Yünlü tulum is a rare cheese made in a sheepskin sack with the wooly side facing inward (tulum refers to the category of cheeses matured in sacks made of animal skin, and yünlü means “wooly”). It is a specialty of Eğridere, one of seven villages in Balıkesir Province (in northwestern Anatolia) that are inhabited by the Yağcıbedir tribe of Yörük pastoralists. The Yağcıbedir are known for their centuries-old tradition of carpet making, and activity for which the women of the community are responsible. Eğridere village has fewer than 500 inhabitants living in approximately 140 households. In addition to weaving, they make a living from agriculture and animal husbandry.
The milk used to produce yünlü tulum comes from cows of the popular karasiğir (“black cattle”) breed. The cows spend the day wandering freely in the hills around the village, grazing on wild herbs. They are prized for their lean meat and rich milk. To make yünlü tulum, the cow’s milk is coagulated with rennet and then the curds are strained in a cloth. Once most of the way has been removed, the cloth bag is pressed with a stone to squeeze any remaining liquid out of the curds. Next, the curds are salted and placed in a closed container for about a month to undergo pre-maturation. The last step is to pack the curds into the sheepskin sack to finish maturing over a period of several months. The sack is made by carefully scraping the inside of a sheepskin with a knife (making sure not to poke any holes in the skin) and then washing it and drying it in the sun. Once sufficiently dry, it is moistened and the wool is trimmed and combed. Then it is dried again, and finally sewn up, with the wool on the inside, to make a sack. After the cheese curds have been tightly packed into the sack, the opening is tied shut with string. As the cheese matures, the sack is turned on a regular basis to ensure that any air and moisture that remain inside are evenly distributed, thus preventing unwanted odors from developing. Yünlü tulum is typically prepared in spring and is ready for consumption the following December. It is white and crumbly with a sharp flavor and relatively high fat content.
Among the few residents of Eğridere who still make yünlü tulum are a woman and her daughter-in-law who, in addition to being skilled in animal husbandry and dairy production, are also carpet weavers.