Labneh with Lemon Balm, Wild Garlic & Mint

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Every Wednesday night, at around 8 o’clock, The Mother-in-Law’s House becomes a centre for yoga practice for the friends, lovers and key-holders of milady’s manor. The Husband and I retreat downstairs after wrestling cuddling the children to sleep, and then empty the living room of all signs of daytime life. The Mother-in-Law hoovers, I make tea, and The Husband lobs the wooden bricks, dolls house, fake fruit and unlidded colouring pens into the dining room, along with the elephantine sofa and television set. Mats are rolled out – blankets rested at the head of each coloured strip – and we wait for the gang.

One by one, Bob, The Psychotherapist Boyfriend, and a waxing and waning group of friends, tiptoe in from around the city to take part in wonderful Jessica Adam’s momentous class. Jessica is the best yoga teacher – correction, teacher – I have ever had the fortune of learning with; she is humble, intelligent, open and clear. Her practice is based on the teachings of Vanda Scaravelli, a fascinating woman who studied with B.K.S. Iyengar and went on to write her seminal work, ‘Awakening the Spine‘.

I would be foolish to attempt explaining Scaravelli’s teachings or Jessica’s practice, or even the type of yoga that we do here on a Wednesday evening, without the risk of giving the impression that we are doing some sort of mystic quackery. From the outside, it would look a great deal like this. Actually, from the inside, it often feels a lot like that too.

Then – after all that mindfulness, cultivation, expression and well-being – The Mother-in-Law goes and gets out the stilton, brie and manchego, and a bottle of plonk. (Did I say this is the best yoga class I have ever been to?) And we get drunk and fat on dairy. Every Wednesday I go to bed in a glorious confusion of holiness and profaneness before the weird cheese dreams kick in.

In a silent backlash to The Mother-in-Law’s hedonism (god, I’m sad, if a snack prepared by The Mother-in-Law is the height of debauchery for me), I’ve been making my own cheese. Yoghurt cheese, to be precise. Don’t be impressed – this, like many of my favourite kitchen adventures, requires minimal effort (drink wine, eat cheese, make cheese) and only basic tools: like my babies’s old WASHED muslins. You could probably use any old clean bit of cotton schmutter you have lying around.

Labneh – as it is known in the Levant – is strained yoghurt, which has been filtered to remove the whey to produce a thicker, creamier product. This process of lactic acid fermentation increases the nutrients within the yoghurt, thus making it higher in probiotic goodness. Which is good. The liquid whey can be stored in the fridge to use in other bits of cooking (in bread-making, for example) or simply drunk straight for its health benefits; I’ve yet to try either.

Traditionally served with unrefined extra virgin olive oil and herbs, labneh is delicious eaten as a dip for vegetables, or as a spread on bread and crackers. It’s like cream cheese but with more punch and none of that weird stuff they add in shop-bought brands. I use it instead of mayonnaise when making egg sandwiches, and I’m meditating on a labneh cheesecake idea for the Jewish cheesecake festival coming up soon. (Clearly it’s not called the Jewish cheesecake festival.)

Best of all, this is basic and VERY easy cheese-making, and I like the idea that I can make cheese at home just like my great-grandmother, Old Nana Cookson, did in East London in the 1930s. My grandmother, The Bubbe, remembers collecting milk from the dairy cows grazing on Clapton Common before taking it home to her mother to turn into cream cheese, in pretty much the same way that I make labneh today. And that’s special.

Old Nana Cookson probably used her cream cheese to stuff blintzes and perojkis, and she most definitely didn’t douse it in imported olive oil or mix it with foraged lemon balm, wild garlic and mint. And in a century’s time, my great-grandchildren will probably mix their laboratory-manufactured space cheese with bits of Google dust.

If you can find lemon balm (melissa officinalis), which grows prolifically in wilder gardens and hedgerows, use it. Its beautifully-scented bushy, mint-like leaves are heavenly and it has many medicinal benefits. It’s very easy to spot when you know what it looks like – here you go:

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It’s back with a verdurous vengeance in The Mother-in-Law’s Garden, along with a bumper crop of wild garlic (which is out now in every woodland, people – go get it!) and a scrubby little mint plant in The Secret Garden. Failing that, most other fresh chopped herbs will do nicely (parsley, thyme, coriander, mint, sorrel, marjoram, oregano) or some za’atar, which is a traditional topping in the Middle East.

Ingredients

A 500g pot of full fat, natural live yoghurt (cow, goat or sheep milk)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
A fine mesh sieve
A bowl on which to balance the sieve
A couple of cotton muslins or fabric squares (although one will probably do)
Generous handful of lemon balm, wild garlic and mint (or other fresh herbs or za’atar)
Some good quality extra virgin olive oil

Method

Open the yoghurt pot. Phew, that was hard. Have a rest.

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Throw in the salt and give it a good stir.

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Balance the sieve over the bowl and lay the muslins in the sieve, one over the other.

Pour the yoghurt into the muslin-covered sieve. Bring up the sides of the muslins and tie together with an elastic band or piece of string.

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Place the whole contraption in the fridge and leave for 24-48 hours, depending on when you remember to get it out. Or how firm you would like the final product.

Remove from fridge. Look at all that whey!

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Untie the muslin, and remove the solid labneh.

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Chop your herbs.

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You can leave the labneh as is – with the beautiful markings of the cloth imprinted on it – and sit in some olive oil sprinkled with herbs. Alternatively, stir in the herbs and olive oil and serve, or roll the herby mixture into balls and bob on a pool of oil.

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If covered in olive oil and sealed in an airtight container, the labneh will keep in the fridge for at least a week.