The UAE may not be well acknowledged for locally produced foods, and it’s certainly not famous for its cheese. However, that could all be about to change, with two companies producing their own fresh cheese in the emirates, available to eat here in Dubai. Italian Dairy Products have been blazing a trail in producing traditional Italian fresh cheeses, while Greenheart Organic (primarily known for its organic vegetables) is also involved in making goat’s cheese, from its own organically fed goats.
Recently, Italian Dairy Products’ cheeses have evolved from being the preserve of knowing foodies, to the burrata and mozzarella of choice on menus throughout Dubai, including Traiteur, Urban Bistro, Pantry Café, The Ivy, Baker and Spice and Make Business Hub. Since last month, the company is now also supplying the Burj Al Arab. Meanwhile, Greenheart Organic, whose goat’s cheese is currently on the salad menu at NKD Pizza, is in the process of finalising its own shop, set to open soon in Barsha, where it is hoping to sell its cheese directly to consumers for the first time.
Italian Dairy Products, whose cheese-making activities are based in Sharjah, was founded by an Italian couple whose interest in cheese-making was inspired by a holiday to Dubai. Deciding that there was a relative lack of fresh, locally produced food, the couple decided to set up their own cheese factory. With no background in the food industry, the UAE-based factory is their sole cheese making activity, in Italy or elsewhere in the world. The factory has now been in operation for three years: the first customers were based in Abu Dhabi, while the first Dubai hotel to stock the brand was Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa.
Arriving in the dusty outskirts of Sharjah, our first impression of the factory is the pleasantly sweet, mildly milky smell in the air. We’re greeted by Italian-born Maria Luisa Panzica La Manna, who has become the face and mouthpiece of Italian Dairy Products. As you might expect from an all-Italian concept, the equipment Maria guides us through is all made in Italy to the requirements of an Italian cheese factory (or ‘caseificio’ in Italian, she explains, named after the protein in the milk).
The factory is in production four days a week, making mozzarella, burrata, ricotta and scamorza (all in the same family of Italian fresh cheeses), and producing up to 9,000 tonnes of mozzarella each month.
Starting at the beginning of the production process, Maria explains that the company doesn’t store the milk on the premises. Instead it arrives from an Al Ain farm early on each morning of production, chilled to 4°C. The milk is pumped straight into the factory, and the first step is to pasteurise the milk at 72°C. The pasteurised milk is then passed into a vat where it is mixed with the starter culture and rennet, which produces the coagulation necessary to begin making milk into cheese. Blades inside the vat turn the milk for approximately an hour, after which the coagulation process is complete and the milk separates into curds and whey.
The mixture is transferred into a ‘double-bottomed trolley’, which is fitted with a tap, to separate the whey. The curd is also cut several times ‘to release the remaining whey in between the little bits of curd,’ as Maria explains.
The whey is then boiled with citric acid, to create a cooked ricotta – Maria explains we could attempt a homemade version by boiling up milk with lemon juice. The cooked whey mixture is then scooped into containers with drainage holes and allowed to dry for two hours. Like mozzarella, there is no ageing process required, which is why the cheese is termed ‘fresh’ and also why the shelf life of these cheeses is much shorter. Ricotta, Maria says, will become drier with time, and ricotta that is a few days old is better for pasta dishes, ‘because you don’t want to introduce water into your dish’.
The mozzarella is made from the curd, which is added to hot water with a little salt to cook it slightly. We try the mozzarella at this stage, when it is still very chewy and stretchy, almost like gum. The curd is then stretched to ease out the texture, shaped and plunged into cold water to cool and remove the gummy element in the texture. Italian Dairy Products also makes mozzarella designed for use on pizza, which is less salty, and contains less water.
Burrata is made as a side product of mozzarella, by creating a flat shell from the mozzarella and stuffing it with strands of mozzarella mixed with cream, producing a much richer cheese. It is then tied in the classic moneybag shape. A new product, introduced to production eight months ago, is scamorza, a smoked mozzarella that Italian Dairy Products makes with a liquid, chicory-scented, aroma. Also new is the sfoglia, a thin sheet of mozzarella that can be used a little like pastry to created a stuffed roll of cheese. When we visit, the factory is making sfoglia for Pantry Café to use at an event the same evening. By 3pm, all the cheese made that day will be due to leave the factory.
Across the emirates, at its farm in Ras Al Khaimah, organic vegetable company Greenheart Organic also makes fresh local cheese. In this case, however, it takes inspiration from the region – the company produces Palestinian-style fresh Nablusia goat’s cheese. Greenheart Organic founder Elena Kinane explains that the process starts from the care of the herd of approximately 400 goats, kept at the farm.
‘The biggest mistake in industrial farming is to separate livestock and crop production, because in the cycle of the farm, the livestock provides the manure for nourishing the soil, to grow the produce, and what you grow provides the fodder for the livestock. Any livestock should only be fed fresh produce – they shouldn’t be given industrially made fodder, even if it is organic.’
Elena’s goats are given a strictly fresh, organic and varied diet of vegetables grown on the farm; as a result, she explains the quality of the milk is ‘amazing, but it is expensive to feed them like this, because the yield is small.’
Traditionally, Elena tells us, this Palestinian cheese is made with raw, unpasteurised milk, but due to health and safety regulations in the UAE, the cheese is made from goat’s milk that is boiled and then allowed to
cool. The cheese is currently sold wholesale to local delivery firm NKD Pizza; once the Greenheart Organic store opens in Barsha, Elena is keen to sell directly to consumers.
Local regulations, however, can slow this process down, especially for small businesses because the licences can be expensive. ‘Regulations are very strict, and handmade cheese is considered alien and unhygienic. I understand why – they have to ensure people are not being poisoned – but it makes it difficult for small enterprises, because they can’t adjust the rules for each company.’
Another issue that slows down Elena’s cheese enterprise is her insistence on using recyclable glass containers. ‘I don’t just want to grow green, I want the packaging to be green too, so I don’t want to use plastic.’ These regulations perhaps explain the relative lack of artisanal food enterprises in the UAE, working to traditional requirements. In terms of cheese, we’re happy to encounter at least two companies making a difference.
How to use ricotta
Maria from Italian Dairy Products reveals her top tips…
1 To enrich sauces ‘Add ricotta to pasta sauces – even simple tomato sauce – to add flavour and creaminess. The cheese can also be used alone on pasta, with a little drizzle of olive oil and pepper.’
2 In baking ‘Ricotta is great for pancakes, making them moist and fluffy, as well as in cheesecakes and sweet or savoury pies.’
3 Layered in gratins or lasagna ‘The cheese makes a good flavour base without adding a lot of extra moisture. You can also use it as a filling for ravioli or cannelloni.’
4 To enrich egg dishes ‘A few spoons of ricotta give eggs an extra layer of richness. The cheese also adds fluffiness to omelettes and scrambled eggs.’
5 In salads ‘When the ricotta is a little drier, it is ideal for crumbling on salad.’