Over 90% of Armenian is 1,000 meters above sea level and its mountains are home to shepherds and goats, who climb as high as 3,000 meters in altitude.
The goat, native to the country, has long arched horns – sometimes spiral-shaped for males – and thick coats (white, black or brown) - and grazes from spring to late autumn.
The shepherds look after the animals and only enclose them in pens at night. They milk the goats by hand, crouching beneath the animals, and make Motal, an age-old Armenian cheese. They make this from pure goat’s milk with using rudimentary tools following a simple technique.
Milk is not heated when making Motal, but immediately after milking calf rennet is added to warm milk and left to cool for half an hour. The curd is then roughly broken (using a knife or with a ladle) and is pressed in a cloth for about 15 minutes to further drain the whey.
The mixture is then cut into small pieces and put in molds, where it is left in brine for at least forty days. At this stage the curd is extracted from the molds, crumbled by hand and seasoned with mountain herbs (fresh tarragon in particular). Some cheesemakers flavor the cheese with small pieces of fresh pepper.
Finally, the curds are poured into terracotta pots that are then sealed with beeswax. The terracotta pots are boiled before being used, heated in the oven and spread with sour cream inside (sheep fat was once used for this purpose), then placed in cold, dry cellars, turned upside-down and left to rest on ashes: Motal can age for over six months like this.
Terracotta production is one of Armenia’s oldest industries – the country still features terracotta houses with hay roofs – and the tradition of preserving food in pots and leather bags dates back at least 5,000 years – not only for cheese, but also for wine, cereal grains, and so on. There are still many families that preserve goat’s cheese in terracotta for their own consumption, especially to last throughout winter.
Motal producers are shepherds who rear 10 to 150 goats each and work in extreme conditions with scarce financial resources at their disposal. Their cheeses are generally sold directly to consumers or through middlemen after they have just been taken from the brine: often they do not have enough time and resources to preserve the cheeses for longer in terracotta as traditional technique requires.
The Presidium was created to take the producers out of their isolation, allowing them to work together, to improve cheese-making techniques and to obtain the sanitary authorization for the sale of the product on national and international levels.
What is a Slow Food Presidia?
The Slow Food Presidia are projects sustaining quality production at risk of extinction, protecting unique regions and ecosystems, recovering traditional processing methods, safeguarding native breeds and local plant varieties.
Check out our website: http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/presidia
Photos — Lisa Zillio & Paolo Gasparini