Brânză in bărbânță is a traditional cheese from the Rodnei and Ţibleș mountains, subranges of the Eastern Carpathain Mountains in the northern Romanian counties of Maramureș and Bistrița-Năsăud. The local gastronomy of this area is quite simple and based on seasonal, local ingredients. Brânză in bărbânță is named for the traditional wooden vessels, or bărbânțe, in which it is aged and stored (brânză simply means “cheese”). A bărbânță is a small barrel, usually made from oak or fir wood. Though today metal hoops are often used, the traditional method is to use wooden hoops to hold the staves together. The size of the barrels varies depending on the maker; the largest have a capacity of about 25 kilograms, and there are smaller versions with a capacity of 4-10 kg. Bărbânțe are handmade and may be used for many years or even multiple generations.
Brânză in bărbânță is made with raw milk from tsurcana and tsigai sheep, Romania’s most important traditional sheep breeds. The milk is coagulated with natural lamb rennet and heated to approximately 37 °C. The curd (caș in Romanian) is cut into nut-sized pieces and then hung in cheesecloth for 24 hours so that the whey can drain off. The resulting balls of curd, which each typically weigh 6-7 kg, then rest on fir wood shelves or boards for 4 days to dry. During this time they are turned twice each day. Before being packed into the barrels, the curd is salted (with a quantity of salt equal to 1% of the weight of the curd) and the thin crust that has formed during the drying phase is removed. The salt is kneaded into the curd until a soft, even consistency is obtained. Meanwhile, each bărbânță is prepared in the following way: First, the barrel is washed with clean, warm water and then scalded with boiling water—some elderly producers still use the old method of filling the barrels with water and then adding hot stones to make the water boil. Next, the bărbânță is left to soak for 3-4 days so that the wood will swell, preventing air from entering once the vessel has been filled with cheese. After soaking, the barrel is scalded again, and this time nettle leaves may be added to the water as a disinfectant. Once thus prepared, the bărbânță is filled with cheese curds. Before the barrel is closed, melted pig fat or beeswax is poured over the cheese to seal it and prevent air from entering. The bărbânță is then stored in a cellar or in a hole in the ground for several months so that the cheese can be eaten during the winter when the ewes are not producing milk and fresh cheese cannot be made. During the first 3 months of the maturation process, the brânză retains the soft consistency of the fresh salted curds; beyond this point, it becomes dry and crumbly and the sheep flavor becomes pointed and pungent. Some of the popular local dishes made with brânză are coleșa în pături (alternating layers of brânză and cornmeal porridge) and întinsoare de brânză (a fondue-like sauce).
Brânză in bărbânță is produced in limited quantities in mountain villages in Maramureș and Bistrița-Năsăud, and only at the household level; it is intended for use within the extended family, not for sale. There is a similar mass-produced product called brânză frământată, which is made without the use of traditional bărbânțe. The main threat to brânză in bărbânță is the disappearance of the traditional knowledge and skills required to make the barrels (all of the craftspeople are now elderly)—today, many households use plastic containers. In addition, people often buy rennet instead of producing it themselves.