This post was a particularly difficult one to sit down and write because I like my subject so much and was semi-paralized at the thought of misrepresenting her delightfulness and thoughtfulness! Then, as I sat down to write over the weekend, our internet service at home just stopped, and between obstinate Orange call-center workers and the Jordanian Independence Day holiday, we’ve only just gotten back online. Now I’m determined to draw for you, a lovely portrait of a local artisan business and the lady, Nissreen Haram, who started it all.
Back when we moved to Amman in February, my Facebook page suddenly started suggesting all sorts of local food businesses to like. While many were for the numerous pubs or “international” restaurants that are so common here, one name stood out. Mistaka – “Fresh and aged artisan cheese and dairy, lovingly crafted from freshest local milk in season” was the description. As a cheese-crazed chef, my heart soared at the idea of local, artisan cheese, something I really didn’t think I’d find here. Then, when I went to Mistaka’s Saturday pick-up/tasting in the flesh, I was hooked.
We pulled up to a stately villa in the posh Abdoun neighborhood that February Saturday morning and followed the handwritten signs to her kitchen door, through the garden around the side of the house. Nissreen, head wrapped in a colorful scarf, warmly welcomed me and my husband, beckoning us to her kitchen table full of jars and platters of cheeses and yoghurts and ricotta along with crackers and jams. She spoke a mile a minute as she guided us and her other customers through the many items she had made, even insisting that my sheep milk-averse husband try them, promising to make a convert of him. You know what? It worked! We walked away with yoghurt and lebeneh and a chevre and fresh ricotta and a wedge of Tomme. Her charm and enthusiasm leaving a smile on both our faces as we left.
Mistaka’s products are made using supremely fresh sheep’s milk from the local Awassi sheep that range freely in the countryside here, eating local grasses supplemented with only barley during the more barren Spring and Summer months. The nomads raise this hearty breed which has not yet been industrialized at all, keeping to age old grazing patterns moving from Amman down to the Valley, which in turn means pristine and characterful milk. “It was the Arabs who introduced goats to the French,” she proudly told me. “Then they made beautiful cheese with the milk.” Many of Nissreen’s recipes are based on those traditional French goat’s cheese techniques, but the result is entirely unique to Jordan. As she explained to me, the character of the cheese relies on not only the kind of milk used, but also the microbes in the air, and of course, the care of the cheese-maker.
Nissreen uses about 100 litres of this special milk a day for her creations, working out of a basement apartment transformed into dairy near her home. I placed cloth booties over my feet when I entered and covered my head with a hairnet, before being ushered into what is a pristine and elaborate workshop. As she showed me around she checked on some of her cheeses-in-progress, salting them, poking at them, to make certain her babies were all developing nicely. She explained to me that sheep’s milk might have a lower yield than cow, but yields more product because it contains double the fat and double the protein of cow’s milk.
How did the once Director of the Children’s Museum in Amman become a prominent cheese maker? It all started really with trash. She started a blog called The Trash Can Diaries back in 2012 to detail her family’s efforts to live trash-free. If you’re familiar with Amman at all, you’ll know that this would be quite the feat. You buy a lightbulb here and the cashier pulls out an enormous plastic bag to put it in. If I take my own cloth bags to the grocery they look at me like I’m an alien. Plastic bags litter the countryside, people indiscriminately thrown all manner of rubbish on the streets without any conscience to the bigger impact. Her interest in cheese making developed out of the same instincts that drew her towards this experiment: anti-globalization, seasonality, complexity, food as a metaphor for what we humans stand for. Nissreen believes artisan cheese is at the intersection of all these things.
Next stop for Nissreen was the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese in 2013, where she learned how to hone her craft further – a progression from environmentalist to food innovator. And it all makes sense as she explained me that she believes cheese making was appropriated by industry in the name of women’s lib and ease, however it’s been women that have been most dispossessed by industry. To her cheese making is unique in that it’s not just folklore, by becoming a cheese artisan she’s entered a dynamic world of science and art. I asked Nissreen why cheese? We spoke at length about it during my visit, but the most resonant answer she gave me was via email later: “I guess you as a writer, can really appreciate the opportunity to move from the world of the head and the word, to the experiential and multi sensorial world of cooking. Cheese making is such an integrated experience, when I am in the cheese too, I really live the moment and lose track of time. Total immersion, the kind we have lost in many aspects of our living, especially those of us who have had very cerebral brain driven activities before.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
By April 2014 Nissreen released her first line of cheese. Today she’s got four: the Whites which include yoghurts, ricotta, lebeneh, and halloumi; the Golds which are her hard cheeses made in the tradition of Spain and Italy; the Soft-Ripened (my personal favorites) which use moulds to ripen the cheese; and the most recent addition, the Badia or Desert range which use local pastoral traditions creating jameed, cultured butter, and gee.
We sat in Nissreen’s lovely living room, drinking herbal tea and snacking on strawberries and dates while sharing our passion for food and sustainability. I felt like she interviewed me as much as I did her, but what a joy to find this kindred spirit! I shared with her my experiments with her Tomme variety to make crackers – a perfect salty snack! Her ricotta dabbed on blanched tenderstem broccoli brings such warmth to this otherwise meh vegetable. And her lebeneh is a treat, scattered with herbs on a baked potato. Not to mention how delicious, delicate and herby her cheeses are on their own.
I can’t wait to experiment more with her future creations….which are always in the works. She admits to being a person easily bored, but there’s never a plateau with cheese, she’s learned, the possibilities are endless! “I love the layers of possibility that come from this inert substance. Milk is a universal symbol of bounty, and it reacts with the environment to yield a unique product.” Nissreen and her graciousness and passion ooze from everything she makes, making it a very unique and wonderful product indeed!