Eating local has swept the restaurant industry, from Tokyo (where they’ve always followed that philosophy) to London and LA. In the Middle East, though, there are challenges and when most people think local produce, they think barhi or medjool dates. Yet there’s more to farming in the region than that.
Take, for instance, honey. While global bee populations have been in (worrying) decline, the UAE has been stepping up its game for a buzzing industry that breeds and ships billions of bees globally. The world’s largest airfreight bee supplier, Al Najeh Honey (alnajeh. ae), keeps most of its hives in apiaries in the Northern Emirates and produces an abundance of the sweet nectar. The honey, harvested in the cooler months, can fetch hundreds of dirhams per kilogram – many times over the average wholesale price – thanks to its exceptional quality. At the end of last year, Al Najeh partnered with Hatta Honey to launch the Middle East’s first queen-bee-rearing station in the eponymous mountains. Announced during the second edition of the Hatta Honey Festival, the sustainable centre will rear as many as 100,000 gentle Saskatraz queen bees annually, and produce up to 300 tonnes of honey each year. For the cream of the golden- hued crop, look for the al samr variety. It can cost upwards of AED 500 per kilo, but is said to come with numerous health benefits, from soothing sinus-related ailments to aiding labour during birth.
Around two hours from these bee-bearing mountains, the inland oasis of Al Ain is one of the region’s most green and fertile areas, but its most interesting food product doesn’t come from the ground. Instead, a 56,000sqm factory makes up the world’s largest indoor caviar farm, with a capacity to produce 35 tonnes of the delicacy yearly. At Emirates AquaTech (emiratesaquatech.ae), the Siberian ossetra sturgeon are fattened and pampered over a three- to four-year period, and in the final six weeks kept in a cleansing tank for optimal quality before being used in their entirety. Beyond the roe, which is canned as Yasa Caviar, the fish’s meat is sold to five-star hotels and restaurants, the skin is tanned to make leather goods and fertiliser is created from the remaining fish – contributing to a low-waste environment.
You don’t have to hotfoot it to France to sample aged cheese. One of the world’s oldest cheeses, at around 2,000 years old, Lebanon is where you’ll find the ambarees varietal. Made in the small mountain town of Baalbeck, the traditional process starts in summer and early autumn with raw goat’s milk stored in covered clay jars. The water and milk separate over the months, and plugs at the bottom of the jar are released to allow the water to drain. From May to October, salt and more milk are added to the curd twice weekly as it begins to dry, and then the ambarees is ready. Dense and somewhat acidic in flavour – like a rich feta – the cheese is a favourite winter snack served on warm saj bread and stays fresh for up to a year. The clay jars, which have been passed down through generations, are becoming increasingly difficult to find – modern ones aren’t quite cutting it, disintegrating as acidity rises during fermentation – putting this ancient cheese in danger of survival.
One of the newest gourmet bites to come from the region can be found off Fujairah’s coast – and in your next fruits de mer order. While pearl oysters have long inhabited the GCC’s waters, edible oysters are another beast entirely, and not historically endemic to the region. That changed with the launch of Dibba Bay Oysters (dibbabay.com), a farm that has been shipping the shellfish to restaurants in Dubai such as The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill since last autumn. Originally intended to farm rock lobsters, which didn’t pan out, the few baby oysters that were included in the hatchery grew to perfection. The clean, nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf of Oman make for briny and meaty oysters that are the freshest to be found in the UAE, going from sea to dish in a matter of hours.
This story was originally published in the February 2018 edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, as seen below