Cheese in a Sack

Milk and milk products - Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sir iz mijeha (“cheese in a sack”) from Herzegovina is characterized by the large chestnut-colored sheepskin sack that encases it. The size of the sheepwhose skin provides the casing for the cheese dictates the size of the finished product, which ranges from thirty to seventy kilograms. The sack is what makes this product unique. Traditionally from Herzegovina, sir iz mijeha is produced with raw sheep’s milk or cow’s milk, or a combination of the two. The sheep’s milk comes from pramenka, a heritage sheep breed prized for its milk, meat, and wool. Pramenka sheep are white with a black heads and black legs. The cow’s milk comes from two local breeds, the busa and the Gatacko, which were once common throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, but have now been largely replaced by imported breeds. The busa is a small, hardy cow, well suited to the area’s harsh environment and severe winters. Its coat can be gray, chestnut red, or black, with a dark stripe along the back. The Gatacko is a cross between the busa and the Tyrolian gray. Slightly larger than the busa, it is characterized by its gray coat. The milk is filtered with a cotton cloth and immediately processed. Coagulation takes about an hour and a half after the rennet is added, and the curd settles at the bottom. Using a large ladle, the curd is broken into walnut-sized lumps to facilitate the draining of whey. The mass is then arranged on a cloth and pressed with a stone for about 12 hours. Later, the curd is broken again by hand, salted, and packed into the sheepskin using a stick. It takes many days to fill a sack since such a large quantity of high quality milk is required. Once filled, the sack is sealed shut and placed in a cool place suitable for aging. The aging period is between two months and a year. Preparation of the sack requires a particular technique: The sheep must be slaughtered without damaging the skin, shorn, and washed with boiling water and whey. When the sack is dry, the feet and the neck are tied and it is filled with air. It is then hung to dry in an area used for smoking meats. The sack is washed a second time and dried in open air until it becomes supple. The cheese becomes white or pale yellow once aged. In Herzegovina, it is traditionally served as a first course, along with boiled potatoes or with ham and ustipici (fried dumplings).