Šara cheese hails from the Šara Mountains which stretches over south-eastern Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania. No single recipe on how it is made exist, each manufacturer having their own approach and jealously guarding their secret in an attempt to surpass the competition.
The hallmarks of the cheese are its saltiness, and the fact that it is a treat for any time of the day or year. Either solid or soft, for decades the cheese was handmade at old wooden shepherds’ huts known as ‘bačija’, or in the homes of mountain village folk. Lately, however, companies have launched industrial production lines of this product.
According to centuries-old recipes, Šara cheese is mostly made from cow and / or sheep milk, and it is the kind of milk which determines the cheese’s fat content. Recently, however, Šara goat cheese has also resurfaced.
Manufacturers of these cheeses are in high demand, especially in and around Prizren city. Many of the trades' people have no need to go to the local market, having orders placed with them several days in advance.
“Goats eat all sorts of plants so their milk is of high quality and their cheese excellent. I get most orders for that cheese from diabetics. They say it helps them because it cures 19 illnesses, although I don’t know which ones,” says Muharem Pandži, the keeper of tens of goats whose dairy products he sells at the Prizren market. The traditional recipe has changed little over the past centuries.
“I milk the animals in the evening so we can collect the cream and then warm it. I put a tablespoon and a half of rennet per every 10 litres. After about 20 minutes I stir that and add hot water. I pour the mixture into a cloth and then press it to squeeze the whey out, and then again pour boiling water over it. Then I put the cheese into a pan and put a rock on top, leaving it for two or three days. I used to put the cheese on a board but now I put it in the fridge, where it dries for about ten days, [while I] constantly turn it from one side to the other,” says Refija Redža, from the village of Skorobište, near Prizren.
When the cheese is dry, Redža collects a larger quantity of it and puts it into water, first using a knife to cut away any imperfections. For every 10 kilograms of cheese, he prepares nine liters of brine. Before putting it into water, the cheese is salted and put into the container in which it will be stored. It takes at least 40 days for the cheese to take in the brine, after which it is good to eat within the following two years.
There is also a soft variant of the cheese, known as ‘yagliya.’ The initial preparation process is as mentioned above, but instead of pouring hot water after the rennet is added, the cheese is immediately drained, salted, and can be served at once. The curdled milk is used to make at least two other dairy products, so nothing goes to waste.
Whey contains sodium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, vitamins, amino acids, and proteins, while having very few calories. Thus, it has a potentially positive effect on low appetites, increased cholesterol, and even tooth plaque and tooth decay, and can also help regenerate the liver. Whey is an exceptional source of protein for pregnant women. Many people are only starting to become aware of the value of this cheese by-product. It can be bought from village folk at city markets, and can also be found in supermarkets.
'Urda' is another dairy product. If the whey is not to be used shortly, it is boiled and mixed with a bit of yogurt, or ‘mučenica,’ as it is known in Kosovo. Once strained, the result is ‘urda,’ which can be eaten on its own, or as a complement to many different dishes. It is most often used by pastry bakers specializing in ‘cheese burek’ – who, instead of filling the famous Balkan pastry with real cheese, most often use a combination of lard and urda, which emulates the taste of cheese.
Šara cheese is a diet essential in this region, and is therefore consumed in many ways. For example, yagliya can be eaten as soon as it is made, while hard cheeses are added to salads and main dishes, pitas, are fried, or eaten alone.
Industrial production takes over
While mostly produced in private households and bačijas, the past decade has seen the rise of industrial Šara cheese manufacturers. The majority of these entrepreneurs operate in and around Prizren, such as ABI Industrija, a fruit and vegetable processing company which also makes this popular cheese.
“Šara cheese is very salty and its dry fat content is 45 percent – while its original fat content is 26 percent. [It’s made from] cow or goat milk, [and its total content is] about 43 percent water and 57 percent dry matter,” explains Alajdin Fusha, the manager of ABI and the president of the Prizren Municipality Dairy Farmers Association.
Fusha says that there is no significant difference between the traditional and industrial method of Šara cheese production. The industrial version is made from pasteurized milk which is then fermented. Traditionally prepared cheese cannot be eaten until it has thoroughly absorbed the salt and has ripened for a minimum of two months, while industrially produced cheese is sent to the market after two weeks, where it sells for six euros a kilo, and can be eaten immediately.
Veterans in industrial Šara cheese production are the above mentioned ABI and another Prizren factory – Shari – which has been in this business for a decade. Two years ago Ernes Džaferi from Skorobište also began manufacturing this cheese by a method he says is natural, using machines received from a Turkish humanitarian organisation.
Šara cheese is mostly sold across the region of the Western Balkans. However, since people from Kosovo live and work in Western Europe – for example in Germany and Switzerland – cheese manufacturers are visiting food fairs in these countries, hoping to enter the Western European markets.
*under UNSCR 1244/1999