Cheese and yogurt galore: 6 delectable Bulgarian dairy products

Yogurt, cheese and milk are an integral part of Bulgarian cuisine – and in a sense, Bulgaria is the original homeland of yogurt! Dairy products are part of almost every meal in the country and a Bulgarian would find it hard to imagine classic local dishes like banitsa, musaka, shopska salad or tarator without cheese or yogurt.

Cow milk is the most popular source of dairy products in Bulgaria, though sheep’s milk products are well-appreciated and quite ubiquitous too. Perhaps not as commonly consumed, goat cheeses are also traditional and considered a bit of a specialty because of their tart flavour. Native buffalo dairy products are increasingly fashionable too – buffalo yogurt from the Balkan Mountains is a real treat, especially served as a dessert with fresh blueberries!

From the legendary Bulgarian yogurt (big in Japan and China!) to the secrets of the gourmet green cheese of Cherni Vit (that the Moon is made of), kashkaval tourist presents 6 delectable Bulgarian dairy products.

1. Omnipresent Balkan crumbliness: sirene (white brined cheese) 🐄

Omnipresent Balkan crumbliness: sirene (white brined cheese)
Omnipresent Balkan crumbliness: sirene (white brined cheese)

In Bulgaria, white brined cheese (or sirene) is so universally beloved that it has come to own the word for cheese itself. Unless you specify something else, any Bulgarian would assume you’re referring to this classic Balkan cheese when you say “sirene”.

Sirene can be made of cow, sheep’s, goat’s or buffalo milk, or a mix thereof. What sets it apart from other cheeses is the maturing in a brine solution, which is responsible for its white colour and its trademark saltiness. Bulgarian white brined cheese shares many similarities with its Greek cousin feta and other regional cheeses like the Turkish beyaz peynir and Romanian telemea. Compared to feta, sirene (сирене) is somewhat softer and crumblier. A variant of sirene is Dunavia, which is even softer, with less fat content and a milder flavor.

Sirene is often enjoyed as a table cheese (sprinkled with some red pepper) and it’s a vital ingredient in characteristic Bulgarian dishes like shopska salad, banitsa with cheese, French fries with cheese, sirene po shopski (Shop-style sirene) and yaytsa po panagyurski (Panagyurishte-style eggs).

2. Fermented longevity food: Bulgarian yogurt 🔬

Fermented longevity food: Bulgarian yogurt
Fermented longevity food: Bulgarian yogurt

Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus. Sounds fancy, right? We owe the very existence of yogurt to these benevolent bacteria, naturally found in Bulgaria and discovered by Bulgarian doctor Stamen Grigorov in 1905. If you’re feeling geeky, you could learn more about it in the world’s only Yogurt Museum in Grigorov’s home village of Studen Izvor. 🤓

Bulgaria is regarded as the “birthplace of yogurt”, and as you can imagine, this fermented milk product is a huge part of the local culinary tradition. Known as kiselo mlyako (кисело мляко, „sour milk“), yogurt is a yummy Bulgarian breakfast staple, and it’s also used in appetizers, desserts, beverages and even soups (think tarator).

The research of Nobel Prize winner Élie Metchnikoff attributed the longevity of Bulgarian villagers to their regular consumption of yogurt, turning this dairy product into an international health fad. Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt has been a hit in Japan since 1973, spreading the fame of Bulgarian yogurt all over East Asia. And in China, the yogurt drink Momchilovtsi draws inspiration from the Rhodope village of the same name. Seeing a Rhodope-branded product in faraway China would be surreal to any Bulgarian, but it’s a testament to Bulgarian yogurt’s well-deserved worldwide popularity. 😏

3. And it was all yellow: kashkaval 🧀

And it was all yellow: kashkaval
And it was all yellow: kashkaval

Next to sirene, kashkaval is the other most familiar type of cheese in Bulgaria. While sirene is white, brined and crumbly, kashkaval (кашкавал) is yellow, semi-hard and a bit chewy, with a characteristic milky flavour. It’s produced in a process comparable to cheddaring and is likely related to the caciocavallo (“horse cheese”) of Southern Italy. Of course, kashkaval has its Balkan cousins too, namely Turkish kaşar and Greek kaseri.  In Bulgaria, kashkaval is standardized into three sub-types: Balkan (sheep kashkaval), Vitosha (cow kashkaval) and Preslav (a mix of both).

Similar to sirene, kashkaval is popular as a table cheese. When melted, it’s used in the pastry kashkavalka, the open sandwich printsesa and in the Bulgarian variations of potatoes au gratin. When breaded and fried, kashkaval turns into a delightful meal of its own, kashkaval pane. And when linguistically abused, kashkaval is part of the name of a blog about Bulgaria and the Balkans! 😅

4. Snow White and her thick cousin: Snezhanka and katak ❄

Snow White and her thick cousin: Snezhanka and katak
Snow White and her thick cousin: Snezhanka and katak

Whether it’s Greek tzatziki or Turkish cacık, strained yogurt dips are loved throughout the Balkan region as a refreshing appetizer (meze). Well, thanks to communist-era tour operator Balkantourist’s creativity, the Bulgarian version bears the much more poetic name Snow White salad or Snezhanka (Снежанка). Salted and strained, that thick Bulgarian yogurt is mixed with cucumbers or gherkins, garlic, oil, dill and preferably ground walnuts, turning your average milk salad into the culinary fairy tale that is Snezhanka. Or less elegantly expressed, Snezhanka is a less watery version of the cult cold soup tarator.

As for Snow White’s cousin, katak (катък) originally referred to a thick and long-lasting sheep’s milk product aged in a jug. These days, katak is more often a mix of yogurt and sheep sirene. It’s then usually garnished with red peppers and garlic to create an appetizer similar to Snezhanka.

5. Mouldy miracle: Cherni Vit green cheese 🌲

Mouldy miracle: Cherni Vit green cheese
Mouldy miracle: Cherni Vit green cheese. Photo credit: Andrey Andreev

Long seen by the locals as spoiled and therefore undesired, nearly extinct and then accidentally rediscovered by Slow Food to become Bulgaria’s rarest and most exquisite gourmet cheese. This is the story of the Cherni Vit green cheese, a sheep sirene only produced in the quaint village of Cherni Vit at the foot of the northern Balkan Mountains.

Similar to blue cheeses like Roquefort and Gorgonzola, the colour of Cherni Vit green cheese comes from the mould that grows on its crust. The cheese is stored in wooden casks in humid cellars, which provide ideal conditions for mould growth. The Cherni Vit green cheese features a very soft texture, a dense, somewhat hot taste and a characteristic mouldy aroma. Pears, figs or grapes complement its flavour very well, as does a glass of Bulgarian red wine!

Regrettably, you won’t find the Cherni Vit cheese in a supermarket or in a packaged form anywhere. You’d be lucky to taste it at a food exhibition or perhaps in a high-end restaurant in Sofia, but your best bet would be a visit to Cherni Vit in late spring, when the green cheese ripens and small-scale tastings are organized.

6. Hangover’s worst enemy: ayran 🥛

Hangover’s worst enemy: ayran
Hangover’s worst enemy: ayran

Add water and salt to some fabled Bulgarian yogurt and you’ve got ayran – a refreshing dairy beverage that Bulgarians love to drink breakfast along with their banitsa. Ayran (айран) reputedly works wonders as a hangover cure and in theory, you might completely avoid the whole hangover ordeal by just drinking ayran instead of alcohol in the evening. Realistically, in the Balkans you’re unlikely to do just that, what with the allure of Bulgarian rakia and wine. 🤷 But make sure you try ayran anyway!

And instead of an ending, here’s a fun fact. Kefir is a fermented milk from the North Caucasus, a relative of ayran that is not native to Bulgaria. Latin Americans don’t seem to agree, however: in Spanish, kefir is for some reasons known as búlgaros or “Bulgarians”. Anybody know why? 🤔

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