Armenian mountains are kingdom of goat pastures. The goat, native to the country, has long arched horns – sometimes spiral-shaped for males – and thick coats, and grazes from spring to late autumn. The shepherds look after the animals and only enclose them in pens at night. They milk the goats by hand, crouching beneath the animals, and make Motal, an age-old Armenian cheese. They make this from pure goat’s milk with using rudimentary tools following a simple technique.
Milk is not heated when making Motal, but immediately after milking calf rennet is added to warm milk and left to cool. The curd is then roughly broken (using a knife or with a ladle) and is pressed in a cloth for about 15 minutes to further drain the whey. The mixture is then cut into small pieces and put in molds, where it is left in brine for at least 40 days. At this stage the curd is extracted from the molds, crumbled by hand and seasoned with mountain herbs.
Finally, the curds are poured into terracotta pots, matured for 35-50 days, then sealed with beeswax and placed in cold, dry cellars, turned upside-down and left to rest on ashes: Motal can age for over six months.
Terracotta production is one of Armenia’s oldest industries and the tradition of preserving food in pots dates back at least 5,000 years. There are still many families that preserve goat’s cheese in terracotta for their own consumption, especially to last throughout winter.
Motal producers are shepherds who rear 10 to 150 goats each and work in extreme conditions with scarce financial resources at their disposal. Their cheeses are generally sold directly to consumers or through middlemen after they have just been taken from the brine: often they do not have enough time and resources to preserve the cheeses for longer in terracotta as traditional technique requires.
The Presidium was created to take the producers out of their isolation, allowing them to work together, to improve cheese-making techniques and to obtain the sanitary authorization for the sale of the product on national and international levels. In order to ensure the right health and welfare conditions for the animals, a local vet and collaborator of the Slow Food Foundation visits the producers regularly. Thanks to the coordination by Ruslan Torosyan, a young agronomist, a production protocol has been drafted that requires the use of pure goat’s milk, a minimum 40-day salting, the preference for native goat breeds and so forth.