NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Herd boys tug at camels' udders, loosing the raw material for a unique, creamy cheese this desert nation's growers hope to place alongside Roquefort and cheddar on the world's crackers.
If foreigners bite, camel cheese exports could put sorely needed cash in the robes of this West African nation's nomads, helping them to modernize herding practices.
But there are hurdles: European Union and American import and health regulations demand costly testing impoverished Mauritania, like most African nations, is unable to provide.
"If the Europeans buy that cheese, our milk production will skyrocket. We'll get the technology - better than the money - like the right medicines. Then our herds will really grow," says herder Tati Ould Mohamed, watching as an orange bucket filled with frothy milk.
"But the product can't be sold overseas. And that's causing problems," says Mohamed, one of 1,000 herdsmen selling milk to Tiviski SARL, touted here as the world's only camel cheese factory.
Nancy Abeiderrahmane, the British founder of Tiviski, has waged a decades-long campaign to export the milk and cheese of camels - animals more associated with Bedouin herders than brie.
When Abeiderrahmane moved to Mauritania in 1970, many of the country's 2.9 million people lived as herdsmen, but were increasingly consuming imported milk and other processed foods.
"I thought it was absurd that they had all of these dairy animals and were importing all of this ultra-pasteurized milk," the 56-year-old Briton says. "I so missed fresh milk. And I love camel's milk; it's exquisite."
So, with $250,000, she launched her company in 1987. It started with packaged camel milk, then quickly branched into yogurt and creme fraiche.
"It all made perfect sense," Abeiderrahmane says.
Over the years, she grew intrigued by the idea of camel cheese.
Camel milk doesn't curdle naturally, making cheese production difficult. But by 1994, with the help of a French professor, Abeiderrahmane had developed a method for making camel cheese, which tastes similar to goat cheese, but spreads and looks more like brie or Camembert.
But there was no local market.
"Mauritanians don't eat cheese because they don't know it and don't like the taste," she says. "So we made it for the European market, this wonderful cheese with this handsome packaging."
With little idea of international trade regulations, she traveled to Europe, finding interest from high-end emporiums, including Paris's Fauchon and Harrods of London, she says.
But trade regulators in Brussels, the EU headquarters, said the cheese contravened import rules.
"They were amused and wanted to help us, but the bureaucracy is huge," Abeiderrahmane says.
"At first they said it wasn't milk, because it wasn't the secretion of cows, sheep, ewes, or buffalos" as defined by EU laws, she says, although that hurdle fell to her lobbying efforts.
But bigger obstacles remained: Mauritania has yet to show it has eradicated foot and mouth disease, which has swept Europe in recent years and which the United States also guards against.
It also lacks testing facilities to prove its products are safe for human consumption.
"It may take another seven or eight or nine years," Abeiderrahmane concedes.
A French restaurateur in the Mauritania capital says he is convinced there is an overseas market for camel cheese.
"A good red wine, a fine Bordeaux - this cheese can stand up to whatever you drink with it," says Patrick Peri, owner of Nouakchott's Le Mediterraneen.
"I'm sure that in France, you could sell it in gourmet boutiques in the small towns," says Peri, who serves the cheese pan-friend with a pinch of herbs.
Tiviski now boasts 240 employees, a gleaming factory of stainless-steel urns and pipes, and 2002 sales of $5 million - only a tiny fraction from camel cheese, packaged in small brown boxes and sold locally.
But Abeiderrahmane estimates she could increase cheese production to as much as 530 pounds daily, if the foreign markets were there.
For herders like Mohamed, that would be good news.
His herd, like many, has dwindled in the face of drought and development, decreasing by 150 last year.
With increased milk sales, he could use the cash to vaccinate his herd and stock up against another deadly drought.
"It's good for the country," Abeiderrahmane says of Mauritania's cheese ambitions. "I'm not depriving anyone of anything - except maybe some baby camels a bit of milk."
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