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EMILY IN MALTA: MAKING ĠBEJNIET IN GOZO​

emily in malta: Making ġbejniet in Gozo

Today we’re talking about authentic Gozitan cheese and who doesn’t love cheese? This cheese, which the locals call ġbejniet is beloved and widely used on the Maltese Islands. It also pairs with almost anything, including salads, olives, crackers and vegetables, on a tray or even by itself. It just elevates every dish up a notch or two.

Ġbejniet were one of the first food items I was introduced to by my local friends, as they wanted to ensure that I knew what it was and that it was a locally-made product.

Let’s start off with the pronunciation of this magnificent cheese. As an American woman, I had to practice saying the word over and over again, in order to sound at least a tiny bit like I knew what
I was asking for at the local deli. It is the soft J in English, followed immediately by the B sound that I struggled with the most. If you’re not a local, you might find that it needs a little practice. Weeks later and I find myself still practicing, in order to go from the soft J to the hard B, without an additional syllable between the two.

George Attard and Emily A Francis

Every person I’ve presented the word to tends to stick the ah sound in between the J and B, producing something that sounds a lot more like JahBenya, than it does ġbejna. You, like me, must resist the urge to do that as it makes the word null and void to ears that know what you’re trying to say and therefore, you will instantly give yourself away.

If you want to sound even remotely like you know what you’re talking about, it must be pronounced correctly. As you may know, the Maltese take great pride in their land, their language and their cuisine and learning how to pronounce the product you want is a must.

HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR CHEESE?

Moving on from our lesson in words and sounds is the real topic de jour of this piece. Would you like your authentic ġbejniet made from goats or sheeps milk? Or would you rather half and half of both milks? Would you like it hard or do you prefer a soft ġbejna? Would you like it lightly sprinkled with sea salt or heavily peppered? What about herbed?

These are things you need to know the next time you step up to your local deli counter, or you purchase pre-packaged and vacuum sealed ġbejniet, which can be found at almost any food store on the islands. Next, to really impress your friends, you should learn the way in which the cheeselet should be cut: into fours. That is how it’s done. The locals rarely break the cheeselet into bits and sprinkle it, the way we do with feta. Alternatively, it’s cut vertically and then horizontally and then it’s ready to be served.

Ġbejna is creamy, rich and bold in its flavour and texture. It adds to the dynamic of flavour of any dish and also gives a more aesthetically pleasing aspect to any plate you’re hoping to offer to a table of friends.

HOW are the cheeselets MADE?

The ingredients are simple and limited but the process of making ġbejniet is rather complex, hence why we met with ġbejniet maker George Attard, from the Tal-Kejken Farm in Gozo. He has been making his product for over 70 years and started in the kitchen with his mother when he was just 10 years old. To this day, he has never stopped.

He wakes up every morning at no later than 5am to milk his sheep and goats. He makes ġbejniet every single day, to be picked up directly from his farm by local stores and families alike. George makes all types of ġbejniet including the hard, soft, herbed, peppered, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and half and half, depending on the demand. The ingredients beyond the milk are only down to the powder that George mixes it with, as well as the approach. When peppered, vinegar is added. Otherwise, beyond the milk, powder and whatever herbs are added, the cheeselet may only contain salt as the final ingredient.

If you’re looking for soft cheese, it’s served immediately and can be kept fresh in a refrigerator for up to three days. If it’s the hard cheese that you’re after, it’s created in the same way that the soft cheese is made but it is then placed outside in the sun, in special casing to keep insects away. George also dries out his ġbejniet with a fan.

George has been doing this for so many years that the locals (as well as everyone else) know exactly where to find him. As expected, he was as lovely as any of the other local farmers have been, as warm and inviting as I could have asked for. I hope that George, along with his son Joseph, continues making their supreme ġbejniet for a great many years to come.

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