Cheese innovators since time immemorial have pushed the limits of the curd, and some of their innovations are as bizarre as they are delicious. In Culture’s Believe It or Not, sit back, forget everything you know about cheese, and take a bite out of the weirdest wheels the world has to offer. Missed the last post on cheese made with tiny spiders? Check it out!
Ever get that thought, usually around 3 a.m. while you lie in your bed, bloated and covered in cheese crumbs, that there must be something more out there? Maybe I’m projecting here, but I’m not ashamed: all three of my great ideas have come after two in the morning, so it must be a good time for thinking. If you have thought that the cheese world is somehow holding back on you, you’re right! Turns out you can make cheese out of anything (things like lichen or people), but it’s honestly easier with milk, so rest assured anything that produces milk has had its milk made into cheese—for science, or hunger, I guess. Because of the amount of mammaried mammalians that may or may not have had their baby juice turned into cheese, I’m gonna keep it simple and stick with three hooved variants you may not associate with cheese: horsies, donkeys, and camel-ys.
We’ll start on camel cheese, because we could all use some more interesting dromedary facts to really liven up that next party and amaze the friends.
Camels are a staple mode of transport throughout deserts in the Middle East and Africa, and until the Toyota Land Cruiser came along, just about the only way. Plus camels are waaay cooler than Toyotas, so there’s that too. Given the ubiquity of the animal in large swathes of the world, you’d expect there to be more camel cheese than there actually is.
That’s because of its unhelpfulness in the project. It won’t coagulate properly on its own, and not even bovine rennet will help. Some herding tribes have used natural fermentation to create sour curds, but that doesn’t sound too appealing to be honest. Someone finally got around to making the real deal about a bajillion years after people started making cheese, in the early 1990s. In Mauritania. It’s called Caravane, and it’s sold almost exclusively in Mauritania’s capital city, Nouakchott. While camel’s milk has three times the nutrients of cow’s milk, the wheels sell for $30 a pound, and the EU won’t allow its sale because of insufficient regulations on dromedary dairy products.
Next we come to horse cheese, which is immediately complicated by the fact that horses only have two nipples and also that they love to kick people really hard in the head when they bend down near those nipples. But, if we can put a man on the moon we had better be able to strap on our head-kicking helmets and milk a horse if we want to. Which some people, as you may not be surprised to know, did. As with camel milk, horse milk is way better for you than cow’s milk is, but a mare produces less than a quart of milk a day, so you need a lot of horses to get your operation off the ground if you aim to be a successful horse-cheese manufacturer. The main creators of horse cheeses, which include one that you can drink, come from Mongolia, where horses are basically everywhere. Arag is a drinkable variant—a slightly carbonated, fermented horse’s milk brew. The denizens of the steppes also make horse’s milk cheese, but it isn’t really sold anywhere, so if you want some your best bet is probably to wander aimlessly about in the area shouting mori byaslag, which Google Translate tells me means “horse cheese” in Mongolian.
And finally we come to donkey cheese, which, believe it or not, is the most successful of the lot. Actually, it’s the most successful cheese ever, if you count success by price-tag over units sold. Yes, the Serbian donkey cheese Pule sells for more than $1,300 per kilogram. That’s right—donkeys from Serbia are probably worth more than you. Apparently the cheese doesn’t even have that many distinguishing features other than a price tag most people would think is a practical joke. The milk comes from only about 100 jennies, or female donkeys, and is exceedingly difficult to make, all of which adds to the hefty bill.
Apparently Novak Djokovic is down with the curd however, and is in negotiations to use the stuff at his chain of restaurants. So perhaps one day when you travel to Serbia for vacation you can eat the world’s most expensive mac and cheese courtesy of everyone’s least favorite tennis player and some donkeys. Greaaat.