Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mustafa Hakkani

Making Cheese at a Sufi Community in the Catskills
I was all set to write an article about Mustafa, a young Sufi (32) who wrote to us from his farm in the Catskills with a few questions about making cheese.  I thought it would be an interesting article, so I had asked him some questions and he sent me some answers and some beautiful pictures.

When I went to write the article, I realized I really didn't know what a Sufi was.  So, I looked up "Sufi Communities" and discovered that Mustafa's community was recently the center of a controversy so intense that Steven Colbert made a remark about it on his show!  (I don't have TV and I guess I don't read the right newspapers, so I had missed it.)

Before I tell you about that, let me say a few words about Sufism;  First, according to Wikipedia, "Sufism is defined by its adherents as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam.  Another name for a Sufi is Dervish.  Mainstream scholars of Islam define sufism as simply the name for the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam.  It is so different from the form of Islam we know most about that, in fact, "The government of Iran is considering an outright ban on Sufism, according to the 2009 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom."

Unfortunately, most Americans don't know much about the Islamic faith.  Because of what many consider to be bigotry, Mustafa's community was targeted and, some say, persecuted by local officials in Sidney Center, NY where the community lives (150 miles north of New York City).  Amazingly, the citizens of that town rallied to the aid of the Sufi community and pressured the town supervisors to leave the community alone.

According to an AP article by Helen O'Neill published in the Seattle Times December 10th (

"They packed the civic center for a chaotic town meeting, where - as more than a dozen Sufis watched - about 150 locals yelled at their board.  "Shame on you!" they cried.  "Apologize!"

Many had never been to a town meeting before.  Many had never met a Muslim.
And they trekked to the Sufi center eight miles outside town, to sip tea with the sheik, to vow that Sidney, population 6,000, will be in the spotlight again, this time as an example of tolerance and understanding."

Mustafa, quietly continued to milk his cows and make his cheese while this tornado whirled around him.  When I interviewed him, I had no knowledge of these political events and he never mentioned it ...

Where do you live?

My Sufi community is called the Osmanli Naksibendi Dergahi and we are in the Catskill Mountains, in the town of Sidney Center, New York.
We have been here for over 9 years. Our Seyh, Seyh Abdul Kerim Efendi founded this place and we moved here not long afterwards. We really needed a farm to live in, because we believe that a natural life is very important in our spiritual development. We are stressing a natural and organic lifestyle - we plant our own vegetables, raise our own free-range and organically raised sheep, chickens and meat.
Seyh Efendi, founder of the community
How did you end up making your own cheese?

I originally come from Turkey. We love cheese and yoghurt in our culture and I always wanted to make my own cheese and yoghurt, especially when the milk is all natural and organic.

When we first started milking sheep about 5 years ago, I started making sheep yoghurt and I really liked it. We have about 50 ewes in our flock and when it came time to wean the lambs, we thought- instead of letting the ewes dry up- why not get some milk? 
So, as the days went by, we started to have milk building up in the fridge.  We just separated the lambs from the mommies but milked the mommies everyday twice a day - by hand!  It was not that easy, especially in the beginning, but it was very rewarding.

Later we were given some dairy cows- they were Holstein and Jersey. So, I started making mixed sheep and cow yoghurt and it was even better.  But I really wanted to learn how to make cheese.
(at left) Cemal holding PINAR (Spring), (at right) Mehmet Ali holding Sari KIZ (Blonde Girl)
The leader of our spiritual community, Sheykh Abdul Kerim Kibrisi, likes hellumi cheese so when he was away I made some.  It was ok.  When he came back, he was surprised that I was able to make the cheese especially when my technique was all wrong! So he taught me the real way to make it.
Mustafa's Hellim (recipe posted next week)
I have a small aging room where I put all my cheese.  There is a humidity fire in the room.  I try to keep the temperature at 55F and the relative humidity at 70-80% as much as I can.

I really like the process of making cheese and especially seeing people enjoy it.  I started to look for recipes online - but had difficulty getting the results I wanted.  In all honesty, it wasn't until I got your book that it all made sense - the recipes work, the instructions are clear and the results always consistent. Thank you!
I wax some of the cheeses and I use a vacuum sealer.  I sometimes also do natural rinds with my Dill Havarti and my Manchego.
Mustafa's first big Farmhouse Cheddar on a stand he made for the picture.
Mustafa graciously wrote out his recipe for Hellim (also known as Halloumi) and took pictures of the entire process of making it.  I will be posting it next week.  Thank you very much, Mustafa.


Hakim Callier said...


The cheese is delicious. My children love "Mustafa Uncle's" halloumi cheese with breakfast on Saturday mornings. Osmanli Dergah cheese is the best!


Said B said...

Wow that cheese looks so delicious! :)

And wonderful photos of the cheese making and the Dergah, masha'Allah.

Jamin said...

Thanks for a great article! The cheese looks great - I hope I'll have a chance to try some the next time I'm in that area. (I live in Minnesota now, but my long-term goal is to return to my parents' farm in Halcott - not far from Sydney - and turn their wholesale dairy business into a retail cheese/butter/etc business.)

Thanks also for passing along the story about the town rallying around this community - I hadn't heard about that either!

Abu Unaysah said...

Mash'Allah this is GREAT!

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