The Queen of Blue Cheese

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Shankleesh is the only mold ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is believed to have originated among the Kurdhish al Zankieen tribes. It is essentially yogurt whey that is shaped into smooth balls by hand, then either ripened for a few days and consumed (green shankleesh) or aged for up to 16 weeks, traditionally in clay jars called baresh.

Shankleesh is a compound word derived from the Kurdish “shan”, denoting a small terra-cotta pot and “qareesh”, a Bedouin term for fermented milk. The name ‘shan qareesh’ referred to a type of cheese made from milk in a small terra-cotta pot. The cheese is moderately pungent and somewhat musty, with a perceptible bitter note. It is moderately cohesive, with a hard, dry texture. As it ages, yeasts and molds including Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillum colonize the cheese. It is the development of this micro-flora that gives shankleesh its distinctive taste, and increases its shelf life while inhibiting pathogenic organisms that might otherwise contaminate the product. Salt, added during the production phase, also decreases the moisture content and contributes to the cheese’s preservation and resistance bacteria. This was especially important in times where refrigeration was not available.

Different types of milk (cow, sheep and goat) can be used to make shankleesh, with corresponding variations in the taste of the final product. To make the cheese, yogurt is churned, yielding a product called khad, in which the fat is separated into layers of ghee and a protein-rich fluid called the shanin (whey). The shanin is heated until white lumps starts to appear. The product is stirred over the flame until all lumps settle to the bottom of the pot. The pot is taken off the fire and strained, leaving a solid curd called quareesh al-laban. The quareesh is placed in a linen bag that is hung and left to strain for 24 hours. The dry quareesh is mixed and thoroughly kneaded with salt. A bit of red pepper may also be added for flavoring. The resulting mixture is formed into balls (tennis ball size) and left in the sun for 3 days. If they crack due to intense heat they are reformed and left in the sun for 2 more days.

After a month, the salted qareesh balls will have matured and developed a cottony mold surface. They are rinsed under running water, and rolled in an aromatic blend of dried, powdered thyme and, sometimes, other herbs. As shankleesh ripens, it undergoes characteristic changes. In the first two weeks, green and white mold colonies start to appear. In the third week, yellow and black patches start to appear. From the fourth week, the white and green molds take over the surface and form a thicker coating all over the shankleesh ball.

Ripening for more than 10 weeks will give the product an excessive moldy and bitter flavor. it can be dipped in thyme and dried, or immersed in olive oil and hence will have a longer shelf life.

Today, shankleesh is produced mainly in Lebanon and Syria, especially in the area in northern Lebanon around Akkar and its neighboring Syrian border town of Tartous. Consumed with olive oil, shankleesh was the traditional farmers’ breakfast in many parts of rural Lebanon, especially in the North. Today it is eaten crumbled with minced onions, tomatoes and green peppers, and smothered with olive oil to be eaten with bread.

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