Cheese in a sack: the world’s oldest living cheese tradition

Have you ever heard of cheese in a sack? Unless you’re a fully-fledged cheese nerd, the answer is probably no.

Yet this dairy tradition—cheeses aged in sheep or goat skin—is perhaps the oldest category of cheeses in the world and, even today, despite continuous threats, they are produced in a vast geographical area ranging from the Balkans to central Anatolia, up to the Caucasus and Central Asia. A thousand year history, today rendered an illegality: in many countries, legislation prohibits its production in the name of hyper-hygiene.

To bring this tradition back to the surface, a colossal mapping work was undertaken, allowing us to discover a submerged archipelago protected by isolated mountain communities, who were previously marginalized and difficult to reach. This was discussed at Cheese in a sack: a forgotten heritage is back, at Cheese 2019.

Photo: Davide Greco

A SINKING ARCHIPELAGO

Michele Rumiz, manager of Slow Food projects in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, took the analogy a little further. “It is not so much the fact that it is hidden, but more that it is an archipelago that is sinking. In fact, there are more and more problems that communities and, consequently, their modes of production encounter; very often for the production of these cheeses, we are talking about transhumance, different molds, nomadic populations, ripening in natural caves, mountain pastures.”

A complex balance that only expert cheesemakers know how to turn into a good product. Tulum—the name for cheese in a sack in Turkey—requires two fundamental factors: the great craftsmanship of the farmer-producers, but also a richer urban class to appreciate the finished product. It is no coincidence, Rumiz continues, that “the production of these cheeses is closely linked to historical realities connected to economy and trade. For instance, cheese in a sack would not have existed in Dubrovnik without the existence of the Dubrovnik aristocracy, nor in Iran near the city of Seine, without the presence of the Silk Road.

It tells the story of an ancient and complex system, but one that is also extremely fragile; one of the reasons the event Cheese exists is to emphasize the importance of defending this kind of biodiversity.” For this reason Slow Food has catalogued 27 of these cheeses on the Ark of Taste and launched numerous Presidia to help these cheesemakers and shepherds defend their age-old traditions.

Photo: Davide Greco

BUT HOW IS CHEESE PRODUCED IN A SACK?

Cheese in a sack is produced with raw milk, in mountain or lowland pastures, inside a goat, sheep, or cow stomach, and left to mature in natural caves. The preparation of the sack is the most delicate part of the process: the stomach must be extracted from the carcass in a careful manner, shaved, washed, left to air-dry, and in some cases, smoked. Once ready, it is filled with cheese, then pressed, after which the anaerobic fermentation begins. It has a salty flavour, like the cheeses from the Balkans towards the east, with a strong animal aroma.

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

The most western case is found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, today protected by a Slow Food Presidium, where the cheese can weigh up to 90 kilograms. Slavica Samardzic, from the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina), completed a Master’s degree on cheese in a sack. “It’s my life. We all take for granted the food we eat and no one really thinks of the effort behind it, of the sacrifices made by producers to carry on certain traditions. We think our cheese in the sack dates back to 1379, 40 years earlier than the Ottoman Empire. So who can claim to be the first creators of this cheese?”, Jokes Slavica with his Turkish friends.”We must change the common opinion and protect the producers who continue to make this extraordinary product. Thanks to the work done also by Slow Food in recent years, however, the mentality is changing and there are more and more people interested in this cheese.”

Photo: David Greco

THE POWER OF THE IMAGE

Then there’s Babs Perkins, writer and photographer, who left the United States to discover this little-known world. “I totally fell in love with the history and production of cheese in a sack”, says Babs. “The idea of ​​a cheese made in sheepskin was something really new to me. So I traveled over 25,000 kilometers to interview cheesemakers and photograph them, especially in Herzegovina and Bosnia.”

“On the one hand I was enthusiastic, on the other, petrified because I had very small producers in front of me and I realized that, either because of the lack of information for consumers or the abandonment of agricultural work, it was a mode of production on its way to extinction. And so I started photographing pastures, producers, caves, thinking of documenting the extraordinary nature of this cheese. Then I started talking about it in the United States, organizing exhibitions and tastings and so a certain interest was born. We have a duty to save all these modes of production.”

LEBANON

A similar commitment is shown by Barbara Massad, photographer, journalist, and leader of Slow Food Beirut. In Lebanon cheese in a sack is called darfiyeh, which was one protected as a Slow Food Presidium. “If we don’t fight to protect these cheeses, if we don’t introduce them to the next generation, then they won’t ever be able to taste them, because they’ll be extinct,” she says. “In Lebanon we made a documentary about a family who has been making darfiyeh for three generations, but we don’t know if they’ll be able to continue. In Syria Palmyra was destroyed, but if we destroy this tradition we’re destryoing an anthropological and cultural heritage which we’ll never get back.” 

Photo: Davide Greco

TURKEY 

Closing this international tour we moved to the heartland of cheese in a sack production: Turkey. Here, Ilhan Koçulu, producer of Gravyer di Boğatepe (a Slow Food Presidium) and winner of a Slow Cheese Award at Cheese 2019. He’s also the organizer of another Cheese festival in Kars, which, over two days, gathers the best of Turkish dairy productions. “Making tulum is an art, a tradition of 4000 years, it’s part of humanity’s cultural heritage and yet today it is under pressure from governments and institutions, even at the local level. In 2005 Turkey started negotations to join the European Union (never concluded) and as part of this process, cheese in a sack was made illega—together with other cheesemaking techniques—and thus it remained until 2016, and only our national memory has kept cheese in a sack alive. We have a duty to preserve this heritage and teach consumers. Thanks to the work of Slow Food and the Presidium, production has doubled, and we now make 50 tons a year.”  

The symbol of this battle is the recognition of  Divle Cave-Aged Cheese (raw milk, conserved in sheepskin and aged in caves) as a protected designation of origin in Turkey. Safeguarding these products and keeping these traditions alive is more important than ever. Slow Food believes fully in continuing this work and ensuring a future for these unique cheeses.

by Eleonora Giannini

e.giannini@slowfood.it 

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