Traditional Ettekeis

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Ettekeis, sometimes called hettekeis, is a hard cheese produced from completely skimmed or fat-free milk. It names comes from the Brussels dialect in which et means “hard.” To make this cheese, producers let the skimmed milk acidify naturally at about room temperature (22°C) until it spontaneously begins to curdle. After four hours, the curd is cut and left to rest for another 48 hours. It is then placed into nylon (historically jute) bags to drain off the whey.

The next step is to salt and thoroughly mix the cheese until the paste becomes malleable, in a step called kloppen van de pollen (“knocking the balls”). Balls weighting about 1 kg each are rolled out and brought to an attic area, where they rest on wooden shelves and local microorganisms of the Pajottenland (the same or similar ones to those that are important to the production of Lambic beer) multiply on the surface of the cheese, giving it its characteristic taste. This taste is quite strong, and accompanied by a pungent aroma. The balls rest for about four weeks, depending on weather and humidity, until the cheese develops a greasy, yellow crust.

After this time, the cheeses are brought to humid cellars and continue aging for three more months. During this time, the cheeses are regularly washed with brine and turned and are cleaned with brushes to remove the yellow crust. Then the cheeses are fully immersed in brine for a brief period, and then immersed in lukewarm water for a few days. This process gives the cheese its typical translucent yellow-colored crust. Finally, the forms are dried, after which they are ready for consumption. The finished balls of cheese, usually weighing a bit less than 1 kg, are normally cut in to six equal portions for retail sale. Ettekeis is traditionally eaten for breakfast, spread on bread and accompanied by a strong cup of coffee to balance the strong flavor and odor of the cheese. It can also be eaten as a snack, often paired with an aged geuze beer.

Farmers would typically make Ettekeis after removing the cream from the milk, leaving ondermelk, or skimmed milk, which would then naturally acidify in the absence of refrigeration. Once curdled, the milk could be transformed into cheese. This cheese was typically made in the summer, when there would be a larger quantity of cow milk available. Ettekeis could also be dried for storage into winter, and rehydrated for consumption as necessary. While it is a product that was typically made in the area of Brabant, it is also called Brussels Cheese, due to the fact that Brussels was the main market for its sale. Today, although not produced at the commercial level, it is still made by some individuals for personal use or unofficial, local sales.

In 2005, Ettekeis was given the status of being a Flemish Regional Product; however, the last artisanal commercial producer of this cheese closed his doors in 2007. Today, according to the European Hygiene Legislation, aging is no longer allowed on wooden boards, and the use of stainless steel shelves do not allow the cheeses to “sweat” to form their typical crust. There are still cheeses sold under the name of Ettekeis or Brusselse Kaas, but they are usually made with dry curd instead of skim milk and have a higher fat percentage than the original cheese. Due to this, the typical shape, color, smell and taste are also missing. With the passage of time, only older people remember Ettekeis in its original form. With rigid European hygienic legislations and a lack of commercial incentive to make the original version of this cheese for commercial sale, traditional Ettekeis may be lost for good.

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Nominated by:Tine Devriese