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Sirene, Bulgaria`s Big Cheese

Sirene is the name Bulgarians give to their delicious white cheese, which is a version of the increasingly-popular Greek Feta cheese.

It originated on the Balkan Peninsula in a region called Trakia, which is the current day Southern Bulgaria. Used in many traditional Bulgarian dishes, this tasty cheese is well worth trying and is exceptionally cheap to buy, so next time you are wandering past the dairy counter at your local Bulgarian supermarket, ask for a half kilo of sirene.

Feta Facts

Many people think of Feta as a Greek only cheese; however this is a myth as the cheese actually originated in the Balkan countries. Sirene was traditionally made in the mountains of Macedonia, Ionia and Thrace, areas which now lie within the borders of present day Bulgaria. It has been made in the same way for thousands of years. Leading TV chef Anthony Worrel Thompson proclaimed Bulgarian sirene as the best ‘feta cheese in the world.’

Cheese is frequently mentioned in the writings of the ancient Greeks; although the type of it is never clear what kind of cheese is being referred to. Ancient Greek writer Homer refers to cheese in his masterpiece The Odyssey (Book 9: 278-79) however, the cheese he describes is more akin to the Sicilian cheeses known as tuma or canestrato. The word Feta is thought to originate from the Greek word tyripheta, which means ‘cheese slice,’ or the Italian word fette, meaning ‘a slice of food.’

The Production Process

Sirene is a brined cheese often called a ‘pickled cheese’, produced from sheep or cow’s milk, although sheep’s milk is the preferred choice because of its sweeter, creamier taste. White cheese made from sheep's milk tends to be served as a table cheese, whilst white cheese made from cow's milk is used in cooking. The method of making this cheese is also closely associated with the source of the milk; it was originally manufactured by shepherds who put it in a brine solution to extend its life. Salted water acts as a veritable fountain of youth for cheese by halting the process of ripening to keep the cheese "young." It dries out rapidly when removed from the brine.

 

 

The Taste and Texture

Bulgarian sirene has much the same colour and texture as Greek Feta; it is served on its own and as an essential part of other foods from the famous Shopska salad to delicious Banitza. The traditional Bulgarian white cheese has a smooth texture without excessive crumbliness making it easy to cut. The brine solution that it is matured in gives it a slightly salty, though not unpleasant, flavour. The fresh texture and tang comes from the special culture each cheese maker uses. The taste is sharp, yet mellow, without being acidic. The colour of this traditional Bulgarian cheese is of incomparable whiteness.

The Great Cheese Crash of the Nineties

Whilst the country coped with the transition from a planned economy to a market economy, the worldwide cheese industry suffered its own financial uncertainty. As the Western world became a more health conscious society, traditionally high fat cheeses were denounced as ‘food baddies.’ This worked in the favour of many Mediterranean cheeses like Feta and Bulgaria’s Sirene, which were found to be low in fat.

Balkan Bites

Sirene’s pickled taste provides the perfect contrast to sweet summer fruits and can be sprinkled over watermelon, crumbled onto fresh vegetables, chicken, seafood and salads. While some use white cheese to enhance entrees, the Bulgarian people also know that it makes a great table cheese, paired with olives, crusty bread and cured meats such as ham and salami. Its tart, salty flavour complements light red and sweet white wines, tomato juice and citrus drinks. Spiced up, this appealing cheese fills a sautéed, fresh roasted, sweet red pepper and is found in the breaded. Fried pepper dish known as bjurek. It is also the crowning glory on chopped cucumbers, sweet peppers, onions and tomatoes in the refreshing Shopska salad that accompanies many a Bulgarian meal.