By noon, I was drenched in whey, caked in cow shit and my left hand itched. It was pretty much the best day ever. It started in the workshop of a small kaşar producer near Kars, where cow’s milk curds are melted and worked by hand into this traditional Anatolian cheese. The visit was part of a full immersion into Kars’ food culture organized by İlhan Koçulu for Şemsa and the Kantin crew (you can read about our earlier experiences in the grain fields here). I was lucky enough to tag along.
We arrived at the workshop, positioned our hairnets and entered the workspace where we watched the kaşar-making process, which necessitates a minimum of two people. Ilhan Bey and the Usta (cheese making master) narrated the sequence of events, illustrated below. The assembly line was supremely efficient. As a batch of melted curds emerged from a barrel of steaming water, the Usta folded and fashioned the cheese into its desired shape. As he set the cheese to settle, another batch awaited him.
I was invited to try my luck at kaşar molding. The malleable wad of cheese was poured onto the broad wooden work surface. The Usta showed me a few moves, then stepped out of the way and gestured for me to try. I began massaging the amorphous blob, folding it over itself awkwardly. The cheese surface was burning hot to the touch, so my attempts to mold the dough were stunted by my inability to actually keep contact with it. Somehow I manhandled the first blob into an irregular pile, which elicited a disapproving glare from the Usta.
He finished the batch and when he was done, a second steaming mass was poured onto the table. His frown disappeared as he took my left hand in his own gloved palm and pressed it hard into the molten cheese. For 4..5…6 seconds I stood entranced and whimpering. After 10 seconds of sheer agony, I was allowed to pull my hand away. The Usta peeled off his gloves and apron, presented them to me then backed away.
The endorphins from this weird hazing began to take effect. Standing on my toes to leverage my body weight, I folded, kneaded and formed the cheese as the Usta had demonstrated, pouring the still hot mass into stainless steel forms where it would cool and settle before moving to the aging rooms. As I was watching my third cheese settle in its round form, I was summoned to the outer courtyard by team Kantin. My career as a cheese maker had ended before it had begun but the memory of the experience and the associated pain and pleasure linger still.
Kars’ kaşar production takes around 90 days, from milking to maturation and begins with filtering and purifying the cow’s milk, then fermenting and cutting the curds. The curds are strained, left to settle, then sliced.
The sliced and shredded curds are placed in a stainless steal container, which is then placed in 80C water to be stirred and stretched and melted.
Next is the kneading process, a supremely physical act. Once sufficiently worked, the cheese is placed in a stainless steel bucket the volume of the desired finished produce. Any excess bits are pinched and twisted off.
The cheese is poured into the mold to cool and settle.
Each form has a piece for imprinting the brand.
After 60-90 days the cheese is ready to be eaten and sold.