Van Herbed Cheese

Milk and milk products - Turkey

Van Otlu peyniri translates to Van herbed cheese. It is made in the Van province of Turkey from sheep's milk, occasionally supplemented with cow's milk when necessary. Ripened cheeses containing herbs are traditional in Turkey and have been manufactured for more than 200 years in the east and southeast of the country. The most popular of these cheeses is Otlu, which is mainly produced in small dairies. The herbs (such as wild garlic and other wild plants) added to the cheese increase both its taste and nutritional value. Twenty-five different wild herbs, including multiple varieties of alliums, thyme, wildflowers and more, used in the cheese production are naturally grown in pastures of the Van region. It has been said that the addition of the herbs was a technique brought to Turkey in the 18th century by a doctor from Iran. In these times, this cheese was also used as a medicine due to the difficulty in obtaining outside medical care in the area. Otlu cheese is produced in spring when the sheep and cattle graze on the local wild herbs that grow in abundance in pastures. First, the raw milk is heated to 30°C and natural rennet is added. After one to two hours, the curd is placed in a cotton bag and mixed with generous portions of minced wild herbs that have been soaked in brine, giving the cheese a sharp, salty taste. The bag is closed and pressed between two heavy stones or heavy wooden weights and left to drain. After 5 - 6 hours, the cheese is cut into 2 - 3 cm. slices, salted and transferred into brine. The cheese sits in brine for some days and then preserved in tin or plastic containers. It is left to age in a cold place until early autumn. An alternative method is dry salting, in which salt is spread on the Otlu cheese, and cheese pieces are put into clay jars or plastic containers. They are covered with salt to prevent contact whit the air, and vine leaves or mud seal the jars. Under this method, Otlu is aged at 7 - 8° C for three months. Typically, the final product is square, white or yellowish in color and is known as semi-hard cheese. Otlu cheese has a salty flavor and a noticeable aroma of thyme. Van Otlu cheese is one of the most well known of traditional Turkish cheeses, and is widely consumed in southeastern Anatolia. The annual average consumption of just this cheese in Van city is nearly 15 kg per person, and the province exports about 5000 tons each year. This cheese is helping the city's economic recovery after an earthquake, and is helping to strengthen local ties with provinces in western Turkey. The cheesemaking process employs many workers for the raising and milking of animals, collection of herbs, and the vendors who transport the heavy cheeses from the highlands to the market. However, today fewer livestock farmers and an increase in large dairies threaten the future of traditional Van Otlu cheese. There are industrial versions sold under the same name, despite not containing local milk or herbs. Moreover, the amount of wild herbs naturally grown in the region is limited, and these wild plants are under the threat of extinction.