I am sat in Razan Alsous’s office in Sowerby Bridge admiring the clutch of awards that she’s amassed as a cheesemaker. She is making a coffee. The pungent and delicious aroma of the brewing coffee drifts into the room.
“Wow,” I think, “that’s a lot of awards.” As I look to the shelf on my right with its framed certificates, glass blocks and citations, there are more. My eyes are drawn to the wall behind her desk where there are further awards jostling for space. Then to the left – you’ve guessed it. The office is stuffed with them. As I’m silently admiring her accolades, she walks in with the coffee which is as strong and bitter as I like it.
“That’s a lot,” I exclaim. “How many are there?”
She points to each one and counts. “I think there are 17,” she says, looking around the room. I notice that she hasn’t counted a little gold embossed award nearest to where I’m seated. “What about that one?” I enquire. “Oh yes, I think it’s 18.”
Alsous is a Great Yorkshire Cheese and Dairy Show champion for her halloumi, a staple of her Syrian breakfasts. But that’s far from the most remarkable thing about her. Along with her husband and young family, she escaped the war in Syria six years ago when an explosion destroyed her partner’s business premises. Luckily, he was unharmed. The family had connections with Yorkshire and ended up establishing a cheese manufacturing business in West Yorkshire’s Sowerby Bridge. It’s called Dama Cheese (Dama is a truncated version of her home city, Damascus).
It wasn’t long before the awards started piling in. The first was in 2014 when she surprised everyone attending the World Cheese Awards by picking up a bronze. The following year, Alsous won a gold. She says that her heritage is of no concern to her customers. “They see someone who is working hard and is creating something they want, and they want to support me. It is very positive.”
In fact, Alsous was mistaken for a nun by a Muslim taxi driver, which she finds pretty funny. Today, her three children regard Yorkshire as home. Nevertheless, she doesn’t discount returning to Syria, although, as the days, months and years pass, it becomes harder.
“I can’t just give up my business and go back,” she says. “I have eight staff at the factory who rely on it. They have husbands, wives and kids of their own. How can I tell them we are going back? It would be very selfish.”
She draws comparisons to Syria and Britain in the sense that they are both historical old civilisations and each have a history of trade.
Alsous studied pharmacology at Damascus University and has a scientific, analytical mind. She spotted the opportunity to make the “squeaky cheese” from the rich creamy cows’ milk derived from herds grazing on lush Yorkshire pastures. As for the name, it’s called squeaky cheese because there was a trademark battle with existing halloumi producers and she found it easier to change the name. It comes in five flavours: smoked, plain, rosemary, chilli and mint.
She points out that Syria is only half an hour from the coast of Cyprus, and there are a lot of similarities. But she says: “I didn’t have the money for a trademark fight, so just called it squeaky cheese.” Alsous adds: “The taste comes from the pastures the Yorkshire herds graze on and from the weather with the rainfall.”
Dama Cheese produces 1,000 kg of cheese a day using 1,000 litres of milk. Such is the demand that the firm has been tasked with supplying some 275 Morrisons’ stores across the UK after initially supplying the supermarket’s 40 outlets in Yorkshire.
Alsous is also a regular at farmers’ markets where she meets customers face-to-face and learns what they want.
“I hope people do see that I’m giving something back with this business. I have never faced any problems with wearing the hijab. People in Yorkshire have been very friendly and welcoming. When I first went to the British Cheese Awards, everyone there looked like farmers and were all the same. I was like a black swan. They asked what I was doing there, and I told them.”
According to Alsous, the cheesemaking community was always friendly, just curious about what she was up to. Today she is a welcome addition to their industry. Now she is working on further accreditation for her products and implementing systems for product control. In the future, she would like a purpose-built factory space and education space to teach others about how to produce squeaky cheese.
Her intelligence shines through and it’s obvious that she comes from a high-achieving family. Her father was a professor at Damascus University and her mum is a biologist. In addition, her brother is an engineer as is her husband, and her sister is a doctor. She is also writing a book on the history of Syria with recipes in it. One day she would like to be a judge in the cheese awards.
“Syria is a wonderful thing like a diamond that has not been polished. Because it doesn’t shine you can’t appreciate the luxury and beauty. Like the UK, it is a very old civilisation and there’s a lot in common with how friendly and hospitable the people are.”
Alsous’s book has a working title of A Story From The Land of the Sun. If it’s as successful as her cheese, she is destined for great things.
Images courtesy of Yorkshire Dama Cheese