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Algeria's Tamgout cheese: A Swiss-inspired success story

Cheesemonger Rachid Ibersiene poses for a picture in his cellar with his "Tamgout" cheese wheels in the village of Tamassit in northern Algeria on June 12, 2023.   -  
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In a matter of 15 years, Rachid Ibersiene 's "Tamgout" cheese -- a blend of the Swiss Gruyere and Dutch Gouda styles -- has become a source of pride for residents of Algeria’s Atlas Mountains.

After trying his luck at filmmaking in Italy then working as a computer consultant in Switzerland for 16 years, he found his happy place in cheesemaking.

"Our job was stressful, hard and with demanding goals to meet... in order to relax, we would go to the mountain chalets. When I started watching the cheesemongers working in the mountains, surrounded by nature, I became interested," he remembers.

"I took a training course, I had cheese-making customers, I trained with them in Switzerland in Gruyère, the country of cheese."

In 2003, he moved to the area to learn the basics of Swiss cheese production. Then in 2006 he decided to come back to Algeria where he set up this company called Fafi, a tribute to his "mother."

The 57-year-old was at first unable to secure financial backing. He therefore used his life savings. The project required 10 million dinars (over $73,000) in equipment.

The factory began turning a profit in 2018. 

Aided by five employees, Ibersiene spends his days inspecting the cellars where the wheels of cheese, which need to be regularly rubbed and turned, are stored.

"The maturation period of Tamgout varies from one month to two years, depending on the taste of the customers," he said.

"Our cheese is made from raw cow's milk, without any food additives. It is untreated. We use natural lactic ferments."

He receives deliveries of up to 1,000 litres (265 gallons) of cow's milk that produce nearly 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of cheese daily.

On the strength of his success and experience, he found motivation to venture into new projects.

Algerians and foreigners taking a keen interest

"At the moment, we’re working with a rather magical milk, camel milk. It is the first wheel of cheese made about five months ago from camel milk."

"It's a first, I don't know if it's a first worldwide though," he admits all smiles.

"One of the French cheesemongers who visited wanted to buy it at any price, but we're keeping it for testing."

Locals as well as tourists come all the way to Tamassit at the foot of Mount Tamgout -- from which the cheese takes its name.

"Customers come from abroad to buy it", including someone from New York, he said.

"It's a source of pride because we started from nothing," Rachid Ibersiene added.

Initially, Tamgout cheese -- featuring the slogan "a Swiss idea, an Algerian cheese" -- was sold nationally in supermarkets, but payment issues halted deliveries.

Now, it is available at speciality and gourmet shops.

This morning, Omar Khaled Tilioua and Mounir Si Hadji Mouhand, two merchants from Oran (Algeria's sencond biggest city) have come.

"Every time I pass this way, I stop to buy cheese and then I continue on the way to Oran. It has become a ritual," Tilioua admits.

"I first discovered this cheese on the internet, then I had the opportunity to come here [...] I tasted it here on the spot, I liked it a lot," Si Hadji Mouhand reveals.

"Now I buy two or three wheels every time I drive east, they have good cheese."

The maturation period of Tamgout varies from one month to two years. The cheesemonger only uses natural lactic ferments.

"We were inspired by Vacherin Fribourgeois, adapting the entire tradition to Algerian milk, which is different from Swiss milk," Ibersiene said, referring to a semi-hard Swiss cheese.

"Algerian milk is less uniform and somewhat more organic because the farms are smaller and more diversified. In Switzerland, you don't find farmers with only two or three dairy cows.

"Our cheese has a more nuanced taste," the 57-year-old added, describing it as "typically Algerian".

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