Mavrovo Bieno Sirenjes

Milk and milk products - North Macedonia

Bieno sirenjes represent a traditional type of cheese in Macedonia. The homeland of bieno sirenje is the Mariovo region in the southern part of Macedonia. Its production dates from the times of the Ottoman Empire, when it was considered a poor food. The original 15th century recipe calls for only sheep’s milk, but today it is made with both sheep’s and cow’s milk (both alone and mixed). It is a low-fat cheese stored in a brine solution. It has also been called “beaten sirenje,” as the curds are literally beaten to remove some of the fat.   Raw milk for their production comes from local sheep (purebred or crossbred Ovcepolska sheep) or cow (pure or crossbred Busha) breeds. To make the sirenjes, milk is heated to 35°C for 30 minutes. The curdling mass, called the guš, is “beaten” with a special tool (k’urkalo) in three series of 50 hits each with a 5-minute break in between. Some of the fat is removed, and the curds are left to rest for about 20 minutes. The mixture is then steamed before being beaten again for 2-3 minutes. The curds are separated from the whey, kneaded, and shaped into a ball, which is then removed and drained for 10 hours. Then, each individual sirenje is placed into a special flat container for 2-3 days, where it takes on a loaf shape. The sirenje is aged in the sun for 3-7 days, and gains a waxy yellow color. The loaves of sirenje are then cut into pieces 5-6 cm thick and again left in the sun for 2-3 days. Finally, the sirenje is salted, first with dry salt for three days, then with brine. Brine is changed every three days during the summer and twice a month in the winter. The finished product has a piquant, salty flavor.   The sirenjes are produced on the high plateau of south central Macedonia where they are highly valued by the local population. This region is quite isolated, and so the bieno sirenjes are usually never sold outside of their production area. Bieno sirenjes are made for home consumption or for direct sales, but are not generally available in markets. The population of this area was only 1160 people in 2008, and the local economy is based on animal husbandry and extensive or semi-extensive sheep and cattle production in the natural grasslands and meadows. Many younger people have left the area in search of other work, leaving an elderly population with no one to whom food traditions like sirenje production can be passed.