FOCUS ON CHEESE 2007 – Smoked Rugby Balls, 150-Pound Cheeses and a Bark Crust: Taste Workshop on Unusual Cheeses from Eastern Europe

Given that this year’s theme at Cheese is cheeses from the east of Europe, welcoming the new EU member states Romania and Bulgaria, it was appropriate that a whole Taste Workshop should be dedicated to Celebrating Eastern Europe. Held on Sunday September 23 at 4pm, the workshop, led by cheese expert Armando Gambera and Slow Food wine authority Giancarlo Gariglio, brought together six cheeses from Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Oscypek from Poland, a Slow Food Presidium, was presented by Jacek Szklarek, the lively Presidium coordinator. Produced in the Tatra mountains since the 14th century, the cheese is made from sheep’s milk, formed into a ball, molded by hand into a spindle and then cold-smoked for two weeks, giving it a distinctive brownish-yellow color. Szklarek explained how it takes the milk of 27 sheep to make one 1.5-lb form. The resemblance to a rugby ball does not come from bored farmers wanted something to play with, he joked, but helps the cheese maintain its shape during smoking.
The next cheese was from Livno in Bosnia-Herzegovina, from a Terra Madre community who make cheese from the milk of Pramenka sheep (with the addition of some cow’s milk), followed by a Croatian sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese from the island of Unije.
Brânza de Burduf is an unusual cheese made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, or a mix of the two. Gabriela Marian, one of the Presidium collaborators, described how the sheep are pastured in the mountains from May, up where there are no cities or even villages, just unspoiled, unpolluted nature. The fresh cheese paste is stuffed into cylinders of pine bark which have been boiled to sterilize them and make them flexible. The cheese is made just a few miles from Dracula’s castle, said Marian, “But don’t worry, it’s not contagious!”
The pine resin gives the cheese a distinctive aromatic flavor, and a similar effect can be found in the next cheese, also a Presidium, known as “Cheese in a Sack.” The sack, explained Slavica Samardzic, a young cheesemaker and the Presidium coordinator, is actually a smoked sheep’s skin, which is packed with the cheese curds and then aged for two months. The size of the cheese varies depending on the size of the sheep used, and can be as much as 150 pounds. The cheese’s taste itself echoed its sack, with hints of smokiness and funky, animal flavors.
The final cheese, from Bulgaria, was also pungent, a moldy cheese known as green cheese from Tcherni Vit. Like many of the cheeses, it was at risk of extinction before Slow Food stepped in and designated it a Presidium.
“We must fight to maintain tradition,” said Gambera, mentioning the pressure to conform to EU regulations which was already being felt by Romania and Bulgaria. But sheep’s skin and bark also bring risks of contamination, he admitted, and said it was up to the producers to ensure their cheeses were safe.
The cheeses found excellent pairings in four Presidium conserves, three jams from the Romanian Saxon Villages Preserves Presidium made from rosehip, rhubarb and wild cherry; and Pozegaca plums in syrup from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The tasting was accompanied by four wines from the Zonin company, a sparkling Oltrepò Pavese, an Inzolia from Sicily, a Chianti Classico and a sweet dessert wine.

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