Sunday, November 5, 2017

Azeri Cheese: Motal Pendiri and Taza Pendir

There are two types of Azeri cheese: Taza Pendir which is kept in brine and Motal Pendiri (or Peniri) which is kept in a sheep or goat skin. 

Motal Pendiri is made in the Caucasus Mountains from unpasteurized sheep or goat milk which is strained through canvas or course calico by the pressure of heavy stones. Rennet is used to coagulate the milk. After about an hour, the whey is drained and the cheese curds are salted and transferred to a cold and damp ripening room for 8 to 10 days. The cheese is then broken into small pieces, about 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and then packed into a sheep or goat skin, known as a motal, through the neck opening. For this purpose, the goat or sheep skin is cleaned, washed and salted and the skin of the front legs and rear legs is tied together and air is blown into the skin to make sure it has no holes. The skin is inside out, that is, the wool is on the inside. The curds at the top of the motal are topped by salt and the motal is sealed shut with a woolen string. Nomads will bury the motal in the soil for the winter and get it the next year when they return. Local farmers and ranchers will store the motal in a cellar or cave at about 50 degrees to ripen.  It will ripen in 2 to 3 months and once it is ripened it can be stored for up to 7 or 8 months. It is semi-hard and is white, salty and acidic. 

We visited a local market in Baku, Azerbaijan and I noted the very distinctive packages full of cheese (I didn't realize at the time that it was a sheep skin) behind a glass counter that only held cheese. 
Note the fur on the inside of the sheepskin of this Motal cheese. This was in the market in Baku.
Through hand motions I asked the man for a taste of cheese and he gave me a pretty big chunk. I took a bite and was blown away. It was very, very salty and dry. I don't think I have ever had cheese as salty. I declined to buy any as I didn't think I could eat it, but I nibbled on small pieces from the chunk I'd been given several more times during the day and grew kind of fond of it in small doses. 

The next morning at our buffet breakfast at the JW Marriott Absheron Baku they had a cheese I tried that tasted very similar, if not identical. They labeled it "Azeri Shor Cheese" which appears to be another name for "farmer cheese" which is probably made out of the same ingredients, but in a more modern way, that is, not made inside a motal. 

This shor cheese tasted like and had the same texture as the motal cheese. 
Our last day in Azerbaijan we drove 114 miles northwest of Baku to Lahic, up in the Greater Caucasus Mountains (which run from Sochi, Russia, southeast nearly to Baku). Lahic is known for its copper crafts. In one craftsman's workship someone needed to go to the bathroom and he opened up his home to let us use it. 
A beautiful canyon just outside Lahic. The trees had their fall colors. 
This small cobbled main street in Lahic.
The coppersmith puts a layer of melted tin on a copper plate. 
The tin will be etched to reveal the underlying copper. 
Near his home, on an outdoor table covered by an awning, he had bottles of cheese covered by blankets. He saw us eyeing the bottles and opened one up and invited us to taste it. It was similarly very salty, but obviously more moist. I really liked it. I assume it was the Taza Pendir which is brined.  This reminded me of our experience in Kosovo four years ago eating Sharr Mountain sheep cheese out of a bucket, but this cheese was much tastier. There is something wonderful about eating freshly made cheese. 
A bottle of brining cheese.
I was offered a fork full.


  1. You have an incredible eye for unusual food. I would not have noticed these cheeses, but you always do, which is one of the fun things about traveling with you.

  2. Great! I am from azerbaijan and i have never thought our traditions are any exotic, but seeing from your perspective it makes me appreciate them more. Plus ive only been to 1/10th of azerbaijan

  3. I was in a relationship with a man from Azerbaijan for several years and his grandmother would send us containers of the white brine cheese and we would have to store it in heavily salted water. It was so delicious with a hunk of Italian bread and some fresh butter. Mouth watering. I really miss that cheese and wish I could have it again.