An ABC of Balkan Cheeses

Along with cafés, streets named after people and pedestrianized squares, one of the distinctive, identity-forming characteristics of Europe is cheese. So said Piero Sardo, the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, at a Milk Workshop held on the Sunday of Cheese 2013. And this holds true as much for the eastern reaches of Europe, from the Balkans to Turkey, as for France, Italy and Spain. The workshop, “Eastward, the Treasure Hidden in the Balkans,” took the Slow Food-organized, EU-funded ESSEDRA project as a starting point to present for tasting eight cheeses from around the Balkans and Turkey. All the cheeses were either Presidia or Ark of Taste members or new nominees.

“Eastern Europe has centuries of gastronomic traditions,” said Sardo. “But the Soviet occupation wiped out the spirit of initiative, of variability.” Now Slow Food is working to map the Balkan region’s remaining traditional products. Michele Rumiz, Slow Food’s area coordinator for the Balkans, said the ESSEDRA (Environmentally Sustainable Socio-economic Development of Rural Areas) project was intended to support civil society in the promotion of rural development and sustainable agriculture, working with eight partner organizations in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey.

The project’s strategic partner is the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, and Gwyn Jones was present to describe the challenges facing artisanal cheesemakers in southeastern Europe: the burden of regulations about animal health and food hygiene, potholed roads, no running water or electricity in rural areas and the abandonment of the countryside, which was leading to a decline in local food production. “We’re trying to support local NGOs and build capacity,” he said, “to see what they need and find ways to advance those needs.”

The cheeses were presented in alphabetic order, starting with Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia, and offered an overview of the rich variety of cheesemaking traditions in the region. Albanian Mishavin is made in the autumn high up in the fresh air of the mountains. The curds are crumbled, salted and fermented in a wooden container sealed with melted butter. Bulgarian Tulum is named after the animal skins in which it is traditionally fermented and was presented by Atila Sedefchev of the Semperviva association, which is reviving the native Karakachan breed of sheep. And Croatian Škripavac is made from the milk of native Buša cows, a small, hardy breed whose milk is high in fat. “It’s a very simple technique,” said Croatian cheesemaker Andrija Ribcic, “You start in the morning and by the evening you have the cheese ready to eat or sell. If you don’t eat it right away, you can dry it and then store it in olive oil, or coat it in lard.”

The alphabet continued with Macedonia and Bieno Sirenje, a straw-yellow, very salty cheese with an elastic texture and irregular eyes giving it a spongy appearance. From Romania came Branza de Burduf, a Slow Food Presidium sheep’s milk cheese made in the Bucegi Mountains and aged in fir bark, “creating a symbiosis between the fat of the cheese and the resin from the bark,” according to Marian Popoiu, the Presidium coordinator.

Also from Romania, Ben Mehedin of the Adept Foundation presented a different type of Branza. “Karakul lambs are slaughtered very early in the spring so their pelts can be used for hats and coats, and then the rennet from their stomachs is used all summer to make Branza,” he explained.

Serbian Pirotski Kačkavalj Mešanc and Turkish Divle Tulum Peyniri brought the tasting to a conclusion. Zafer Yasar presented Divle, traditionally preserved in a sheep or goat’s skin and aged in a cave in the village of Divle for five or six months. “It’s mostly made by women at home using their own recipes, so we have not been able to get a geographical indication to stop the production of fake Divle cheeses,” said Yasar.

“The problems are infinite,” said Michele Rumiz. “We’re working to change this but it’s a long process.”

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