‘Cheese is a cultural obsession’
Nablus Creamery specializes in stretchy cheese, ice cream and spiced ghee
Two and a half years ago, Fidaa and Anan Zaqa realized a lifelong dream by opening a dairy workshop. By chance they found a vacant spot in a Mississauga strip mall, tucked out of sight from a bustling Cawthra Road.
Inside, there’s an ice cream freezer where the Zaqas make fresh batches of “Arabic style” ice cream. Think of your favourite scoop of vanilla ice cream but with an impossible elasticity and stretch that rivals a champion cheese pull. The stretchy quality comes from using two thickening agents: mastic, a plant resin, and sahlab, an orchid powder.
“This is how ice cream has been made for centuries, you rarely see it here,” said Anan.
You’ll come across it often in Beirut where it is called booza, or in the ancient street markets in Turkey as dondurma. In the GTA, it is a rarity. “Ice cream is not our main focus actually, but it allows us to connect with our community through nostalgia,” Anan said. At Nablus Creamery, in addition to ice cream scoops they also sell a Swiss rolllike ice cream log covered in pistachios.
Fidaa and Anan are from neighbouring towns in the West Bank — Jenin and Nablus — and met in Damascus University. Fidaa was studying agricultural engineering while Anan was in food science and technology. The couple moved to Canada in 2008 to raise a family, and Anan worked in the quality and assurance department for airline catering kitchens. “I inspected suppliers, I tasted menus. I opened some of the country’s first Halal certified catering kitchens,” said Anan.
Mississauga is home to a large Palestinian population — in fact, Fidaa and Anan often refer to the area surrounding their shop as “Little Palestine” in conversation. However, they note, while there are a handful of Palestinian food places in Mississauga, they found dairy products to be nonexistent. Particularly cheese.
“Back home of course we have had delicious food, historically, but cheese is a cultural obsession,” said Fidaa.
Nabulsi cheese is a staple in Palestinian cooking. Fidaa presented small blocks of white brined cheese speckled with nigella seeds. “We eat it with pita. We can fry it to make it softer. We can even put it in dessert,” she said.
The process for getting the right texture is complex, Anan said. “Every cheese starts the same. But then you have culture, insulation, temperature and humidity, the way you age it, the way you save it. It was an adventure, this journey has taken us many years,” he said.
A liquid rennet is added to boiled milk to separate the milk particles. A crystalline teardrop-shaped mastic resin is then added to give elasticity and flavour. Once the milk solids are separated and dried, they’re salted and tossed to pull out excess moisture. When it is cooled, the cheese has a firm, springy texture.
At the shop, Fidaa pan-fried some Nabulsi cheese and tucked it into a pita to show how the texture changes becoming soft and elastic, like curds in a poutine.
They also make ghee. “We use the leftover whey from the cheesemaking process to make our own ghee,” Anan said.
“It has this transportive quality to it,” Anan said. “People will come back and tell us that their kitchens were filled with memories of cooking back home.”