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Turkish Cheeses

This is reflected in the 11th century Turkish dictionary, Divanü Lügat-it-Türk, written by Mahmut of Kaşgar between 1072 and 1074, in which he cites the words udma and udhıtma for fresh cheese, and translates the Turkish sentence Ol udhıtma udhıttı as He made cheese. The verb udhıtmak originated from Uighur Turkish and meant to put to sleep, to make solid or to leaven, so etymology reveals the delightful idea of milk solidified into fresh cheese being 'sleeping milk'.

The modern Turkish word for cheese, peynir, first occurs in the Book of Dede Korkut, a collection of orally transmitted legends which were first written down in the 12th and 13th centuries. Evidently this word first entered the Turkish language following the migration from Central Asia. The Türkmen tribes knew how to make several different varieties of cheese and must have adopted this new term for them on their way westwards through Iran or after their arrival in Anatolia.

Anatolia already had its own cheeses originating in antiquity. Writing about the northwestern region today encompassing Bolu, İzmit and İznik, the famous historian Strabo says, In the interior of Bithynia above Tieion is Salona, where alone are the finest pastures for cattle and where Salonites cheese is made.

In his history of the Ottoman dynasty, Aşıkpaşazade (1400-1484) writes that Osman Gazi gave gifts of cheese, dried yogurt, fat and clotted cream to the Byzantine rulers of Bilecik in return for protecting the property left behind in their winter settlements by the Ottoman tribes in their seasonal migrations to the summer pastures with their herds.

The Code of Law issued in 1502 by Beyazıt II gives the names of cheeses from all over the Ottoman Empire which were sold in the markets of Istanbul: fresh lor cheese, kaba lor cheese, fresh dil cheese, fresh çayır cheese, Mudurnu cheese, Şumnu cheese, Karaman cheese, Sofia cheese, Eşme cheese, Midilli (Mytilene) cheese, teleme cheese, cheese in brine (white or feta cheese), Limni (Limnos) tulum cheese (cheese made in a goatskin bag), İzmit tulum cheese, Rumelia tulum cheese, fresh kaşkaval cheese, and Balkan kaşkaval cheese.

Today there is a general misconception among Turkish urban dwellers that Turkey does not possess a wide range of cheeses. This is because few regional cheeses find their way into city shops. In fact there are a great many varieties, many little known outside the area where they are made, a finding which is not surprising in a land which has been home to many civilisations over thousands of years.

I will begin a brief tour of Turkey’s cheeses with çökelek, made from the whey left over from the cheese making. The people of Anatolia who, as the expression has it squeeze bread out of a stone, neglect none of milk’s potential and process it in every possible way. Even the greenish yellow liquid known as whey left over from making cheese or lor (a soft curd cheese) from the milk is not discarded. When the whey is boiled up a new curd known as çökelek or çökelik forms.

Apart from the plain çökelek cheese sold in Turkey’s large city markets and shops, there are many interesting regional varieties which are either eaten fresh or preserved by pressing into goatskin bags or pottery jars, or alternatively dried in the sun. Some examples of these are İnebolu süt çökeleği, Giresun çökeleği which is used as a filling for the famous Black Sea pide (thinly rolled bread dough with various fittings on top baked in the oven), Rize’s kurçi cheese which is eaten with corn bread for breakfast, Kars çökelek which is used as a filling for layered pastries and in salads, the jaji cheese of Bitlis, Afyon’s Emirdağ çökelek which is preserved in lambskins, the Kırk Tokmak cheese of Milas, and Hatay tulum çökelek which is mixed with fresh thyme and black cumin seeds.

A close relative of çökelek is kurut, dried bricks of yogurt made of low-fat milk or of çökelek made from buttermilk. In some regions kurut is known as keş. Since it has a lower fat content it keeps well. Some of the best known regional varieties are the kurut of Kars and Bitlis, the sürk (dried çökelek) of Hatay, the keş of Mengen and Giresun, and the dried çökelek of Aydın.

Lor is a soft fresh cheese, a relative of the somewhat harder textured Ricotta of Italy and the Greek Myzithra and Anthotiro. It is produced by dairies making kaşar (a hard yellow cheese) from sheep’s milk. Lor with a variety of flavours is also made in rural homes from the whey left over from cheese making.

Lor is eaten without salt or very slightly salted, so it does not keep well. It is an ingredient of various savoury dishes, layered börek pastries and puddings. For breakfast or as a snack fresh lor is delicious with sugar, honey or jam.

The lor of Kırklareli made from kaşar whey is well known to connoisseurs, and other delicious varieties are the lor of Mustafakemalpaşa (near Bursa), Manyas in Balıkesir, and above all of Savaştepe, all made from Mihaliç cheese whey.

There are cheeses common to both sides of the Aegean. For example, the fresh lor cheese of Ayvalık in Balıkesir is left to drain in a basket mould and eaten fresh, like its counterpart on the island of Mytilene. The Kirlihanım cheese made from lor in Ayvalık, Foça and Karaburun is also made in Greece. When mixed with strained yogurt and olive oil it makes an hors d’oeuvre fit for a paşa. The kopanisti of Çeşme and Karaburun is another shared element of Aegean cuisine.

Other regional varieties of lor cheese in Turkey are Antalya lor cheese, Kars kurtlu cheese, the kurtlu lor of Yusufeli in Artvin, the Minzi cheese of Çamlıhemşin in Rize, Trabzon Minzi cheese and tel karışık cheese, and Rize’s ayran cheese.

By far the most widely consumed type of cheese in Turkey is white cheese, which can be eaten fresh or after maturing in brine. Teleme is a type of white cheese made almost everywhere in Turkey by straining the pressed curds, sometimes in a bag hung from the ceiling. Soft, high fat white cheeses made usually of ewe’s milk in the northwestern regions of Trakya and Marmara are the most highly esteemed. The high-quality ewe’s milk of Ezine, Biga and the area around Edirne means that their white cheese pickled in brine is superb. Antalya’s white cheese made of a mixture of goat’s and cow’s milk also deserves mention.

Cheeses mixed with herbs are a subdivision of the white cheese family, and traditionally made of ewe’s or goat’s milk, but in recent years of a mixture of these with cow’s milk. To the white cheese is added 15 percent or less wild herbs. These cheeses have always been well known in eastern and southeastern Anatolia (Kars, Ağrı, Diyarbakır, Van, Siirt, Hakkari, Muş and Bitlis), and are becoming increasingly familiar in Turkey’s major cities.

There are many varieties of these herb cheeses. That made in Van contains wild garlic, while that of Bitlis contains a local herb known as sof otu which grows in damp situations. Horse mint (Mentha longifolio) and Pimpinella rhodentha are other herbs used.

Fresh cheese spoils quickly, which is why preservation processes such as pickling in brine, pressing into skins, being left to mature under soil or sand or in caves, or lightly blueing with mould have developed.

Tulum cheese - cheese preserved in a goatskin (hairy side outwards) - is widely made everywhere in Turkey apart from Trakya. The finest are those of Erzincan, Erzurum and the alpine pastures of the Toros mountains dividing central Anatolia from the Mediterranean coast.

Kaşkaval (fresh kaşar) and mature kaşar are dense textured cheeses native to Anatolia, which is where the Turks made their acquaintance. The most famous is the kaşar of Trakya, which is moulded into drums 16 cm high and 30 cm in diameter and weighing 11-12 kilos. Other fine kaşars are those of Muş, Bayburt, and Trabzon’s Kadırga and Tonya districts.

Dil, Çerkez and Abaza cheese, tel (literally 'string') cheeses, and örme (braided) cheeses are other notable varieties which I can do no more than mention here. But I would like to end with what in my opinion is the king of Turkish cheeses, mihaliç. This cheese is made in the provinces of Balıkesir and Bursa of full-fat, unpasteurised milk from the kıvırcık sheep. It is white in colour, characterised by bubble holes 3-4 mm in diameter, and with a hard irregular rind 2-3 mm thick. It is extremely well flavoured and keeps well. Hard, mature mihaliç cheese is in no way inferior to Italy’s famous Parmesan cheese when grated over pasta dishes.

Diversity of cheese types is influenced by four main factors: cultural habits and tastes, natural conditions, the species and variety of animal providing the milk, and production methods. This is equally true of Turkey, where scores of local cheeses in every region are now beginning to be discovered, putting the country on the cheese map at last.

  Turkish Cheeses
  by Prof. Dr. Artun Ünsal,
  Skylife 07/98