Got camel milk? This may or may not be a strange question, depending on where in the world you live. Although camels and their milk are most commonly associated with the desert landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa, the camel’s origin can be traced back to the Protyplus, an animal similar in size to a hare that inhabited North America nearly forty million years ago.

Thirty six million years later, the camel set off in search of not exactly greener pastures. They migrated into Eurasia and separated into two categories: the two-humped Bactrian and single-humped dromedary.

“Dromedary” comes from the Greek dromas, meaning “running”, indicating its usage in transport. The term “camel” is related to the Arabic jamal, meaning both camel and beauty. As its name indicates, this beauteous beast of burden has been transporting goods and people ever since its domestication nearly five thousand years ago in the Arabian peninsula.

Although the camel has a well-established reputation as a beast of burden, it also plays a lesser known but vital role within pastoral societies: milk producer. Many ruminants discontinue lactating in harsh climatic environments. However, camels continue to produce highly diluted milk containing over 90% water. Extreme drought conditions are no sweat for the dromedary--they maintain a regular body temperature without the need to perspire and can also lose up to 30 percent of their weight from water loss.

Camels are also adaptable feeders; their ability to digest dry matter and fiber allows them to eat a broad range of plants including thorny bushes and cacti. These traits, along with the camel’s ability to continue to produce a reliable source of nutrition in challenging environments, has led to an increased emphasis on camel milk’s potential to improve food security in drought prone regions.

In addition to increasing food security, the camel could possibly become the dairy industry’s cash cow. Historically, camel milk has mainly been traded in informal markets but there has been interest in expanding camel its role in formal economies. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognized camel milk’s economic value. With proper implementation, the UN FAO estimates its potential within the global market to be 10 billion dollars.

In order to expand this market, companies have introduced a diverse range of products that offer modern interpretations of this traditional drink. Camel milk cappuccinos, known as camelccinos, are on one coffee shop’s menu in Dubai. Other camel milk based products include assorted flavors of ice cream and different varieties of camel milk chocolates.

Of all the products, camel milk cheese may have presented the biggest challenge in its creation. There are a few basic steps in cheesemaking, beginning with milk selection. If it is pasteurized, a form of bacteria is added; this is unnecessary with raw milk because bacteria is already present. Then the milk is combined with rennet, an enzyme found in the lining of the stomachs of mammals. Rennin, the proteolytic enzyme found within rennet, alters the soluble proteins in milk known as caseins. This results in coagulation and curdling; the substances separate and the majority of caseins, milk solids, and fat form curds and the remaining liquid becomes whey. Finally, the whey is drained off and the curds are formed into cheese.

All of this becomes tricky when making camel cheese because the structure of the protein in camel milk differs from cows, goats, sheep, and other animals commonly used to produce cheese. Due to its composition, camel milk does not curdle naturally and won’t coagulate as easily as other types of milk. This may be a result of its unique casein micelles, the multi-molecular structure formed by caseins and held together by calcium. Despite the obstacles, Mauritanian Tiviski Dairy developed Caravene, a soft, creamy cheese with a bloomy rind. Its similarities to brie and camembert have earned it the nickname ‘Camelbert.’

For those living in the United States and Europe, sampling camel cheese might be even more difficult than making it. Despite interest from high end retailers such as Harrods, regulations from the European Union and Food and Drug Administration have restricted its sales. If you’re a curious caseophile with a penchant for travel or already in the United Arab Emirates, you’re in luck. Dubai based company Camelicious is set to debut its version of camel cheese, White Gold, in supermarkets this week.

The composition of camel milk affects cheesemaking, but do its contents also have an effect on the human body? Its proteins and limited ability to coagulate may not be good for cheesemakers but could be beneficial for Type 1 diabetics. Due to its chemical makeup, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition considered camel milk as an alternative method of administering insulin. A protein within camel milk has characteristics similar to insulin and it is more likely to be absorbed in the intestine because it does not coagulate in acidic environments. This led researchers to design a study to assess the efficacy and safety of camel milk as an adjunct to insulin therapy in Type 1 diabetic

A two year randomized clinical study was conducted with twenty four Type 1 diabetics. All the participants received regular treatment but half also drank 500 ml of camel milk daily. At the end of the study, the subjects who had consumed camel milk had a significant reduction in insulin requirement in comparison to the control group. Further, of the group receiving camel milk, three participants gradually reduced their insulin requirement to zero. This was a preliminary study but it suggests camel milk may do a body good.

Depending on where you live, camel milk can be somewhat difficult to obtain. It’s not as common in Egypt as other areas of the MENA but it can be found after a little searching. One place offering camel milk, along with a whole lot of camels, is the camel bazaar (Souq al Gamal) located just outside Cairo.

Camels take a little rest after a long journey. Some have traveled for months to reach the market. Many arrive via the 40 Day Road, Darb Al Arabia’in. The ancient trading route begins in Sudan but the camels’ journeys don’t end at the market, their next destination is determined at the auction.

If you aren’t quite ready to commit to the entire camel, fresh camel milk is available near the entrance, ready to be brought home and turned into dessert.

Creme Camelmel

(This is a Julia Child’s version of the classic dessert with one slight modification)

½ cup plus 2/3 cup sugar

2 cups (camel) milk

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

2 large eggs

4 large egg yolks

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar with ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Increase the heat to high and cook, without stirring, until the syrup turns a light caramel color. Remove the saucepan from the heat and dip the bottom into cold water to stop the cooking. Pour the caramel into a 4-cup charlotte mold, and tilt so that it covers the bottoms and sides. Let cool.

2. In a small saucepan, bring the milk and vanilla to a boil. In a heatproof bowl, beat the eggs, egg yolks and cup sugar until blended. Whisking constantly, pour the hot milk into the egg mixture; let rest for a few minutes, then strain. Pour the custard into the caramel-coated mold.

3. Put the mold in a small but deep baking or roasting pan, and add hot water to come about two-thirds up the sides of the mold. Place the pan on the stove over medium heat, and bring the water to a simmer. Transfer the pan to the oven. (The water should stay at a low simmer at all times; do not let it boil or the custard will overcook.) Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the custard comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Keep the custard in the baking pan until the water cools. Remove from the pan to finish cooling. To serve, run the tip of a knife around the top of the custard to loosen it. Invert a serving platter over the mold and quickly turn it over again. Carefully remove the mold. Serves 6. Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu.

Images: Milk Money; Casein Point; the rest by author.