Turning milk into sirene: Grandma’s amazing magic trick

Author: Vassilena Dotkova

This is a story about sirene, the brined white cheese that is such a staple in the Bulgarian diet that we call it by the generic word for cheese in our language. See-reh-neh. Back in the days when nearly every Bulgarian was working in the fields, they would live on bread, sirene and yogurt, plus some veggies and fruit, for most of the year.

Until two or three generations back, sirene was made in pretty much every home in the countryside and many modern-day Bulgarians still feel part of the tradition.

This is also a story about my Grandma, a big and very strong woman, who used to prepare homemade sirene for our family when I was little. It was the most amazing magic trick my sister and I had ever seen.

Grandma made the sirene from sheep’s milk. She had four sheep, all of whom had names, and they spent the warm part of the year roaming with their herd, grazing on pastures around Grandma’s village in North-West Bulgaria. Many of the neighbours also had their sheep in the same herd. Every evening all the sheep would be rounded up into an enclosure at the edge of the village and milked. The owners would take turns to collect the day’s batch of milk – for sirene you need a larger amount than your own sheep will give you.

When it was Grandma’s turn to get the day’s milk, she took my sister and me along as she went to meet the herd coming home from the pastures. She wanted to take part in the milking, together with the local men who normally did it for a fee. They were tough farm workers who cursed through their moustaches in the colourful dialect of the Pleven area. It felt a bit naughty to even just be there and listen. When Grandma sat with them to do the milking, they were quiet – she was an imposing presence and somehow always got everyone in line.

The sheep were herded from one part of the enclosure into the other through a fence that only allowed one at a time. That made it easy to tell which ones remained to be milked. When all of them were done, the milk was measured and Grandma got two or three enormous tin cans that must have weighed about 20 kilos each. I don’t even remember how we got them home, somebody must have helped us. I just remember thinking how tough Grandma was, as she walked with two large containers full of milk balanced on a carrying pole on her shoulder. And when we finally got home the real work on the cheese began.

Before anything else was done, the milk had to be heated up to just below the point of boiling. And there was so much of it it couldn’t possibly be done on Grandma’s kitchen range. For tasks like that she had a huge metal cauldron hanging over a fire in a semi open shed next to the garden. To us kids it looked like just the place for magic to happen.

When the milk had been heated and was free of all unneeded bacteria it had to be left to cool down. Grandma used the time to whip up a simple dinner for us, improvised from the fresh veggies that grew in her garden. Everything tasted so good after a hot day outdoors, when you could even pick the ingredients yourself.

Then Grandma would show us: see, you stir some yogurt into the milk to use as a starter. And then, just before we all went to bed, she stirred the rennet in to curdle the milk. She would then pour the mixture into the big containers and wrap it in a few toasty blankets to keep the remaining warmth in. We could hardly wait until morning to see what happened.

Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Grandma would unwrap the milk cans the next morning, and abracadabra – the milk had changed into something like jelly that would seep a yellowish liquid when moved around. She would then stir it to break up the surface and tip it into a wooden mould lined with cheesecloth. The mould had no bottom but instead it was placed on a wooden platform on four legs, like a little coffee table with sideboards that would collect the liquid and channel it down a special spout on one side of the platform. She would then place her biggest pot under the spout to collect the clear yellow whey draining out of the cheese.

Whey was one of Grandma’s favourite superfoods and she believed it was powerful enough to raise the dead. It tasted vile but I know now it really is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals. Plus, it must have contained probiotic bacteria from the yogurt culture. In short, she would charge at each of us with a ladle full of whey and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had promised our parents she would bring us city kids back home with rosy cheeks and she was determined to achieve results.

When it seemed that most of the whey had drained out of the cheese, Grandma would put a wooden lid on the mould and press it down with a couple of heavy rocks. She would leave it like that for hours until the last drops of whey trickled out. Then she would use a string to cut up the big rectangle of cheese into squares. She would arrange the lumps in huge glass jars, sprinkling sea salt between the layers. The salt would draw even more liquid out of the cheese, forming brine. And sometimes, she also put tiny green chillies among the lumps of sirene. If necessary, she would top up the jars with brine, close them up and put them in the cold dark cellar under her house so the cheese could mature.

By the time it was ready, we would be home in the city and back to school. It was the 80s, the old communist regime was falling apart, and food in the shops would sometimes be scarce. But those backup parcels of homemade goodies from Grandma always kept arriving.

And we felt we had been let in on a very special secret there was no way any of our city friends could know. We had been introduced to one of the most exciting games grown-ups get to play – making food. We learned sirene didn’t grow in the supermarket and there was so much skill, work and love in every lump that it was bound to make us big and strong. And so it did.