Ovchepolsko Sirenje Cheese

Milk and milk products - North Macedonia

The product of Ovchepolsko sirenje’s name means “soft cheese from Ovche Pole.” Ovche Pole or Ovchepolie (literally “sheep field”) is a valley and an area in the central part of Macedonia, located east of the Vardar River. Presumably, the name originates from the large number of sheep herds bred here by the local population. The largest municipality in the area is St. Nikole, and the cheese from this area has long been known throughout the Balkans. This cheese’s unique taste comes in part from the salty soil and grass of the area’s salt flats or solchaci. The grazing animals eat these pastures, and the flavor and natural saltiness is imparted to the milk. Immediately after milking and filtering, milk is put into a wooden tub lined with a linen cloth. If the milk is not already at 30°C, it is warmed up, and then, while mixing, natural rennet is added, which can also be a vegetal rennet of a local grass called sirishtara. Once the milk starts to separate easily from the sides of the pan, the cloth is gathered and tied to contain the cheese, which is hung to drain. Then the cheese is placed into a pan and cut in to pieces of about 8-10 cm, before being salted and placed in a wooden tub. The cheese is pressed with a clean stone and covered. After two to three days, it should be sitting in its own brine. If there is not enough brine, a solution is added made with previously drained whey. The cheese is left in a cold area for one month of aging, while regularly controlling the brine solution. Until recently, there was a custom in Ovche Pole villages to keep all the sheep together in a flock and milk them jointly. This was done every year in early August. The entire quantity of milk obtained from the sheep in two or three days was distributed to one family. The following days, the same was done for another family, and so on. This was done in order to obtain larger quantities of milk, because after some time the sheep would stop lactating, and this system benefited families with a lower number of sheep. Today, the Ovchepolsko sirenje that is made in quantities larger than needed for family use is sold at Macedonian markets. It is commonly eaten with pies or served as an appetizer with a drink. According to local farmers, production of this cheese has been in decline since the late 1980s, and fewer farmers continue breeding sheep due to increases in the cost of care and the low prices obtained for their milk or meat. The number of sheep just in the Ovche Pole area has been in sharp decline, especially in recent years, meaning that Ovchepolsko sirenje is at risk of being lost from Macedonia’s culinary scene in the future.