Bulgarian Mysteries: Green Cheese from the Balkans

Bulgaria has existed for more than 13 centuries. It's an old country with phenomenal history; the land where the legendary Orpheus and Spartacus were born. A country that has seen the rise and fall of empires – the magnificent Byzantine Empire (aka Eastern Roman Empire) and the mighty yet splendid Ottoman Empire, under whose power Bulgaria had been for five centuries. You think the oldest golden treasure was found in Sumer or Egypt? In 1972, near Varna, Bulgaria, a golden treasure was found, estimated to be 6-7,000 years old. The site where the gold was excavated was dubbed by National Geographic as “Europe's oldest town”. And among all those mysteries and secrets, legends and myths, among the beautiful mountains and green hills is a village called Tcherni Vit (or Cherni Vit which means “Black Stream”). There you can find, perhaps, the rarest cheese on Earth – the green cheese, one of Bulgaria's culinary treasures. It is one of Europe's three kinds of mould cheeses, and the only one on the Balkans is the green cheese. It had almost become “extinct” when, fortunately, two people managed to save it – Tcherni Vit's ex-mayor Cvetan Dimitrov and Carlo Petrini, the founder of the 'Slow Food' movement.

History and Discovery

No one knows for sure when production of this cheese first began. What is known is that its history is closely linked with the life and culture of the Balkan locals, who used to breed hundreds of thousands of sheep in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the summer, the grass is green and high, and the sheep produce bountiful milk – about 60 litres each per season. To preserve it, the shepherds used the milk to make cheese. In their summer huts, they would store it in wooden kegs. Gradually the brine came out of the kegs through pores, and the cheese remained dry for several months. At the end of the summer, the shepherds took down the cheese to their villages and stored it in damp places at 10-12 °C. When opening the kegs the mould “conquered” the cheese turning it blue-green. Sadly, back then people thought that it was spoiled and of low-quality and avoided eating it. Because of this misconception and the industrialisation in the 20th century, the recipe and the process of making it faded into obscurity. Until the 21st century.

Back in 2007, Tcherni Vit ex-mayor Cvetan Dimitrov was asked to present traditional Bulgarian dishes and products to Slow Food experts visiting the region. He chose the green cheese, and the very founder of the organisation – Carlo Petrini, was in awe. According to him, there was no such cheese on the Balkans. “When the Bulgarian representatives of the movement asked me if there were any specific examples of the local cuisine, on its way to extinction, I thought about the green cheese. I had tasted it when I was a young child. Many years ago, you could find it in every home in the region. I started to look for it, but no one knew where I could find even a piece of it. I asked the shepherds and the old people. I wanted to know the recipe, but everyone said: There is none!” commented Cvetan Dimitrov.

But he didn't give up. In the end, his efforts were rewarded – Baba (grandma) Nenka and Dyado (grandpa) Kolio gave him a piece the size of a match, the only part that had survived the winter. The old people lived at 1200 m altitude, living a secluded life, preserving old customs and habits. With no access to civilisation and no electricity, Nenka and Kolio lived the way their ancestors used to live centuries ago. They ate only the things they could produce and grow. Luckily, they used only wooden kegs to make their cheese, which, in fact, salvaged the tradition.

 Image from  Greencheese.eu

Image from Greencheese.eu

The Mysterious Recipe

Right after its “discovery”, the green cheese was turned into a presidium (Slow Food projects to conserve traditional and unique treasures all over the world). The movement sent one of their experts to Tcherni Vit, and the tradition of making this delicacy is now preserved. It is a real treat for both nose and palate with its rich and earthy aroma and strong and savoury taste.

The green cheese is made only of white sheep milk, produced by an indigenous breed- the Teteven sheep. When the milk becomes white cheese, it is put into wooden kegs. The whey must drip off the wooden keg, and the cheese should stay dry. It matures at least 60 days under strict conditions – humidity, temperature and climate, which are typical for the region. After this period, the keg is opened, and because of the contact with the air, it gets “infected” by the mould and should stay at 10-12 °C for 20-25 days. The temperature amplitude plays a significant role in the process.

However, the restoration of the precise recipe was not an easy task: it was the greatest challenge Cvetan and his team of biologists had to face. The locals shrugged and said that the cheese “was not made, it made itself.” Puzzled, the group decided to consult with an Italian cheese specialist, who concluded that the product contained a high percentage of water, and it should be left to drain away under its own weight. The more tricks you try to speed up the process, the worse the quality will be. The green cheese is as capricious as the weather in the Balkan mountains, where it matures.

Recognition and Restrictions

Carlo Petrini is not the only expert to have noticed the uniqueness of the Cherni Vit green cheese. In their article Around Europe in 18 Cheeses, the Telegraph lists the treasure among the 18 best cheeses in Europe, alongside the French Valençay and the Italian favourite Parmigiano Reggiano. According to Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie, “Everyone uses the word 'artisan' to mean anything now. When it comes to cheese, I mean a small dairy, using raw, unpasteurized milk from a single herd. An artisan follows the process from pasture to table, making everything by hand. Even the starter used to begin the curdling process can be made from the previous day's milk.”

 Production of green cheese. Image courtesy of Dimitar Dimitroff.

Production of green cheese. Image courtesy of Dimitar Dimitroff.

Bulgarian authorities disagree. The product is illegal in Bulgaria according to Desislava Dimitrova – Bulgarian coordinator for Slow Food. It cannot be certified according to Bulgarian law. Ironically, the things that made it so unique and delicious are the things that make it illegal: it's made of raw milk, it matures in wooden barrels, and it contains mould. This is the reason it remains local and can only be found in the vicinity of the village.

 

 

 

Now that you are booking your flights to Bulgaria here are two recipes incorporating green cheese for you to try:

Tart with Pears and Green Cheese

Ingredients:

3 middle-sized pears

100 g green cheese

300 g puff pastry

10o g walnuts

One lemon's juice

Brandy -1 tablespoon (optional)

1 egg yolk

 

How to make it:

1. Peel the pears without removing the stalks. Cut them in two and scoop out the seeds. Carve out a little part in the middle of each half and put some lemon juice. Put them in a baking dish with the carved parts below.

2. Cut the puff pastry into six rectangles and cover the pears with them. Spread a thin layer of yolk over the pears. Bake at 200 degrees for 15-18 minutes.

3. While baking the pears, cut the cheese and the carved part of the pears into small pieces. Chop the walnuts and add half of them. If you want, you can add one tablespoon of brandy or any other type of alcohol. Mix well.

4. Take out the pears for a while and let them cool. Fill in the holes with the mixture with green cheese and sprinkle with the rest of the nuts. 

 

Chocolate Truffles with Green Cheese

Ingredients:

600 g chocolate

150 ml milk

150 g sour cream

150 g green cheese

 

How to make it:

1. Melt the chocolate using the water bath method. Then pour the milk and the cream gradually while stirring with a wooden spoon until you have a smooth mixture.

2. Leave it to cool and set. In the meantime, roll out balls of the green cheese.

3. When the chocolate mixture is cool and hard enough, put each ball inside a layer of chocolate and roll in your hands.

4. Finally, roll in cocoa powder, and there you have your home-made, green cheese truffles.

 

Finally, for the comfort-loving folk I have a romantic proposal – Bulgaria is extremely beautiful in the early summer - in June, while enjoying a cool evening in Tcherni Vit, have a glass of Melnik wine and a plate of green cheese with another Bulgarian speciality – pink tomatoes.

Наздраве!*

In Bulgarian this means “Cheers!”

 

dimitardimitroff

In a world dominated by computers, science and social media, Dimitar is a dreamer and a romantic believer in the unknown. Since he lives in a magical country - Bulgaria, he likes to make rendezvous with mysterious places, hidden nooks, old crumbling houses and traditions almost extinct. They whisper and tell stories, he listens and writes. And the old becomes young again.