Love-A-Neh, a local version of Middle Eastern labaneh cheese, is the product of collaboration
Merion Park Cheese Co. and Oreland's 51-year-old Armenian yogurt producer, Erivan Dairy, join forces to craft this creamy, spreadable cheese catching the attention of chefs like Michael Solomonov.
On tables across the Middle East, dishes of the creamy, spreadable strained yogurt cheese called labaneh are nearly as ubiquitous as hummus. In the States, labaneh hasn’t quite hit that level of popularity yet. But perhaps that’s because most commercial versions tend to be fairly bland. That’s not at all the case with Love-A-Neh, a new collaboration of between two Philadelphia-area artisans, the Merion Park Cheese Co. and Erivan Dairy, the 51-year-old Oreland producer of Armenian-style madzoon yogurt.
Merion Park cheesemaker Emiliano Tatar, who’s long sourced his Bucks County grass-fed milk through Erivan’s second-generation owner Paul Fereshetian, experimented with Erivan’s yogurt by straining it through fine mesh, then adding salt, and found that it replicated the zesty, tart, and savory Lebanese-style labanehs Tatar grew up eating in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona.
“It’s amazing,” said Zahav’s Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, whose restaurant currently uses about 30 pounds of Love-A-Neh each week in various ways, including serving it with compressed sweet persimmons or as a base for smoked potatoes and romanesco. “It’s funky, cheesy and there’s something really robust about the culture in it.”
Versatile labaneh — sometimes also spelled “labneh” or “lebanah” depending on the country where it’s being consumed — is just as delicious served simply drizzled with olive oil and dusted with za’atar spice, ready for a pita dip, or paired with fruit or tomatoes and olives for a classic Levantine breakfast. Because Love-A-Neh is still a relatively new product, this handcrafted rendition is about twice as expensive as most commercial versions, at around $10 for an 8 oz. container. But there’s a quality difference, too. That’s because it’s made the traditional way, slowly strained with no shortcuts (such as simply adding a thickener to milk), a method that loses about two-thirds the original quantity of yogurt, says Fereshetian.
“It’s just so much more complex (than most commercial versions),” said Solomonov. “And I love that it was birthed during the pandemic.”
Indeed, the timing for such a collaboration is fortuitous for Tatar, whose double life as a full-time pediatrician as well as being a cheesemaker became even more complicated when “Doctor Cheese” took on a new day job as a vaccine safety director for Johnson & Johnson. That’s left him with less time for the careful art of crafting raw milk cheeses like Mercer Road in the state-certified aging cave at his Lower Merion home.
Fereshetian’s daughter, Cerise Baker, meanwhile, has been overseeing production of Love-A-Neh as part of her preparations to eventually take over as the third-generation operator of Erivan when her father, 62, retires. The prospect of growing this new product is intriguing for a company whose proud slogan has long been emblematic of its reluctance to change: “Erivan yogurt is NOT ‘New and Improved.’”
“I like to say that Emiliano couldn’t do this without me,” says Fereshetian. “But I wouldn’t have ever done it without him, either.”
Let the Philadelphia labaneh awakening begin!
— Craig LaBan