Before World War II, there were more than 140 makers of mandjeskaas (meaning ‘basket cheese’) in Beersel, in central Belgium. By 2014, there was only one left, continuing a tradition passed down for five generations. Mandjeskaas is made following a method that is hundreds of years old. This cheese is made from pasteurized milk from the Pajottenland, in Flemish Brabant west of Brussels.
First, the milk is pumped into stainless steel tanks and rennet is added. A few hours later, the milk curdles completely. After leaving the cheese curd to rest for a period of 48 hours, the cheese is gently squeezed. The pressing is done carefully, so as not to destroy the structure of the curd. The curd is then shoveled with a wooden spoon in small wicker baskets. The baskets are filled gradually, creating two or three layers of the paste. Due to the pressure of the successive layers of cheese in the baskets, some of the whey gently runs away. After three to four hours, the cheese is dry enough to be packed in parchment paper. The packaged cheeses are kept in partially water-filled plastic trays and covered with a moistened parchment paper to prevent them from drying out.
Previously, the baskets used came from Halle, once the local center of basket weaving. The wicker baskets now come from Klein-Brabant and are obtained from braiding young willow stems that are cut in the fall from the creeks along the Scheldt River. The baskets are then braided on a form to obtain an identical size and capacity measure. Mandjeskaas is a solid and lean fresh cheese with a grainy texture. It is traditionally eaten on a slice of bread with radishes, spring onions or chives and a glass of lambic or gueuze beer. Mandjeskaas is also a good base for a dessert with strawberries and berries from the Pajottenland. Despite its place in the Belgian culinary tradition and long history in the area, without other artisans to continue this craft, mandjeskaas could be lost in the near future.