The Glory Of Cheese

Indispensable at breakfast, essential at dinner parties, cheese dishes are holding their own in cuisines around the world.

There are certain basic nutrients that are part and parcel of our eats and drinks menus, foods that have preserved their place on our dining tables since they were first discovered. Cheese is one of them. Its history dates back so far that definitive information on how and when cheese was first produced has yet to be uncovered. The earliest records researchers have come across are in documents dating back to the Sumerians. Thought to have been used purely to supply nutrition in the earliest periods in which it was produced, cheese developed and diversified over time to become the gastronomical delicacy it is today.

In the earliest periods, humans used not vessels but animal skins or intestines for storing and transporting liquids. The odds are that milk stored in the intestines of a sheep or goat coagulated due to a particular enzyme found in the omasum (a section of the animal’s stomach), giving rise to the first, albeit somewhat soft, cheese. Over time cheese carved out a niche in our diet at every meal from breakfast to dinner.

Cheese is a nutritional and tasty food with important benefits especially for growing children. What’s more, it can be stored for long periods and consumed readily in any setting. Consequently, cheese has a place in all meals from a simple breakfast to the most  elegant banquet. Cheese is known by many names: fromage to the French, fromaggio to the Italians, queso to the Spanish, käse to the Germans, sir to the Russians and Bosnians, penir to the Persians, paneer to the Indians, gibn or jubn to the Arabs, tiri to the Greeks, and ağrımşık, akerişimik, sogut, bışlak, irimçık to the ancient Turks. But whatever name it’s called by, cheese preserves its place as a staple dish on tables in Istanbul and Anatolia today.

My dear friend Artun Ünsal’s magnificent book, When Milk Sleeps, leaps to mind at any mention of cheese in Turkey. In his book, Ünsal shares some extremely valuable information about cheese that is little known but a subject of much curiosity: “There are said to be 243 types of cheese in France and numerous types in Turkey. But this is not the case. In essence there are eight types of cheese, and the variations on them. You make them from different kinds of milk or milk mixtures, you boil the milk for different lengths of time, you vary the waiting period, in other words, to use an expression from the world of fashion, you create a stylish combination out of each one. The eight essential cheeses are the following: the fresh cheese we see in the form of whey, the soft cheeses with a white mold rind, the washed-rind cheeses, the curdled and cooked cheeses, the curdled but uncooked cheeses, the so-called ‘blue’ cheeses with veins of mold running through them, the soft cheeses with a natural rind and, finally, the processed cheeses.”  When it comes to cheese, Artun Ünsal’s book is definitely the one to read. 

MIHLAMA (RİZE)

Ingredients
4 heaping tablespoons of corn flour
2 tablespoons butter
200 g Trabzon cheese

Preparation
Melt the butter in a large skillet. Then add the corn flour and brown over low heat, stirring constantly, for 30 minutes. Pour 4 cups of hot water over the cheese.  Pour the cheese water over the browned corn flour and mix thoroughly to avoid clumping. Cover the skillet tightly with a lid and cook the mıhlama over low heat for 30 minutes and serve hot.

SAVORY HOMEMADE CAKE

Ingredients
1 egg
1 cup yoghurt
1 cup margarine and
olive oil mixed
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
150 g hard cheese (equivalent to 4-5 matchboxes full)
1 bunch fresh dill
1 tsp black cumin seeds
2 1/2 tsp salt

Preparation
Grease a cake pan 35-40 cm in diameter and dust with flour. Preheat the oven. Mix the egg, oil and yoghurt in a bowl, keeping about two spoonfuls for spreading on top of the cake. Sift the flour and baking powder together, then add the grated cheese, chopped dill and salt and mix well. Add to the egg, oil and yoghurt mixture, mix thoroughly and pour into the pan. Spread the two spoonfuls of egg, oil and yoghurt over the top. Sprinkle with the black cumin seeds and cook in a medium oven for 30-40 minutes. Slice while still warm and transfer to a platter.

YUFKA BEUREK (ŞEBİNKARAHİSAR)

Ingredients
1 kg “yufka” (filo leaves),
250 g butter,
250 g walnut meats,
100 g white (Feta-style) cheese

Preparation
Moisten the filo leaves in lukewarm water and spread on a cloth. Grease a tray with melted butter and layer with filo leaves. When you have 3-5 layers, drizzle with melted butter. Then sprinkle with ground Şebinhisar walnuts or crumbled cheese. Add 4-5 more layers of filo and 2-3 spoonfuls of melted butter around the edge of the tray with a wooden spoon.

CHEESE HALVAH (ÇANAKKALE)

Ingredients
1 kg sheep’s milk cheese
200 g semolina
3 egg yolks
1 1/2 kg sugar
200 g cheese

Preparation
Mix the cheese, semolina and egg yolks in a pan and cook over low heat. When the cheese is melted, add 200 g more cheese and heat a while longer. When cooled, sprinkle with the sugar and mix well. Then pour into a tray and place in the oven.