Motal cheese

Motal, a traditional cheese produced throughout the Caucasus, has a very long history and is associated with the movement of pastoralists and their animals between winter and summer pastures, and their need to preserve dairy products.

Motal is produced in small quantities in mountain pastures, particularly in late spring. It is named for the sheep- or goatskin sack in which it is aged and stored. The sack can be made with the hairy side of the skin facing in or out; if the hair is on the inside, it helps the cheese to coagulate (thus, less rennet is used) and ferment, and also absorbs excess salt. The downside to this method is that hairs end up in the cheese. When the sack is made with the hair facing out, more rennet must be added. The rennet is made from a lamb’s abomasum, which is cured for a month in salted water with some grain and a piece of iron, to regulate the pH. To make the cheese, a spoonful of the rennet is added to every 10 liters of milk (sheep’s and/or goat’s milk). The curds are separated from the whey and allowed to dry, and then salted and packed into the skin sack.

Some shor (another cheese typical of the Caucasus) is added, which helps the motal to season properly. Mountain thyme may also be added. It is crucial that the skin sack has no holes in it and that all of the air is squeezed out before it is tied shut. The sacks of cheese are then left in a cool place to mature for at least a month, and ideally 3-6 months. During aging, the sacks are turned every 4-5 days. It should be noted that ripening motal in a glass, ceramic, or plastic vessel is ineffective for bringing out the cheese’s distinctive characteristics. Motal cheese is crumbly and very salty. In finished form, it is usually divided into chunks of about 0.5-1 kilogram. It is whitish or pale yellow and tastes similar to a mature blue cheese. Once properly matured, motal can be stored for several years. It is eaten with bread and pairs well with onions, garlic and basil, and dry red wines. You can also wrap motal in a pita or lavash with chopped greens (cilantro, dill, onions, and basil) and fresh cucumber slices.