Milking it in Africa: Ethiopian Camel Cheese

Camel milk is a specialty of the Karrayyu herders, a nomadic tribe from the Fantalle district in East Showa where Roba Bulga grew up.

Growing up as part of a nomadic tribe in Ethiopia, Roba Bulga’s life took a drastic turn a when he ran away from his village to study in the capital. After pursuing studies in Addis Abeba and later Italy, the 28-year old found himself longing for home. So he set up shop in his native country and is now working with Slow Food International and a local cooperative to protect and promote camel milk.

Camel milk is a specialty of the Karrayyu herders, a nomadic tribe from the Fantalle district in East Showa where Bulga grew up. Located about 330-miles south of Addis Ababa, it’s an arid region where herders take special care of their prized camels, knowing each one by name. Along with corn and barley, camel milk is a staple in the herder’s diet as well as of the Somalis living in Ethiopia. By working with a local cooperative, Bulga’s mission is to help preserve the ancient tradition of the Karrayyu herders by promoting camel milk and its derivatives such as cheese and handmade soap.

Recently, Bulga traveled to the Cheese festival held in Bra, Italy, to promote camel milk cheese, which he warned is still in its infancy. “It’s an experiment really. It’s very difficult to make camel milk cheese because of its low fat content so we use 80 percent camel milk and 20 percent cow milk,” he explained.

Camel milk has a sour sometimes bitter taste with a lighter consistency than cow’s milk. He described camel milk cheese has being similar in taste to goat cheese but with a pungent smoky aroma. Bulga said the flavor could vary depending on the production and aging techniques. One of the challenges of producing camel milk cheese is that there isn’t really a market in Ethiopia because locals are used to just drinking fresh milk. However, Bulga said he hopes this can all change if people become aware of how it can help herders.”We have a rich culture of [consuming] fresh camel milk so the cheese could be a way of adding value to the product and valorizing pastoral cultures.”

Pastoral cultures like the Karrayyu herders in Ethiopia are facing a number of challenges including drought and land grabbing. Promoting camel milk and it products can have a positive impact in these cultures, helping preserve traditions that have existed for hundreds of years. So far, the cooperative Bulga works with has 41 herders and 260 camels that produce about 1,000 liters of milk a day. Herders collect camel milk twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

Roba Bulga is the co-founder of Labata Fantalle NGO and the protagonist of the documentary Jeans & Martò.

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Ethiopian Camel Cheese