Penelope Walsh visits Dubai’s first and only camel dairy farm, Camelicious, for a lesson in camels, their milk and a taste test of the end results
A camel meat burger, or ride in the desert on safari, are just some of the ways camels are put to use in modern day Dubai. The most modern, however, is the current proliferation of camel milk now seen on menus across the city. From cappuccinos to ice creams to cheeses, the vast majority of camel milk products on the market are made using the milk from Dubai-based camel farm and dairy factory, Camelicious.
Located in Umm Nahad on the road to Al Ain, Camelicious operates as a farm, where the camels are tended and milked and a dairy factory, where fresh and flavoured milk, cheese and laban are produced and bottled, with the products having first hit consumer shelves in August 2006. Camelicious also operates as a one of a kind research centre, studying the use and care of camels for dairy purposes, as well as the health benefits of camel milk for potential pharmaceutical use.
From Camelicious has sprung two further sister projects. Al Nassma, which is named after the Arabic word for the gentle desert breeze, is the first company to create chocolate made with camel milk. The Majlis Café, located in the atmospheric Souk area of Dubai Mall, sells a classic menu of cakes, sandwiches, coffees and even three-tiered afternoon menus, where nearly everything is made with a hint of camel milk, be it a pain au chocolat, or the bread used to make savoury sandwiches.
Now, the concept is growing. Dubai has recently been given trade approval by the European Union to export camel milk to the region, which primarily effects Camelicious as the only potential exporter in the Emirate. With 3,000 camels at the farm at present, Camelicious tells us the aim is to increase numbers by 10,000 in the next two years. Also in the pipeline is a new Camelicious range of flavoured labnah, and a second branch of The Majlis Café, located on Beach Road, both to launch in summer.
When we visit we are faced with some of Camelicious’ 3,000 camels, our first reaction is surprise at how characterful and unique in appearance they are. The animals are fed a diet of hay, with occasional carrots as a treat, which we see them greedily relish. Chief veterinarian Dr Judit Juhasz, who is charged with their care, tells us they are ‘lovely animals’ and is evidently very fond of them. We are also surprised by how sweetly charming the camels seem to be, despite being traditionally branded stubborn and ill-tempered.
However, the biggest revelation is that camel dairy farming is an innovative process, with little previous heritage in the UAE. According to Kirsten Lange, director of communications from Camelicious, for the bedouin, ‘camel milk was not part of the daily diet.’ It was only available, she explains, to breeders, who drank the milk raw and unpasteurised ‘straight from the camel’. ‘Camels were mostly used for transportation, leather and meat, but camel milk was not used for making cheese, as there was no process of conserving cheese in the desert.’
It has consequently been an untapped resource. Camel milk, we learn, is lower in fat than cow’s milk, and higher in vitamins and minerals, containing four times as much vitamin C, and ten times as much iron as cow’s milk. It can be consumed by those who are lactose-intolerant. It is high in lactoferrin, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, and high in lanolin, which has soothing properties when applied directly to the skin. Most significantly, in the UAE, where diabetes rates are high, camel milk naturally contains insulin, and studies to date have found that for patients with diabetes two, a regular dose of insulin from drinking camel milk can help regulate the effect of more conventional diabetic medicine.
In addition to the culinary potential, these properties make camel milk a potential ‘wonder’ ingredient for both the pharmaceutical and beauty industries. In fact, it could potentially revolutionise diabetes treatment in the region. According to Mutasher Al-Badry, deputy general manager at Camelicious, the research centre is already involved in providing camel milk in powder form for use in the pharmaceutical industry, but demand continues to outstrip supply, due to the amount of milk the camels can be expected to produce.
In production, the milk has to be pasteurised at 75C, which is within the safe, but lower end of the pasteurisation scale, in order not to destroy these health properties through high heat. In addition to fresh milk, the milk is also made into powder. Again, in contrast to the high temperatures usually employed in this process, Camelicious have had to create their own innovative freeze drying technology, which operates at minus 20C, in order to preserve these minerals and vitamins in the milk.
The camel milk powder is used in the baked goods at The Majlis Café, where liquid camel milk would interfere with the precise composition and consistency needed in pastry preparation, such as cakes and Viennoiserie. ‘There were no existing recipes for these products, so we had to develop them all by experimentation, and it took a lot of time to develop,’ explains Roddy Fok Shan, general manager at The Majlis Café. ‘We had to experiment with fresh milk, and two types of powder, one that looks like a conventional powder, and one that is flaky’.
The powdered camel milk is also used in the chocolate made by Al Nassma. ‘A few years ago, people thought it would be impossible to make pastries and chocolate out of camel milk,’ Kirsten says. ‘It is the fat content that makes chocolate liquid when heated, but it solidifies once it cools down. We have to use the camel milk as powder in the chocolate, otherwise it won’t become solid.’ The powder is then transported to a chocolate factory in Austria, which is one of the few chocolate producers in the world to create bean to bar chocolate, before returning to Dubai for packaging and sale.
Camelicious is available at Al Maya, Choitrams, Geant, Hyper Panda, LuLu Hypermarket, Spinneys and Union Coops. The Majlis Café, The Souk, Dubai Mall (04 223 9289).
The camel milk menu
We taste test the range of camel milk products available at the outlets listed above
The Majlis Café serves coffees made with fresh camel milk. We tried the latte. The milk in the coffee is surprisingly sweet, despite no sugar being added to the beverage. It has a mildly cheesy flavour, akin to, but not the same as, goat’s milk.
Camelicious makes three varieties of fresh cheese, traditional to the region: Palestinian-style naboulsi cheese, akkawi cheese and soft white cheese. The naboulsi cheese is mixed with carraway seeds, which give it an intense and aniseed-like flavour. Yet, the slight saltiness of the milk and minerality is still evident. The cheese has a thick, viscous quality, which leaves a creamy film on the palate. The akkawi cheese, which works best for cooking, has an intense and heavy flavour, and ever so slightly crumbly texture. The soft and creamy white cheese is our favourite of the three, with a more delicate flavour.
Al Nassma make chocolate with camel milk. The plain, milk chocolate variety is exceptionally rich and creamy. We tried some of Al Nassma’s pralines, including a hazelnut cream, and a macadamia nut cream. In these, the thick and creamy chocolate shell appears to contain burst of saltiness, nicely matched with the sweetness.
At The Majlis Café, we tried vanilla and chocolate ice cream made with camel milk powder and swirled together. The ice cream is surprisingly light, with the slightest sense of minerality evident, giving the ice cream a unique edge.
Cakes and pastries at The Majlis Café are baked used camel milk powder, including classic-style croissants and muffins. With the addition of the camel milk, the croissant dough is much lighter, less buttery and less flaky. The mini muffins also have this lighter quality, while in the chocolate muffin recipe the strong minerality is particularly noticeable. We also tried a divine multi-layered chocolate cake, filled with macadamia nut cream.