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    Ġbejna — Traditional Sheep’s Milk Cheese of Gozo


    Here in Gozo, many people keep sheep and make the traditional cheese called gbejna (pronounced roughly juh-bayn-a, plural gbejniet). The villages on this small Maltese island in the middle of the Mediterranean are tight-knit. So are the houses, which are built side by side with high walls hiding most of the small gardens and courtyards. There are still a number of larger herds of sheep and goats that are led around the wild, grassy valleys by shepherds. Some keep just a few sheep for milk, and we frequently hear the bleating of sheep in the village itself.

    The picture above is a fresh gbejna, which at its best is a barely-set, creamy, mellow, mild sheep’s cheese. This is a treat when eaten with crusty bread, olive oil, capers, and chopped onions and tomatoes, and the fresh cheese is also used in traditional Gozitan ravioli and cheese pastries.

    When milk is plentiful, the cheeses are commonly air dried, either plain or coated with cracked black pepper. These delicious dry, aged unpasteurized cheeses can be purchased in any grocery store and from the mobile fruit and vegetable truck “hawkers.”

    Photo: Gbejna friska ta’ l-ilma - Milk Cheese of Gozo



    "Gozo is rich in its flocks and merry with its vineyards", wrote the Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 40-102 AD). This praise was showered on the produce of the local flocks and vines in the first century of the present era, but cheese must have been produced on the island since prehistoric times. It is an important item in the diet of almost all peoples, because it is relatively easy to make and can be preserved for fairly ods of time.

    Goats must have been first bred in Gozo by the early settlers who some 7,000 years ago crossed the 100-kilometre stretch of sea from Sicily to Gozo. During a long spell of good weather and using some pretty reliable rafts, they brought seeds and domestic animals to settle in the island for good,

    Goats were to remain the most numerous ruminants until the mid 1950s. They did not cost much to keep as for the greater part of the year they wandered about on wasteland and were able to find enough food to keep them going.

    However, since very early times there were also some sheep and cows, and nowadays these have completely replaced goats on many farms. They give more milk and the cheese produced is of a higher quality, but they are also more expensive to keep.

    Dairywork was possibly the most important chore of the farmer's wife in Gozo. Very few farmers could afford to build a dairy and thus in the majority of cases dairywork was done in a comer of the kitchen, but some did have one.

    Marija Cini from Wied il-Ghasri, a hamlet of Gozo, is an expert cheesemaker and until lately she was completely occupied in this work. She does not have a dairy at her house, but her mother Tonina Attard used to have one at the back of the garden. It was a small room less than two metres square that had also been used for the same purpose by her grandmother 6u2eppa. The craft of cheesemaking has in fact been passed from one generation to another since time immemorial.

    Obviously, before the actual dairywork could commence the milking had to be done, and again in most cases this was the women's work. During most of the year the milking was done in the fields, but in wintertime the animals were housed in sheds and were also milked there. During the milking, goats and sheep were sometimes stood on special wooden milking stands and given food to keep them occupied for the duration.

    Milking vessels varied from simple wooden pails, brajma in Maltese, to special metal milking cans. Pails were carried more easily with the aid of a shoulder-yoke or menza made from branches of the plum tree and carved in such a way as to fit comfortably on the shoulders and balance the burden of the weight above the carrier's arms.

    Once in the dairy, or in the corner-turned-dairy, the milk was filtered through a strainer with very fine meshes to purify it from any hairs, and poured into an earthenware vat. If it had cooled off it was warmed up by wrapping a heated piece of cotton or wool around the vat. Then it was slowly stirred and, as the temperature rose to around 26oC, rennet was added.

    Rennet, called simply qtar or drops in Maltese, is procured from a foulsmelling reddish-brown liquid found in the gastric juices of young milkdrinking mammals. When lambs were slaughtered the lining of their stomachs, known locally as tames was preserved in salt for some days until it hardened. It was then retrieved, tied with a string and lowered into whey, locally called xorrox, for three or four days after which time the whey turned into a yellowish liquid known as rennet.

    It was the whey after the second settling of the curd that was good for making rennet, as the diluted. The stomach lining was then dried in the sun and buried again in salt, for it could be used several times. The salt was frequently placed in earthenware recipients so that the stomach remained humid.

    Rennet extract is now available at the chemist's and it is commercially prepared from the inner lining of the fourth stomach of calves. All ruminants have a stomach with four complete cavities.

    Rennet contains a milk-coagulating enzyme called rennin which, as soon as it is added to the milk, is stimulated by the acid in the milk, coagulating it. Marija Cini pours about three spoonfuls of rennet with about a gallon or just under five litres of milk, but it all depends, she explains, on the stomach used in its preparation. The more it is used, the less the rennet is effective.

    The milk is then stirred and left in a warm place. After some time it becomes junket, baqta in Maltese, and following a rest of 30 minutes or so it becomes thick enough to slice with a knife.

    Of course, it is not sliced but placed one spoonsul after another into a cuplike recipient called qaleb. These cheese forms each some 8cm high with a base diameter of 5cm rising to 7cm, were locally made of rushes. Nowadays they are made of plastic. The curd was left to settle for some time and then jerked and turned over. Salt was sometimes added at this point.

    The Maltese word for the recipients is in fact derived from this turning over after the first settling. The thick curd continues to settle for some time and the whey drains itself through the mesh between the rushes. This whey is collected if Marija is going to make rennet.

    It was locally believed that the best cheese was prepared from the milk of sheep born in autumn, il-bikrin, and not from those born in spring, L-imwahhrin The fact is that during a rainy season when the sheep can have as much grass as they desire the milk is more plentiful. The more grass and fodder they get, the better the milk and the cheese produced.

    A local tradition held that the best cheese could be obtained in the months with the letter R: December, January, February, March and April. Milk was not considered good enough in the months without an R: May, June, July and August.

    By comparison the milk of goats produces more whey, takes a longer time to settle and, once settled, the cheeselets flatten more easily. It is also intensely white, while that of sheep is slightly yellowish. This places it in a class of its own and also fetches a higher price.

    After the second settling, the thick curd takes about half a day to be ready if prepared in the evening the cheeselets can be consumed in the morning. If they are not going to be consumed fresh, they are turned over a third time and left to settle for about 24 hours.

    The cheeselets, locally known as gbejniet, are available in three different types.

    A large quantity is sold fresh as gbejniet friski, and these are especially used as stuffing in cheesecakes, cheese-stuffed cakes, ravioli and the like: an extremely rare find nowadays, for in most cases they are stuffed with rikotta,

    a milk substance resembling cottage cheese and now widely used in Maltese and Italian cookery. Cheeselets are far superior to' rikotta, which is not obtained in the manner described here but by the repeated boiling of skimmed milk.

    Cheeselets are also available half-dried, moxxi. The cheese that was settled for 24 hours was left to dry on cheese-hurdles inside a nemusiera, a small box covered with a mosquito screen to shield the cheeselets from mosquitoes. Such boxes were once a common sight in the villages and some still survive. In about two to three days the cheese was dry enough to be sold, and after some more days it was good for grating.

    Finally cheeselets are also available peppered, gbejniet tal-bzar. When cheese was good for grating it was dipped in boiling water, dried with a cloth, placed in a bottle and sprinkled with salt, pepper and vinegar according to one's taste.

    This article first appeared in Malta This Month - the in-flight magazine of Air Malta.


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