Why Camelbert cheese may give Europe the hump

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Budge over Brie. Step aside Stilton. Camelbert is the new cheese in town. But only if you're prepared to travel to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

With the appearance of a rather square Camembert but the taste of a tangy goat's cheese, "fromage de chamelle" slips down a treat with a glass of red wine. And it's all the brainchild of an engineer from Essex.

Although camels have been a part of life for centuries for the namadic people of Mauritania, cheese has not. Camel's milk does not curdle naturally and the cool, damp conditions needed for cheese-making seem to exist only in mirages here on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

That is where Nancy Abeiderrahmane came in. On a student visit to Mauritania, she was struck by the absurdity of everyone drinking imported milk in a country where livestock outnumbers people. It rankled so much, that almost two decades later, in 1989, she opened her own dairy in the desert. Camel-herders were paid for their animals' milk - which has three times more the vitamin C than cow's milk. It was pasteurised, packaged and sold to the rapidly expanding ranks of city dwellers. With the help of a French professor and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation it was turned into cheese.

Cheese connoisseurs can now choose between the original brand, Caravane, and the newly launched Sahara. Both sell for 800 ouguiya or about £1.70 and can be found at select stores, expat eateries and upmarket hotels dotted around Nouakchott.

It's a win-win enterprise in one of the world's poorest countries, where despite new-found oil reserves two thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The 1,000 or so herders supplying the milk receive much-needed income and the dairy, known as Tiviski after the local name for spring, employs 240 people.

Europeans keen to try this culinary curiosity can, for the moment, only lick their lips in vain. Despite interest from stores such as Harrods and France's Fauchon, EU red tape means camel cheese cannot be exported for sale in Europe. But Ms Abeiderrahmane, now 59, is hoping that costly research being conducted by Gulf Arab states (who are also keen to broaden the camel milk market) will pave the way for an acceptable certification process so her cheese can grace the tables of Paris and London in the not-too-distant future.

"It's quite ironic really, because, despite the rules, most of the cheese makes it to Europe now - it just happens via people's suitcases," she said.