A thick and tangy fermented yoghurt product with Middle Eastern origins
Neither yoghurt nor cheese, sweet nor savoury, solid nor liquid—even after a thousand (plus) years, labneh eludes categorisation. It is, simply, labneh: natural yoghurt that has been salted and strained to produce a thick, rich, tangy suitor to anything from roasted aubergine, to poached apricots, to crudités. It can be made at home if you’ve a cheesecloth, a deep bowl and room in your fridge to suspend a cheesecloth filled with natural yoghurt in a ball above the bowl for eight to 12 hours—or you can buy it from Kappacasein, which sells labneh strained from twice-fermented yoghurt, which Bill Oglethorpe and his team produce using Bill’s own natural starter culture.
“I think using pre-ripened milk is the distinction that makes it special,” he says of the yoghurt his labneh begins its life as: a kicky, tart and creamy number with a touch of sweetness from the full fat organic milk he collects from Kent each morning. “For the first fermentation, the starter culture is added to warm, raw milk, driving fermentation alongside the other bacteria present in the milk. The second time the starter culture is added to pasteurised milk working on its own.” To produce the labneh, “we take a big bucket of yoghurt and strain it overnight so that all the whey drips out”—a clear, yellowish liquid that is mostly water—“and add some sea salt.” The whey is taken away by customers, who use it for stock, baking and fermented foods; the labneh remains, ready to be married off to customer’s brunches and breakfast bowls.
Creaminess and acidity
“It is Middle Eastern in origin,” says Bill. “It’s a good way of preserving milk in hot countries.” There you’ll find it served as a snack with fruit, used to add creaminess to cooked dishes, dished up as dip, spread onto pita or rolled into a ball and coated in different nuts, seeds and herbs and presented as canapés. “I think my favourite way is with roasted or chargrilled aubergines. That is an amazing combination,” says Bill—though labneh is no more confined to summer than it is to savoury dishes. “Wherever you could do with a bit of creaminess or acidity,” he continues, “that is where labneh will work well.”
To describe it as concentrated yoghurt would be technically correct, but the description does it a disservice: labneh is a delicacy in its own right and part of its allure is that it’s so hard to define.