Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

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)
Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle
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Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle
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Updated 20 August 2018

Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

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.”


Ramadan recipes: This freekeh-stuffed chicken is comfort food for the soul

Ramadan recipes: This freekeh-stuffed chicken is comfort food for the soul
(Supplied)
Updated 09 May 2021

Ramadan recipes: This freekeh-stuffed chicken is comfort food for the soul

Ramadan recipes: This freekeh-stuffed chicken is comfort food for the soul

DUBAI: Jordanian Chef Hassan Al-Naami shares his delectable recipe for fragrant freekeh-stuffed chicken, a dish that is wildly popular at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai, where he brings his culinary vision to life at the hotel’s Middle Eastern restaurant, Amaseena.

As Ramadan draws to a close, give this dish a go for a special iftar this week.

Chicken ingredients:  

Whole baby chicken

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

1 tsp paprika

1/3 tbsp 7 spice

½ tbsp coriander powder

2 ½ tbsp lemon juice

1 handful of almonds

1 handful of pine nuts

Freekeh ingredients:

5 cups freekeh 

3 tbsp olive oil

¼ cup onion (chopped)

1 tsp cinnamon powder

½ tsp cardamom powder

1 tbsp 7-spice

1 ½ tbsp cumin powder

6 cups chicken stock

Salt and black pepper to taste

Instructions:

1.       Wash and drain freekeh until clean. In a hot pan combine olive oil and spices, toss for a few minutes till fragrant. Add the freekeh then sauté for another 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring to boil. Cover and cook for 30-40 minutes on a low heat. The freekeh should be cooked but still have a chewy texture.

2.       Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a small bowl, mix all the spices and rub chicken with spices all over and inside, including under the skin. Take the cooked freekeh and stuff the chicken with it, cross the legs and tie with twine. Place the chicken in a roasting tray, cover with foil and roast for 60-80 minutes. Allow the chicken rest before serving (keeping it covered).

3.       Serve stuffed chicken on over leftover cooked freekeh. Decorate with roasted nuts and serve with minted yogurt on the side.


Where We Are Going Today: BoBoKo

Where We Are Going Today: BoBoKo
Photo/Supplied
Updated 08 May 2021

Where We Are Going Today: BoBoKo

Where We Are Going Today: BoBoKo
  • All menu items are served with rice, homemade peanut sauce and sambal on the side

BoBoKo is an authentic Indonesian restaurant located in Jeddah’s North Obhur area and serves traditional items such as rice noodles, curry, satay, spicy sambal and more. Recipes are spiced up with Asian flavors and ingredients including ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk, and chili pepper.
Boboko is a rice basket made from bamboo and the restaurant’s dishes are presented on a freshly cut banana leaf, complementing the restaurant’s Indonesian vibes.
The dishes are inspired by names of Indonesian cities and what each of them is known for, such as Jakarta (chicken and meat), Puncak (meat only), Bandung (chicken only), Bali (not spicy), and BoBoKo Surabaya (vegetarian).
All menu items are served with rice, homemade peanut sauce and sambal on the side.
For vegetarians, the menu offers vegan options using plant-based foods such as silky soft tofu and bean sprouts.
One of the most popular appetizers is crispy krupuk, or shrimp crackers, a snack close to the hearts of older Saudis.
BoBoKo is open from Thursday to Saturday. For more information visit the Instagram account @bobokoindo.


Ramadan recipes: These glorious stuffed peppers are a feast for the eyes and appetite

Ramadan recipes: These glorious stuffed peppers are a feast for the eyes and appetite
(Shutterstock)
Updated 02 May 2021

Ramadan recipes: These glorious stuffed peppers are a feast for the eyes and appetite

Ramadan recipes: These glorious stuffed peppers are a feast for the eyes and appetite

DUBAI: Stuffing vegetables is an art relished by many in the Middle East. Peppers are easy to fill while others, like cucumbers, carrots and turnips, can be a bit more challenging. Humble vegetables are elevated to another level once stuffed and served with a tantalizing sauce. I love making stuffed peppers since their shape acts as the perfect vessel for any filling. Try a colorful yellow and red pepper combination for a dish that is a treat for the eyes and the appetite.  

Ingredients: 

24 mini bell peppers
1 cup short-grain rice (presoaked, rinsed and drained)
4 tsp clarified butter (or butter)
300g finely diced lamb or beef
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp all-spice
Salt and pepepr
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp dried mint
12 cloves garlic
4 cups (1 L) pureed tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup beef or chicken stock
1 lemon zest (optional)

Garnish ingredients:

Toasted pine nuts (or almonds), parsley or mint.
Serve with labneh or a mixture of 1/2 cup yoghurt and 1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream.

Method:

1.       Preheat oven to 190˚C then place the rice, butter, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp allspice, minced garlic, 2 tbs dried mint, and salt and pepper in a large bowl, mixing well.  Add the minced lamb and mix it into the rice with clean hands.

2.       Fill the hollow peppers about three quarters full and place 1 tomato slice on top. Repeat for all peppers. Place the filled peppers in a deep baking dish.

3.      In a saucepan, heat the olive oil and sautée the sliced garlic for one minute before pouring in the puréed tomatoes. Add in the water, tomato paste, 1 tbs dry mint, fresh mint, parsley, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp allspice, salt and pepper.

4.      Pour the tomato sauce all around the peppers. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes until rice is cooked. Serve hot with any extra tomato sauce and a sprinkle of your chosen garnish.

 


Actress Jameela Jamil to host empowering Instagram workout inspired by her ‘traumatic’ history with fitness

Actress Jameela Jamil to host empowering Instagram workout inspired by her ‘traumatic’ history with fitness
Jameela Jamil is known for her role as Tahani on NBC's 'The Good Place.' File/Getty Images 
Updated 01 May 2021

Actress Jameela Jamil to host empowering Instagram workout inspired by her ‘traumatic’ history with fitness

Actress Jameela Jamil to host empowering Instagram workout inspired by her ‘traumatic’ history with fitness

DUBAI:  May is Mental Health Awareness Month and actress Jameela Jamil has something special in store for her fans to mark the occasion.

The “The Good Place” star has invited her 3.4 million followers to a 30-minute online “exercise class where we wear pajamas, eat snacks and listen to disco while doing very silly aerobics.” 

The 34-year-old teamed up with her longtime friend and trainer for an Instagram Live “cringe fest” workout on Saturday in an effort to “take exercise back.”

“Watch me have the elegance of a walrus as I jump into happiness on Instagram Live,” wrote British-Pakistani-Indian Jameel ahead of the session. 

All that's needed to attend the virtual workout class was a delicious snack and a comfortable outfit. “Bring a delicious snack, baggy clothes and leave your eating disorder fears at the door because this can be a safe space away from the noise of toxic diet culture,” she wrote to her followers. 

Jamil, who became a household name with her activism and role as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s “The Good Place,” routinely takes to her social media platforms to encourage people to respect and love their bodies.

She often gets candid about her struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. 

“It’s taken me 20 years to get back into even light exercise because I’ve been so traumatized by my eating disorder history and how our society has weaponized exercise into being a tool of diet culture rather than something we do for our mental health,” wrote Jamil on Instagram. 

“The bralette tops and tight leggings and rooms full of mirrors and focus on definition, shape and size is just too much for me. It triggers old thoughts and habits. So, I do it in baggy clothes with light snacks (as in nothing that would make me throw up when I’m jumping up and down) and none of the emphasis is on my body, ONLY my mind. Doing this has revolutionized my relationship with exercise, my body, and my mind (sic),” she wrote.  

“It is disgusting that vanity has taken over exercise and that you’re made to feel like to even be able to exercise you have to show up thin and toned in revealing clothes. We need to TAKE EXERCISE BACK (sic),” she added.


What We Are Eating Today: Grandma’s Jar

What We Are Eating Today: Grandma’s Jar
Updated 30 April 2021

What We Are Eating Today: Grandma’s Jar

What We Are Eating Today: Grandma’s Jar

Grandma’s Jar is a homemade Saudi brand that offers authentic jam recipes for sweet-toothed connoisseurs that will make you reminisce over your tasty childhood recipes.
The home business was inspired by a grandmother who used to offer freshly made jam for every family breakfast during Eid, which everyone was eager to enjoy.
The fresh fruits are the main components of the heavenly jars. The healthy, natural jars are filled with just three ingredients: Cane sugar, fruits and lemon, without any pectin or gelatin.
They are available in eight different flavors: Strawberry and rosemary, mixed berry, mango, apricot, orange, cherry, quince, and the brand’s signature fig jam mix with nuts, sesame and black seeds.
Fruits used in Grandma’s Jar jam are taken from the business owner’s backyard. Seasonally produced, their fresh and cold mango jam marks the arrival of summer.
Their jams can be used in plenty of dishes, such as desserts, sandwiches and cheesecakes.
If you were thinking of Eid Al-Fitr’s surprise or gifting to family and friends, the brand offers three choices of smartly packed boxes, ranging from two to six flavors of your choice.
They offer shipment around the Kingdom too. For more information visit their Instagram @grandmasjar or their website: https://salla.sa/grandmasjar