." But camel milk was a different story because traditional rennet does not coagulate it. "Six years ago no one believed camel milk could be made into cheese," says Mr Lambert.

In an attempt to solve the coagulation problems presented by the particular characteristics of camel milk, FAO commissioned Professor J.P. Ramet of the French Ecole nationale supérieure d'agronomie et des industries alimentaires to study how it could be done. After research and experimentation in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, he found a way to curdle the milk by adding calcium phosphate and vegetable rennet.

These research findings have been published in a manual, The technology of making cheese from camel milk, recently released in English. The manual describes the composition of camel milk, compares it with other milks and explains how it can be curdled to make cheese. The publication, part of FAO's Animal Production and Health series of technical papers, is also available in French.

"This is a big revolution," says Mr Lambert. "Fifty percent of the camel milk produced by nomadic people is wasted because many cultures only consume it as a fresh drink. Making cheese is a way to preserve milk, creating the potential for trade."

Overcoming practical hurdles
With many of the processing difficulties solved, the next step was to see how camel cheese production might work in practice. In 1994, FAO began assisting a Mauritanian dairy with camel cheese production. The programme, which drew on Mr Ramet's expertise, provided technical help and subsidized the purchase of machinery. Two types of camel cheese were produced by the dairy, which already had a line of cow, goat and camel milk products.

But while many of the technical problems seemed to be resolved, new hurdles arose. Dairy owner Nancy Abeiderrahmane explains: "Mauritanians are not used to eating cheese, which was also very expensive at the time. Since the purpose of making cheese was to absorb a seasonal milk surplus that is not consumed anyway, we intended to export the cheese."

The problem was that standard tests for measuring pasteurization of milk from other domestic animals are not able to effectively measure pasteurization levels in camel milk. So camel milk is not covered by most existing dairy import regulations, particularly in countries with no native camel populations. This severely limited markets, and the dairy stopped production of camel cheese in 1995.

Ms Abeiderrahmane is not one to give up, however. Her dairy, which produces 13 000 litres of camel, cow and goat milk a day and provides the main source of income to 800 nomadic families, has recently resumed its camel cheese production. While there may not be much of a market yet, she has begun to sell small quantities of the camel cheese in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott.

"We only produce one kind of cheese. It is difficult to make, the yield is very low and we have practically no market," says Ms Abeiderrahmane. "It is good, though!" Camel cheese has other advantages as well: it is high in vitamins, low in cholesterol, and low in lactose, making it suitable for people who are allergic to other dairy products.

And there are other positive signs. "Camifloc", a product that combines the agents used to curdle camel milk cheese in small, easy-to-use packets, is being sold not only in Mauritania, but also in Mali and the United Arab Emirates. Mr Lambert sees great opportunities for combining "camifloc" with portable low-cost cheese-making units being promoted by FAO. "We recently introduced these devices in Niger for use with cow's milk," he explains. "They're inexpensive, about US$50 each, and after a two-day training session in cheese-making, local women were able to begin production."

Together, these two innovations could be a boon to nomadic groups in arid regions. "This technology holds great promise for many countries with large nomadic populations," says Mr Lambert. "There is huge potential here for increasing their incomes." He adds that the publication should be available in Arabic early next year, providing greater opportunity for spreading this know-how among populations that stand to benefit most from it.

6 July 2001


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