Rhodopsko Bito Sirene

Ark of taste
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Imansaz, Brynza

Rhodopsko bito sirene was originally produced from sheep’s milk. When the number of flocks began to decline, it began to be made from cow’s milk. The type of milk used determines the flavor of the product, particularly the level of fat, but the method of production is similar. Fresh milk is poured into wooden barrels and when the temperature is around 28° – 30°, rennet is added. A feature of this cheese is that about 10 minutes after the first signs of coagulation, the milk is beaten for one or two hours with a special implement called a dzhurilo. The milk is then transferred into copper containers, from which the butter is removed. The copper container with the “beaten” milk is placed for a short time on a fire and heated to a temperature of 30° – 38°. During this phase when the cheese “grows”, it is important to note when the milk begins to form grain-like lumps. The container is then removed from the fire and the solids left to settle for 15 – 20 minutes. The solid pieces of cheese are worked into a single block of cheese. The cheese is put on a sieve hanging from a hook to drain off the whey. The dry cheese is left for 1 or 2 days in a well-aired place to mature until it has an amber yellow color. The next step is to prepare ricotta from the remaining whey. The whey is heated to 80 – 90° until the precipitated protein comes to the surface. The whey is then poured into a cotton cloth and drained, leaving the solid ricotta. When the two parts of the Rhodopsko bito sirene are ready, they are mixed (the cheese is cut into small pieces and mixed with the ricotta) and salted. This is done in a wooden vessel and the entire mass mixed a number of times to also ensure the salt is well distributed. The Rhodopsko bito sirene is stored in a sheepskin or wooden boxes (mainly juniper wood). It is very important to press the cheese down when it is placed in the containers so no air enters and to then hermetically seal it. Aging of 40 – 50 days is needed to give the cheese a distinctive spicy and salty flavor. Rhodopsko bito sirene has various local names—skin cheese, imansaz, brynza, etc. and has been produced in the central Rhodope mountains since the time of the Ottomans. It is a local product, the result of the area’s climate, and provides sustenance to local people. In earlier times most of the sheep of the region were kept in this area during summer and there was a large quantity of milk which could not be used each day. The local shepherds thus invented this cheese, which has the great virtue of keeping for a long time. When the frontier with Greece was closed and the shepherds could not provide grazing for their sheep during winter, numbers were drastically reduced. In spring (after lambs were removed from their mothers) until the beginning of autumn, flocks numbered 250 – 500 animals. Milk was collected in small mountain dairies and the Rhodopsko bito sirene was produced there.

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Milk and milk products