Making midsummer cheese at midwinter

Brown eggs give Jāņu siers a yellowish look. The cheese is eaten sliced, with butter, never on bread.

The winter solstice today has me in the kitchen, happily making a midsummer cheese, a caraway-speckled fresh cheese called Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language.

In Latvia, the cheese is a core ingredient in celebrations marking the summer solstice, a festival called Jāņi. I like the cheese too much to eat it only once a year, thus, the tradition of making it at midwinter and giving small wheels as gifts to family and friends at Christmas.

Here’s what I posted about the cheese on June 24, 2010:

“Jāņu siers, what kind of cheese is that?” you ask. It’s a caraway-speckled fresh cheese that I make at home.

Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language, is, literally, John’s cheese in English. In Latvia, for more than a thousand years, it has been made at the summer solstice to mark the midsummer festival of Jani. That festival was celebrated last night by Latvians all over the world on the eve of St. John’s Day. For many, it’s the most important holiday of the year.

In Latvia, farms are bedecked with garlands of oak and birch branches and meadow flowers. Nearly everyone leaves the city for the open air so that the shortest night of the year can be spent in the merry company of friends in the country. Bonfires are lit, special songs are sung, dancing is a universal element during the festival. The traditional caraway-seed cheese and lots of beer are on the menu.

Tradition has it that this is the one night of the year that you must never sleep. Girls pick meadow flowers to make wreaths for their hair, while men named Jānis get a bushy crown of oak leaves around their heads. (Jānis is the most popular male name in Latvia and comparable to John.) Eating, singing, drinking and dancing ensue the whole night long. Although the sun sets briefly, it doesn’t get dark in the higher latitude of Latvia and everyone must be awake to greet the rising sun in the morning. A naked romp into the nearest lake or river is a must for men—and the women who cheer them on. Young couples like to go into the forest and search for the legendary fern blossom. Or so they say. And when you greet the morning sun, you have to wash your face in the grass’s morning dew, which on Jāņi morning is said to have particularly beneficial properties.

The reality for me this year was that I tried to make more Jāņu siers than before and used a large lobster pot to heat the milk to 90-95C rather than my usual heavy saucepan. Very hard to keep milk near the boiling point for 15 minutes in a thin pot, I discovered to my dismay, without scorching the milk. Thus, three small wheels I made won’t be shared with friends as behind the taste of cream and caraway there is a hint of burnt.

On the bright side, Jāņu siers is always eaten with butter (and never on bread), and I love butter almost as much as cheese. Lay on enough butter and the slight scorched taste dissipates. Consume with enough Zelta, a Latvian lager available in Canada, and the cheese tastes as good as it should.

This midwinter, I went organic–Ooh, la, la!—with all ingredients (milk, pressed cottage cheese, brown eggs and butter) except caraway seeds and salt sourced from Organic Meadows in Guelph, Ontario. And, no, I did not repeat the error of trying to keep milk at 90-95C in a thin lobster pot.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, was born in Latvia but has lived in Canada most of his life.

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