ISSUE 04 | ENTREPRENEUR
In 2012 Razan Alsous had life mapped out. Then the bombs began to fall. She tells Sally Howard about her journey from the Syrian capital to ‘Yorkshire Squeaky’.
By Sally Howard | Photography by Trent McMinn
In Damascus, breakfast is a big deal. A few years ago, I was a guest at a meticulously restored 16th-century caravanserai [courtyard inn] that’s now been razed to rubble. As much as the early signs of civil unrest – locals’ unwillingness to talk politics, fear of Assad’s secret police – I remember the breakfasts.
One jetlagged morning an endlessly replenished table of mixed meze – the constellation of cheese, beans and exotic dips known as ‘hawadir’, or ‘readies’ – reduced me to tears. The Arabic adage ‘breakfast like a king, dine like a pauper’, it didn’t surprise me to learn, hails from these parts.
It was a Proustian yearning for breakfasts back home that inspired Razan Alsous’ Yorkshire-meets-the Middle-East dairy manufacturing business.
In 2012, the 34-year-old Damascus native was studying to be a pharmacologist when a bomb changed everything. “It exploded just outside my husband’s office,” Razan says. “Raghid called me to say that all he could see was dust. We had three small children and I knew then that it was time to leave.”
Within days the family of five were on a flight to Britain. Raghid’s brother had been based in West Yorkshire since the 1980s. Despite this friendly face, the move was a challenge. Razan was granted asylum within days but it would be two years before Raghid was given permission to remain. Then there was the matter of income. Razan’s professional qualifications were irrelevant in the UK. Raghid, 53, had left behind the engineering business he’d built up through decades of graft. With the Syrian pound in freefall their savings had disappeared.
A frustrating visit to a Huddersfield supermarket gave Razan the idea that was to lead to the World Cheese Award-winning Yorkshire Dama cheese.
“Halloumi-style cheese is the staple of Syrian breakfasts,” Razan tells me, as we tour the Yorkshire Dama’s Halifax factory in blue hairnets and white coats that recall her earlier vocation. “Here I realised that you couldn’t get it except in summer. Even then it’s a mass-produced Cypriot variety that’s nothing like we get back home.”
Razan repurposed ice-cream and soup machines as vats to coagulate milk into curds and whey
Halloumi-style cheeses, or hallum in Syrian, are of Bedouin origin and are traditionally made of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Razan decided that West Yorkshire’s rich cow’s milk would make as good a product: “British milk is famous worldwide,” she says. “In West Yorkshire, there’s an extra quality that comes from the lush grass and hilly countryside.”
Razan launched production in 2013, in the kitchen of a disused chicken shop owned by Raghid’s brother. A £2,500 Enterprise Agency loan went towards equipment, but wouldn’t stretch to anything state-of-the-art. However, with Raghid’s engineering expertise, Razan repurposed ice-cream and soup machines as vats to coagulate milk into curds and whey. That’s the first step in a process that concludes with gently poaching the blocks of pressed and flavoured curds in a bath of whey to achieve the classic ’squeaky’ mouthfeel. An intermediary stage, which Razan calls ‘cheese massaging’, is being performed in front of us as we tour the factory, by employee, local lad Leroy. He’s the newest addition to Yorkshire Dama’s growing staff of eight, which includes six locals and two former refugees. As he gently kneads dried rosemary into pillowy curds, Leroy tells us that he used to be a sous-chef at a local Italian restaurant but has been out of work after being made redundant a year ago. “We’re hoping Leroy will have some good recipes for our new line of ricotta,” Razan smiles.
Yorkshire Dama’s halloumi-style cheese is made by the old Middle- Eastern method: coagulating the curds and simmering the cheese in a bath of its own whey to achieve the classic ‘squeaky’ mouth feel.
Today Razan produces 500 blocks a day of the core product, christened ‘Yorkshire Squeaky’, from the 2,700-sqft factory unit in Sowerby Bridge, outside Halifax, that she moved to in 2017. Product lines have now been expanded to include preserved yoghurt balls, which are matured in Yorkshire rapeseed oil rather the typical olive oil; spreadable yoghurt, or labneh; and four flavoured squeakies (mint, chili, rosemary and oak smoked). Razan found she needed to make concessions to the British palate. She dropped an under-performing black pepper flavour and has adjusted the sour notes in the spreadable yoghurt. “Syrians want to feel the acidity in labneh, but Brits like a milder, soft-cheese taste.”
With a deal recently signed with Morrison’s to supply cheese to 40 stores across Yorkshire, Razan plans to incrementally scale up production and further develop new product lines, including rosemary flavouring. Razan would also like to begin exporting to the Gulf States, where halloumi-style cheeses are in demand and British dairy products carry a cachet. Equipment, however, remains an issue. “You just can’t get dairy manufacturing equipment of the style and size we need in the UK,” Razan says.
Who knows, perhaps equipment manufacture will be our next line?
After our production-line tour, Raghid walks me outside to show me the meat-broiling machine he recently bought from a supplier in Cambridge. He hopes to reverse-engineer the shining steel canister as a 100-litre capacity yoghurt and cheese maker. “Who knows, perhaps equipment manufacture will be our next line?” Raghid says. The couple are also submitting bids for a second wave of capital investment in equipment, through international refugee business funds.
In Yorkshire Dama’s bright front office, where an oil painting of a Damascus courtyard presides over lively cheese tastings and Syrian cookery classes, I sample the ‘traditional’ Yorkshire Squeaky. Springy to the bite and creamier than brine-cooked British supermarket versions, it immediately transports me back to those hospitable mornings in pre-war Damascus. ‘Dama’, Razan tells me, is a diminutive for the ancient and broken city Razan and Raghid left behind. “Food is a way of remembering,” she adds.
As I leave, a member of the Sowerby Bridge Women’s Institute arrives, shopping bag in hand, to stock up on oak-smoked Yorkshire Squeaky. The local WI are regular visitors to Razan’s Syrian cookery classes. They’re a little more adventurous in their palates than the average Brit: “I think the ladies have a little spirit,” Razan says. The same could be said of her.
Take-out: Ingenious adaptation has provided this company with the equipment needed to succeed