Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

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Razan Alsous decided to make her own halloumi after a fruitless search for the family staple. Her Yorkshire Dama Cheese firm (below) now employs eight people and counts Princess Anne (far left) among its admirers. (Alex Cousins)
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Updated 20 August 2018
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Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

YORKSHIRE, UK: This is a very cheesy story, in the best possible way. It is also a story about resourcefulness, determination and how to build a new life when an old one is lost.
It takes place in a small factory in northern England, where Razan Alsous, 34, a refugee from the war in her native Syria, is forging a reputation as a producer of top-quality halloumi cheese.
She founded her company, Yorkshire Dama Cheese (Dama being short for Damascus) in 2014, less than two years after arriving in England with her husband, Raghid Sandouk, 53, and their three children. Just four months later, Razan won a bronze medal at the World Cheese Awards. The following year she took gold.
Now branded Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese, her halloumi went on sale earlier this year in 40 branches of Morrisons, one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. It was an instant hit and now Morrisons want to stock it in 275 stores nationwide.
Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, the supermarket giants, also want Razan’s halloumi on their shelves. No wonder, then, that Yorkshire Dama Cheese is looking into acquiring more equipment and bigger premises to meet the increasing clamour for its products.
For a young mother-of-three with zero experience of the food industry to go from complete novice to prize-winner in a matter of months would be impressive enough if Razan had lived in Yorkshire all her life.
That she started a business in a foreign country, with unfamiliar laws and customs, and is succeeding, makes her story inspirational.
Being foreign, from Syria, and a Muslim, has barely provoked comment, she said.
“There was a taxi driver — an Asian — who asked me if I was Muslim. I said, ‘Look at me, I’m wearing a headscarf, of course I’m Muslim.’ And he said he thought I might be a nun.
“Generally, I find people are not focused on how I look. They focus on the product. They see someone who is working hard, trying to do something and they want to support you. It’s very positive. I love the personal contact I have with the farmers, who accepted me straight away. I see that England and Syria are quite similar. They are both old civilizations that value history. I feel I am with people who understand me.”
Until six years ago, the family enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle with a home on the outskirts of Damascus. Razan, who has a degree in microbiology, was studying pharmacology at Damascus University. Raghid, an electronics engineer, owned his own company supplying quality control equipment to the pharmaceutical industry.
When the conflict began in 2011, they tried to suppress their fears, even as it began to affect their lives more and more.
“We couldn’t visit our family. Each time Raghid went to work I didn’t know if he’d be back. His warehouse was smashed up by armed gangs. There were people being kidnapped just for dealing with British companies,” said Razan.
Then, on July 23, 2012, a car bomb exploded outside the building where Raghid had his office.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m alive but everything is destroyed.’ All he could see was dust,” said Razan. Three days later, the family were on a plane out of Syria.
“My father didn’t want us to leave. He said everything will be all right, and if it had just been Raghid and me, we would have stayed. It was harder for Raghid because he had a business he had built up over 15 years, with 15 employees. I asked him to leave. I could cope with no electricity. I could cope with limited water. I could cope with everything except lack of safety for my children. You can’t just sit there and wait to die.”
The family came to the UK because Raghid had a multiple-entry business visa and they had connections in the country. Raghid’s grandfather used to travel regularly to Huddersfield, a wool-producing town, to buy cloth for his textile shop, and Raghid’s brother had settled there 30 years ago.
Although the couple clung to the belief that their stay would be temporary, Raghid’s brother advised them to apply for asylum. Razan was granted temporary permission to stay after five weeks. For Raghid, it took almost two years.
“At first, we felt we were on holiday. It was summer, people were relaxed,” said Razan. But with the Syrian pound plummeting in value, their life savings were quickly depleted. They could not get jobs as their qualifications were not recognized. Nor could they study to re-qualify. Razan picked up some translation work, but it was irregular. She hated “signing on” — applying for welfare benefits.
Razan hit on her business idea one day after a fruitless search for halloumi that tasted as good as the cheese that is a staple of family breakfasts back home in Syria. The shops stocked what she describes as “tasteless” halloumi, imported from Cyprus, and made with powdered milk.
“That’s when it struck me: I would make cheese,” she said.
In her research she discovered that the British were the biggest consumers of halloumi in Europe. Her brother-in-law, who owned a string of fast-food businesses, gave her the use of the kitchen in a defunct chicken shop, where she spent a year experimenting with recipes. She found the key ingredient right under her nose.
“Yorkshire milk. The quality is excellent — much creamier with a high percentage of solids,” said Razan. “In Syria, the best halloumi is made in springtime when the grass is new and green. But here the climate is more consistent for good pasture, so the milk is more consistent in quality.”
She mentioned her idea to an adviser at the local Job Center, who referred her to the Enterprise Agency. She was assigned a mentor who steered her through researching the market and drawing up a business plan before applying for a start-up loan.
She received £2,500 to be repaid within two years. The loan was not enough to buy all the equipment she needed, but the ever-resourceful Raghid adapted an ice-cream maker so that it heated the milk instead of cooling it, and converted an insulated fish tank into a fridge.
They began by selling to local delis and cafes. Razan spent her last £500 on the fee for an exhibitor’s stall at the Harrogate Fine Food Show. It proved to be a wise move.
“People loved the cheese and we met our first distributor. He said: ‘This is what we need in Yorkshire,’ and we are still working with him.”
Four months after beginning production, they entered the World Cheese Awards, held in the huge exhibition center in London’s Olympia. It was an eye-opener.
“We knew nothing about it. There were 2,750 different cheeses on display, big blocks of Cheddar … and we arrived with just a few blocks of cheese. We looked very silly,” said Razan. Her initial reaction was to turn and go home. But Raghid said they might as well stay and just enjoy it.
To their amazement, they won the bronze medal. “We were jumping around, shouting. I phoned all my family. We were overjoyed.”
The next year, they entered again and won gold. “It proved the first time was not a fluke. We really did have a good product that people like,” said Razan.
The walls and every spare surface of the office above the factory floor are now covered in awards. For the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, they supplied cheese for the British embassy party in Vienna.
Razan and her halloumi have appeared on television and when he was prime minister, David Cameron nominated her as an ambassador for International Women’s Day in 2015.
Last year, Yorkshire Dama Cheese moved out of the disused chicken shop into their current premises on a small industrial estate. Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter, came to open the new factory last year and stayed for lunch.
“She requested it, and she stayed almost two hours, much longer than her schedule,” said Raghid. “It was a proud day,” Razan said.
The 1,200 liters of milk collected daily from a local dairy farmer is turned into around 2,500 blocks of halloumi each week. The Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese brand came about because Cyprus was seeking Protected Designated Origin status for the halloumi name, a label granted by the EU to a small number of products. The name stuck.
“It works because the test of good halloumi is the squeak when you squeeze it, and also kids like it,” said Razan.
As well as five varieties of halloumi, they make labneh, also labelled “spreadable yogurt” for customers unfamiliar with the Middle Eastern name. The whey left over from making halloumi becomes ricotta cheese. Nothing is wasted and nothing is added, said Razan.
Weekends are spent at food fairs and farmers’ markets. Sales to restaurants, independent shops and online customers have “gone crazy” in the past six months.
They have now bought a house and the children — Angie, 9, Yara, 8, and Kareem, 6 — are happily settled in school. “They are Yorkshire kids now. They laugh at my accent,” said Razan.
Razan’s parents and siblings have followed her to Britain. Her father volunteers at the Buzz Project, running community beehives, where he is known by the nickname Mr. Honey.
Though it pains her to admit it, the prospect of returning to Damascus is receding. “I cannot close down because we have eight employees depending on us,” said Razan. “But I want my children to know where they came from and we will take them when it is safe.”
That’s not all they intend to take back to Syria.
“We aim to export our halloumi to Syria,” said Raghid. “With Yorkshire milk and Syrian know-how, we will make the UK the halloumi capital of the world.”


Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

Myopia, or shortsightedness, means that the eye has difficulty seeing objects at a distance.
Updated 14 September 2018
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Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

  • An epidemic of human shortsightedness is now sweeping the world
  • Between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent

LONDON: We think of evolution as a glacially slow business, a gradual adaptation of physical or behavioral characteristics over thousands of years in response to environmental prompts. 

Lions with short teeth struggle to bring down prey to feed themselves and their offspring. In time, they and their inadequate dentistry vanish from the gene pool, surrendering the savannah to lions with longer teeth. In fact, in 1859 Charles Darwin, noting the “astonishing” variety of breeds descended from a single species of pigeon, identified two types of evolutionary change — slow and incremental, and rapid and dramatic. The latter he termed “monstrosities,” a “considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species.” 

That’s a definition that could well be applied to the epidemic of human shortsightedness now sweeping the world.

Over time, evolution gave us excellent sight. If you couldn’t see well, you couldn’t hunt for food or dodge the carnivores hunting you, which meant you either starved or were eaten and your genes would not be passed on. Natural selection at play. But now changes in lifestyle are, by evolutionary standards, almost overnight sabotaging tens of thousands of years of fine-honing visual acuity.

Over the past few years, research analyzing decades of data has shown that myopia has become increasingly common. This brings a range of consequences, from the cost and lifestyle-hampering inconvenience of the need for glasses or contact lenses, to the long-term complications of myopia, which increases the risk of cataracts, glaucoma and even retinal detachment later in life.

A paper published in the journal Ophthalmology in 2016, based on a systematic review of 145 studies from around the world, concluded that between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent.

About half of young people in Europe and the US are  shortsighted — twice as many as 50 years ago. The situation is even worse in East Asia, which, according to a report in the journal Nature, “has been gripped by an unprecedented rise in myopia,” affecting up to 90 percent of Chinese teens and young adults.

You don’t have to look far to see one possible cause. All around the world, people are staring at screens. At the same time, the average number of hours spent studying during childhood has also increased dramatically.

In today’s competitive global jobs market, a high premium is placed on education in many countries, including China, and children spend many hours staring at books or computer screens. So it does not come as a surprise to learn that researchers have found a direct correlation between shortsightedness and levels of educational attainment. In other words, there is truth in the old stereotype of the bespectacled swot.

But that is not the whole picture. Research in the US, Australia and Israel has suggested that time spent staring at books or screens is not the problem so much as the attendant reduction in time spent outdoors.

This first became evident in a study among the Inuit in the north of Alaska, where in one generation shortsightedness went from being almost non-existent to affecting one child in two as children spent less and less time engaging with traditional, outdoor pursuits, such as hunting.

Another study, in Australia, found that “higher levels of total time spent outdoors is associated with less myopia,” a finding replicated by a UK study in June this year. This provided strong evidence that “more time spent in education is a causal risk factor for myopia” and concluded that “the best recommendation, based on the highest quality available evidence at the moment, is for children to spend more time outside.”

That advice is seemingly upheld by a number of studies that myopia presents less commonly among children in certain countries in the Middle East — possibly because there is less emphasis, especially in remote rural areas, on intensive education. One study, among 400,000 children in Oman in 2003, found only 4.1 percent were shortsighted — a dramatically smaller percentage than in east Asia — and similar results have been reported in Iran.

Research in Amman, Jordan, found increased incidence of myopia was “significantly associated with ... computer use, and reading and writing outside school,” while playing sports reduced the risk. A study of the epidemic of shortsightedness among East Asian children, published this month in the journal Ophthalmology, concluded that prolonged attendance in crammer schools is a major risk factor for myopia among children aged 7 to 12. 

One country apparently bucking the global myopia trend is Norway, where educational standards are high. A paper published this month in the journal Scientific Trends suggests that this might be because “being outdoors is a part of the Norwegian culture and a major part of growing up.”

Children in Norwegian kindergartens spend two hours a day outdoors in the winter and at least four in the summer. At primary school all breaks are taken outdoors. Exposure patterns “quite different from those of children attending East Asian schools, where recess time usually is spent indoors.” Research from Taiwan has suggested that it is necessary for children to spend a minimum of two hours outdoors every day to prevent the onset of myopia.

As yet, no one has quite worked out why spending more time outdoors is good for our eyes, especially during the developmental years of childhood. But the message is clear: The competitive drive to equip our children with the best possible education must be balanced with the need to preserve their eyesight, a lesson that should be borne in mind as countries in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council, recalibrate school systems for the new age.

For parents, schools and policymakers, that means making sure that our children spend as much time gazing toward the horizon, as toward their futures. Anything else is just plain short-sighted. 

 

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.
© Syndication Bureau