WHERE THE HECK DID OŠTIEPOK CHEESE COME FROM?
I’ve always been fascinated by food and how ancient humans figured out what to eat. Who was the homosapien to discover baking bread, for example? I mean, some primitive didn’t just find a piece of white bread lying on the ground around Stonehenge and bend over to give it a taste. Somebody had to do a lot of research before coming up with a loaf of bread. How did the first baker figure out that the little kernels at the top of a wheat stalk could turn into a loaf of bread? It blows my mind that one of these “earlies” figured out how to thrash wheat, grind kernels into flour, throw the powder in water, add some yeasty stuff, and put the whole thing into the fire for just the right amount of time. Food’s crazy, if you think about it.
What about cheese? What even is cheese? Where does it come from? How did the “earlies” find it? I mean, what inspired some primitive to think he could get cheese out of sheep’s milk? For this answer I figured I should ask my friend, Alexandru, the only Wallachian shepherd (retired) I knew, who now drives a London cab.
“You have come with your inquiry to the right place my friend,” Alexandru began as he dodged traffic along the Brompton Rd. “My ancestors discovered cheese. Not in a lab, you understand, but out in the mountains while tending their sheep. Back then they had only fresh sheep’s milk to drink. No refrigeration, don’t you know. They would stow milk in the stomachs of the sheep they had butchered, like a canteen or a modern day water bottle. They were simply carrying the milk along with the herd as it migrated through the mountains grazing. A natural enzyme in the sheep’s stomachs called rennet, or “klag”, would cause the milk to ferment and turn into a lumpy cheese. Eventually they figured out that when the milk was correctly curdled it would turn into a jelly consistency. The Wallachian chiefs, called “Bacovia” or “Baca”, would stick their finger in the jelly substance and if it didn’t stick to their finger, it was ready to stir into a smooth cheese. In short, the milk they were carrying in the sheep's stomachs fermented naturally into cheese they could carry around for weeks and eat at their leisure.”
My favorite sheep cheese is Oštiepok. Now, I know this delicious cheese didn't just naturally ferment in some sheep stomach container. The smoky flavour and semi-hard texture are unique to this cheese and are the result of someone's recipe.
"How about Oštiepok," I asked Alexandru? "Was it left inside a burning 'koliba' and came out all smoky and delicious?"
Alexandru glanced in his rearview mirror before answering. "No, my friend, smoking was no accident. It was another method they discovered to prolong its sell-by date. Very quickly, however, they began to enjoy the aromatic taste that you so enjoy today. Oštiepok, in fact, was one of the first foods that shifted the Slovakian shepherd's culinary skills beyond the practical to striving for more subtle and nuanced taste.
"To continue this tradition of unique flavour, cheese makers in the Liptov region hand crush the lump cheese into tiny pieces pushing the excessive whey out. Then they hand knead them into one compact shape. The hand-shaped lump is placed into boiling water three times for 15 seconds then placed into a uniquely shaped wooden mould where it is allowed to rest. It's then taken out and immersed in warm salty water where it's left until the salt gets completely through. Because of the salt water the Oštiepok gets its traditional long shelf life, the surface gets a little crusty, and it usually gets its yellow colour.
"To create smoked Oštiepok, the cheese is placed into a phloem bag and hung in a special smoke house where it is left for 5/6 days."
I rumbled along in the back of Alexandru's cab silently staring at him in the rearview mirror. My mind was racing again. "Who came up with this unimaginable procedure for making delicious cheese? I mean, did some food genius stop and think, "OK...let me crush this lump cheese into tiny pieces, form it back into a lump, dip it in water, give it a rest in a form, soak it in salt water then smoke it for six days? Yeah...I think that will taste great!"
Food’s just crazy. I guess you can’t put sheep milk in a stomach lining anymore, mess around with it and come out with delicious Oštiepok Cheese. But you can still get Oštiepok Cheese imported from Slovakia at The Sonam Halusky Shop on the Upper Richmond West, East Sheen, London SW14 8DS, or order Liptov Oštiepok on line at www.halusky.co.uk.
23 June, 2015