It’s a busy weekday. You’re driving at 56km/hr on the ‘fast lane’ at 9.17am. You’re well within your legal driving speed limits, but the not-so-serene-looking driver overtaking you rolls down the window to shout out something in Maltese. “Suq min hemm qisek ĠBEJNA” (which roughly translates to “get out of the fast lane, slow coach”. OK . . . I’ve omitted the really colourful language, but you get the gist of it.
However Maltese road-rage choice of words has nothing to do with today’s rant… apart from the word ġbejna!
This blog is the result of my continuous frustration when I hear locals saying ‘goat cheese’ when referring to our traditional cheese. The ġbejna (plural: ġbejniet) is the Maltese word for sheep milk cheeselet. Therefore, I shall try to explain what a ġbejna really is, and what it is not. Mind you, cheese may of course be made from goat or cow milk, but although it might still be good cheese, that wouldn’t make it a proper ġbejna.
Let’s start getting things straight. Sheep and goats are different species. They look and behave differently as shown in the figure below.
The most important difference is in the quality of milk produced by the two species (without going into the issue of milk yields). Their milk is different in terms of fat and protein. The table below shows that sheep milk fat and protein are higher in percentage. Also the taste in goats milk cheese is different since it contains less milk fat and protein, key contributors to taste.
What it is
- white in colour
- fresh ones have a typical cylindrical shape which becomes flatter after a few hours
- dry ones are irregular in shape
- made of 100% sheep milk, obviously produced from locally reared flocks
- can be fresh or dried
- dry ġbejniet can be plain or peppered, and made out of the fresh ones by air drying
- the peppered version is made out of plain ġbejniet which are soaked in vinegar and later on tossed in pepper
- air drying can be natural, in what is called a “qanniċ”, or an industrial desiccator
- rennet is what makes the milk protein coagulate (to form a solid/semi-solid cheeselet)
- fresh ġbejniet ooze out water after a few hours. That’s pretty normal.
- availability of ġbejniet normally decreases in April and September. This is the time when sheep give birth to lambs. At that time of the year, the first priority is to feed the lambs rather than to make cheese.
What it’s not
- made from any other type of milk, other than sheep.
- seasoned with herbs other than pepper
- an imported cheese
Recently, I was hosting a couple of Sicilian friends who, after sampling some fresh ġbejniet, immediately knew that the cheese was made from sheep’s milk. Unfortunately Maltese people have lost the ability to identify and compare local cheeses. We know foreign cheeses better than our local ones.
Let’s all make an effort to protect our culinary identity and be proud to have our very own cheese.
Source for table 1.1
Source for visual difference of sheep and goats