The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

The Maltese gbejna is ‘highly valued’

Malta Independent Thursday, 8 August 2013, 08:45 Last update: about 7 years ago

The Maltese cheeselet traditionally produced from sheep’s milk has been praised by locals and foreigners for centuries. This local product, once considered as an important part of the Maltese diet, is seen as a delicacy nowadays. With time, food safety and hygiene have been recognised as important factors in the successful production of agricultural products. The cheeselet is not an exception and in fact today shepherds collect milk and produce cheeselets under strict hygienic conditions.

In order to valorise this traditional local product, a project under the Italia-Malta 2007-2013, t-Cheesimal, was devised keeping in mind the whole chain of stakeholders. The partners in the project are the University of Malta, under the direction of Dr Everaldo Attard, the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiera Casearia (CoRFiLaC, Ragusa) under the direction of Dr Stefania Carpino and the University of Catania with Professor Giuseppe Licitra.

The production of cheeselets, starts at the farm with the sheep playing the fundamental role in the chain. The proper rearing of sheep including appropriate housing conditions and good quality feed are essential in ensuring a good final product. The sheep, like other milk-producing animals, are capable of converting grasses and fodder that are inedible for humans into a valuable product, milk. One of the aims of the project is to identify the feed composition of the animals, either as fresh cut grasses or concentrates. Feed analysis is conducted to determine the potential final quality of the cheeselet. Due to its protein content, the milk can be curdled into a cheese, in a similar way that a lamb converts the milk into solid food in its stomach.

The shepherd today uses modern technology to produce these cheeselets. Although in the past, shepherds used ‘summar’ mould to shape the curd into cheeselets. Today they use plastic moulds. Whether the shepherd should go back to the traditional mould is still under discussion. Whichever container is used, the shepherds adopt hygienic practices throughout the process. This business is usually run by families, and everybody in the family has an important role in the production of the cheeselet.

Usually, the shepherd and sons dedicate their time to the rearing of the sheep, starting off very early in the morning and finishing late at night. They are also involved in keeping the farm in good working condition, carrying out maintenance work and improving on the holding when the need arises. The shepherds’ wives and their daughters are dedicated more to the production of the cheeselets. As soon as the warm milk comes in from the milking parlour, they start transforming this product into solid cheese.

Apart from selling their product to the consumers, they also experiment with traditional and new culinary methods. This is another aim of the project. Women were involved in a number of seminars and culinary workshops focusing on the role of the cheeselet in food. In other words, all the members of the family dedicate their entire time and life to this activity. This requires dedication and long hours of work, conditions that are sometimes not fully appreciated nowadays.

The consumer is the final member of the chain. Today, more than ever, consumers are aware of health benefits derived from agricultural products, and they are also aware of food safety. In order to ensure safe consumption of this agricultural product, good hygienic practices have to be followed throughout the chain. In other words, not only must the cheeselet be produced by the shepherd under good production practices, but the consumer has to preserve the product with care.

Therefore, even when, at the farm level, the necessary precautions are taken for the safe production of the cheeselet, contamination may result during handling by the consumer. Another aspect concerning the consumer is the packaging appeal. The project dedicated part of the study to a marketing exercise. Approximately 1500 questionnaires were collected from local consumers to analyse their views and expectations of the local sheep cheeselet quality vis-à-vis foreign cheeses.

A set of designed boxes were demonstrated to consumers to determine the most appealing package for the cheeselet. Places frequented by consumers, such as supermarkets and restaurants, were also studied to determine how these present the cheeselets to the consumer. Although shepherds usually have direct clients, the general public would sometimes not know the provenance of the cheeselets. The issue of traceability for agricultural products is today mandatory under European Union regulations, and the cheeselet is not an exception. The project aims at improving this traceability issue, thereby possibly facilitating the acquisition of the quality mark or certification. This was in part, the aim of the seminar held on the 27th June 2013.

It is to be noted that although the project partners, as a consortium, strive to deliver scientific proof of cheeselet quality and safety, all stakeholders within the cheeselet chain, should be aware that this depends on good handling of the product from farm to table.

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