I have to come clean. You may remember my list of reasons I chose West Africa as a travel destination. They were all lies concocted to mask the reality. The real reason I came to West Africa? I just really wanted to try camel cheese. Can you blame me for lying? I felt a little crazy. But at least that’s a word that has so outgrown its pejorative roots that it almost doesn’t require the qualifying retort: “yeah, crazy with passion.”
Those of you who know me are aware of my somewhat bizarre obsession with aged milk products. And can you think of anything more exotic than camel cheese? I was excited by a truly authentic product, the way travel writers, food bloggers and chefs often write about having a “thirst that can only be quenched by the blank from the blank region of blank.” Once I arrived in Timbuktu, where it seemed like half the population was of the camelid variety, I knew I’d reached the spot. I asked around, hoping to find a master fromagiere, dedicated to his craft, undoubtedly passed down through hundreds of generations.
This quest, it turns out, was significantly less authentic. Except for the packaged, unrefrigerated, ultra-processed variety, Malians don’t really eat cheese. When I asked, people mostly looked at me like I was crazy. Most weren’t even aware that camel cheese existed. I eventually found an old lady in the basement of the market selling what looked like large crackers.She promised me that it was camel cheese. I was suspicious.
I bought a tranche for 3,000 CFA, sure that I’d been ripped off. Then, with great anticipation, I took a bite:
Or… well… I tried. It damn nearly took my front teeth out. Traditional camel cheese is about as hard as a wooden table. And only slightly more appetizing. Tamachek nomads apparently suck on it during long journeys. Camel cheese is not something you “chew” in the traditional sense. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of lore. Only it comes from a mammal’s teat.
Camel milk doesn’t curdle in the same way that say, a cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s does. You stick it out in the sun, and in a couple days, it’s as hard as a rock. No wonder this Mauritanian company is having a hard time finding a European audience.
True, there are many intriguing nutritional elements of camel milk. It’s considerably lower in lactose, and it’s also a whole food. You could survive off it for months. But unless you’re a nomad, trudging through the comically inhospitable Sahara, why would you want to?
So what did I learn? Sometimes, disappointment is a natural part of life. And if at first you don’t succeed, don’t ever fucking try a nomad’s camel cheese again.