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Camel milk could be the future of dairy. Are you ready for a camelcino?

Beyond its trendiness with adventurous urbanites, some believe that camel milk could be the future of dairy farming in the developing world as droughts become more frequent and intense.

Camel milk could be the future of dairy. Are you ready for a camelcino?

(Art: Jasper Loh)

When The Financial Times’ (FT) mail room informed me that two bottles of ice-cold camel milk had arrived, my heart dropped. I had spent weeks researching and championing camel milk’s status as the “future of dairy” to my colleagues; now I had to taste it. As I went to try the surprisingly thick beverage, my nose wrinkled, my lips pursed. I realised that something I had not expected was holding me back: Prejudice.

Camels were first domesticated for their milk in 3,000 BC, according to the UN, and the liquid is a staple in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where it can be cheaper than cow’s milk. Now it is gaining popularity with producers and customers elsewhere, from health nuts in America to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa reckoning with climate change.

The milk is low in lactose, allowing it to be digested by people with a dairy intolerance and cutting into the market share of nut milks.

Touted by fanatics for its alleged medical benefits and by foodies for its full flavour, camel milk is now stocked on shelves in Asda supermarkets in the UK, while a camel dairy in the Netherlands offers next-day delivery to London doorsteps. Camel-milk ice cream is popping up on menus at culinary hotspots such as west London’s 108 Garage and the two-Michelin-starred minibar by Jose Andres in Washington DC.

I ask Margarito Lopez, pastry chef at minibar, what he likes about it. “Camel milk is forever on my list to work with,” he said. “The flavour profile is very different from cow’s milk . . . grassy, lean and unique.”

He likes to accent camel milk with flavours that can “highlight and mesh well with it”, such as honey, pistachio and rose, or he makes it into ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

Back at the FT, I bring the bottle to my lips. The aroma is somehow pungent of, well, camel – or what I imagine camel might smell like – while the milk tastes earthy and complex, and slightly sour. The initial potent saltiness quickly melts away and I forget my misgivings. Until I go to take a second sip. I lurch, I swallow. I try again. By the third sip (or is it the millionth?) I feel more comfortable. The real hump to get over, I think, is its sheer otherness – but then people who didn’t grow up drinking milk from cows might feel the same about bovine dairy.

Even in the Middle East, “20 years ago, you could not find camel milk in the markets”, says Bernard Faye, a self-described “camelologist” based in France, who has spent the past 40 years researching the animal. “[Herders] consumed the milk or offered it; it was considered the gift of God . . . [Now] the taboo on selling camel milk is changing.”

Camel milk represents three per cent of the US$360 billion (S$490 billion) global dairy market, and sales are expected to grow at nearly twice the pace of other animal milks, a rate of 6.8 per cent each year through 2022, according to a study by Technavio, a market research company.

But camel reproduction is more complex than bovine, and starting a camel dairy is capital-intensive. The breeding of dairy cows has been perfected over hundreds of years, while dairy camels are a relatively new commercial concept and can cost more than €5,000 (S$7,600) each.

Camel’s milk is “the white gold of the desert”, said researcher and veterinarian Ulrich Wernery, who helped to set up a camel dairy, Camelicious, with the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

The dairy now has some 6,000 camels and produces liquid and powdered milk. It ships around the world and supplies neighbouring Al Nassma, a halal camel chocolate company that sells chocolate camels in airports and the department store Selfridges for £15.99 (S$28).

Female camels are traditionally bred in the Middle East for speed, not milk, said Wernery; the majority of racing camels are female. Camelicious sells most of its unlucky male camels, which are popular for meat and tourism. Meanwhile, females can produce milk from four years old, have a gestation of about 12 months and will produce milk up to two years after giving birth.

Camelicious milk costs about US$13 a litre in Europe and roughly US$4 a litre in the Middle East. In the US, the fastest-growing market for camel milk, it retails for a startling US$35 a litre from distributor Desert Farms, which sells in Whole Foods as well as direct to consumers.

The network of dairy camels used by Desert Farms relies predominantly on Amish farmers in the US, and many of the milking camels are repurposed from seasonal work in nativity plays. This is partly a result of US import restrictions intended to prevent disease.

Desert Farms attributes its rapid growth to health-conscious consumers looking for a cow’s-milk alternative. “A lot of the people consuming our products are millennial parents,” said founder Walid Abdul-Wahab. He notes that sales in the US are heavily weighted towards the relatively affluent east and west coasts.

But his company has also attracted attention from regulators. In September 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to Desert Farms over misleading marketing claims that camel milk could benefit people with autism, diabetes and tuberculosis, and demanded that it remove the claims from its website.

Most scientific studies of the health benefits of camel milk have only been performed on rats, cautioned Faye. He says people should be sceptical of claims that it can be medicinal in humans.

Beyond its trendiness with adventurous urbanites, some believe that camel milk could be the future of dairy farming in the developing world as droughts become more frequent and intense. While almost four times as expensive as cows in Kenya, camels are being integrated into some dairy operations as a hedge against climate change.

Cows require daily water and graze exclusively on grass. In contrast, camels can survive for as long as seven months without drinking water, and are able to store up to 36kg of fat in their humps to survive lean periods. They can still produce milk, even if they have not eaten quality fodder, for up to three weeks.

“Some [Kenyan farmers] lost huge proportions of their cow herds in the last drought,” said Patrick Freeman, a researcher at Brown University. “Camels have a much wider dietary breadth and can produce milk and function under resource restraints that cows can’t.”

Personally, I’m not quite ready to swap a cappuccino for a camelcino or spread Camelbert cheese on my crackers. But as the planet warms and food diversity becomes more important, camel milk may have an increasingly important role to play.

By Madison Darbyshire © The Financial Times

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