Last summer, writer Heather Richie spent a 24-hour layover in Abu Dhabi while traveling from Johannesburg to New York, and went on a mission to find local cheese.
You have 24 hours. Your objective: Find cheese in Abu Dhabi. Go!
At the airport, convert 60 US$ to UAE Dirham for cab rides to and from the city. Use your bank card, the one that doesn’t charge international fees, for restaurants, shops, and the hotel. Don’t haggle with the slew of cab drivers waiting outside. Share a cab on the way in. The hotel will have one ready for you on the way out. Your cab driver will speak English.
23 hours to go
Don’t go in August. In Abu Dhabi, August is the hottest month of the year. Your body is melting, and you don’t know why you would want cheese, but here you are. This is where Garfield mailed Nermal again and again. That is the extent of your cultural reference.
Stay at the Hilton. Wear the right shoes. Walk to Marina Mall. Be disappointed: It is a pristine shopping mall, yes, but you sweat buckets walking and there is no cheese in sight.
21 hours to go
See signs for a place called Bill’s Farm, which does not exactly meet the standard for exoticism, but which will do because you are melting. It is too quiet. Where is everyone? Spot three men. Follow them through a breezeway.
Find Bill’s Farm. Skip Bill’s Farm. Go next door to Casper & Gambini’s. Later, learn they have 38 locations throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Spot halloumi on the menu. You see halloumi on menus everywhere in the US, but you are not here to spread the halloumi gospel. You are on a quest to learn a new cheese.
Order the Fig & Chavignol Crostini. Your Crottin de Chavignol with fig and caramelized apple will be a perfect specimen, the most famous of the Loire Valley, but you did not come to Abu Dhabi to eat French cheese.
Befriend a feral cat. Walk to the heritage village to learn everything is closed. Walk back to your hotel. See a few tourists snapping photos. Marvel at Emirates Palace. Recall Sex & The City II was set in Abu Dhabi. Later, learn that it was filmed in Morocco.
In your room, peel off the sopping mess that was your clothing. Nap. Awake to a knock at the door. You’ve been named guest of the day. Abu Dhabi is funny like that. Accept your complimentary snack—three little dishes. Wait… is that cheese? No, it’s more of a yogurt. But it’s tasty. Nosh, and again, nap.
15 hours to go
You have worn the wrong shoes, but you must find a cheese of Abu Dhabi. You must have a genuine Middle Eastern cheese experience. Convince yourself to walk to the other end of the city, where the market and action must be. Wait until it is nearer to dark, and falls below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Walk halfway, taking a photo of Marina Mall through a wall, and noticing apropos quotes in the sidewalk.
13 hours to go
Don’t freak out because it is getting dark. At least people are finally coming outside. They walk together. They bicycle. Families eat snacks at franchises along the waterfront. You wish you’d gone to the market when you went to the mall. Tell yourself you will come back. The Crottin de Chavignol was a good consolation prize.
It is night, but you are sweating. A call to prayer echoes from a nearby mosque. At first, you think it is the sound of a sports match. Allow yourself to feel silly, then wonderful. Spot a bookstore. Watch the lights go out. Give up. Pass a Starbucks.
11 hours to go
Find a grocery store! Find the dairy section. Snap photos. Wish there is something more interesting. Finally, the dairy case. Saudi feta: self-explanatory. Labneh balls? Yes, these are different. And look—the labneh is also sold in blocks.
Buy three labneh balls. Made of strained yogurt, they look like perfect tiny planets preserved in a bath of olive oil. Eat them in your hotel room. Call them too sour to finish. Later, learn they are a staple of a Middle Eastern breakfast. You should have rolled them in a topping like spices or crushed nuts. Remind yourself to try making labneh at home.
9 hours to go
Now, you sleep. Your flight leaves early. You’re not going home for another day. You’ll need your strength—and just maybe, you’ll find cheese at the airport.