Entrepreneurial Conservation & Armenian Foodways

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Motal cheese is a fresh goat’s milk cheese made primarily in remote mountain areas in Armenia. Cross of Armenian Unity/Ruslan Torosyan

We are on the lookout for stories that combine our interest in topics such as conservation, and entrepreneurship, and traditional foodways, and innovation (among other things) and this story touches on several of our favorite themes. Thanks to the salt team at National Public Radio (USA):

Armenia’s Ancient Motal Cheese Makes Its Way Into The Modern Age

In the mountains of eastern Armenia, about 75 miles north of the capital Yerevan, motal means change.

Motal cheese is like a business card for our region,” says Arpine Gyuluman, who owns Getik Bed and Breakfast in Gegharkunik. “[Because of it], we’re seeing more and more visitors annually.”

Motal is a white goat cheese flavored with wild herbs that is similar to homestyle country cheeses in Iran and Azerbaijan. Motal is prepared in locally made terra cotta pots sealed with beeswax ― a method that dates back at least 5,000 years. A little more than a decade ago, it was in danger of disappearing. That is, until a local university student named Ruslan Torosyan embarked on a personal crusade to save motal.

Torosyan, who was studying soil management at the time, was traveling around Armenia with a friend who also happened to be a representative of Slow Food, the international organization devoted to preserving local foods and traditional production methods.

They talked with grandmothers, shepherds, farmers and others to learn about the country’s various cheeses, when they happened upon shepherds making motal in this isolated, mountainous region. “There were still people making motal to consume at home,” says Tanya Torosyan, Ruslan’s sister, who now helps him market motal, “but the cheese was nearly extinct commercially.”

One of the main reasons for this “is that it’s a complicated, time-consuming process,” says Tanya. Traditional motal takes at least three months to make and consists of three individual steps.

First, the raw cheese (“with absolutely no additives or chemicals,” she says) is placed into salt water and left in the brine for approximately 40 days. It’s then taken out, crumbled by hand, and mixed with herbs growing along the local hillsides like dill and tarragon. Next, the cheese is tightly pressed into special handmade terra cotta bowls (another endangered local craft) that are placed upside down into ash. Everyday for about a month, says Tanya, they replace the ash and remove all the extraneous liquid. Once the motal is almost mature, the bowl is then sealed with natural beeswax and sold. “It’s a distinctly regional process from start to finish.”

Armenia knows cheese. It produces more than 25 types ― from stringy chechil to sharp, salty lori. The total volume of cheese production was more than 22 thousand tons in 2016, according to Gevorg Ghazaryan, the Head of the agro-processing development department of Armenia’s Ministry of Agriculture. (That sounds like a lot of cheese, but it’s small compared to say, France, which produces about 1.8 million tons in 2014.)

Still, while there are more than 60 cheese manufacturing companies in Armenia of all sizes, almost all of them produce lori or chanakh cheeses. Motal was virtually unheard of outside the region for years…

Read the whole story here.

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