What is Telemea?

Ray Hawk

Telemea is a soft, white sheep's-milk cheese traditionally produced by the Vlach or Wallachian people of Europe, the original inhabitants of Romania. Since the Vlach people spread to many European nations and mixed with native populations starting around 275 AD, telemea is also produced in Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Poland, and other countries in close vicinity. Though it is a more unusual case, telemea can also be made from goat or buffalo milk as well, and is sometimes made from cow's milk.

Telemea is transported by donkey on a weekly basis in rural regions of Romania.
Telemea is transported by donkey on a weekly basis in rural regions of Romania.

A popular cheese that is similar to telemea in look and texture is the common feta cheese of Greek origin. Both cheeses have a creamy texture and are used in conjunction with snacks and in salads. Rind-free Romanian cheeses such as telemea also typically have cumin seeds added to them to increase the natural spicy aftertaste for which they are known. The older telemea is, or the longer it is aged, the saltier it tends to be, as it is stored in a brine solution. Due to this fact, it is recommended that older telemea cheeses be soaked in cold water before being eaten to eliminate some of the saltiness.

Telemea may be made from the milk of sheep, goats, buffalo and cows.
Telemea may be made from the milk of sheep, goats, buffalo and cows.

Rural regions of Romania such as southeastern Transylvania have established traditions built around the production and distribution of telemea cheeses. The cheese is transported to villages by horse or donkey on a weekly basis, where it is sold and given to local officials. It is also traditional to give a portion of the cheese back to the owners of the animals that produced the milk, as a form of “rent.” This amounts to approximately 6-8 kg (13-18 pounds) of telemea per sheep, per season. The villagers often own a dozen or so sheep per household, which are cared for communally by shepherds, and through providing such animals to the shepherd, each household receives a weekly cheese allotment.

Soft cheeses like telemea are more readily produced than harder cheeses such as cheddar, as they don't require protracted periods of aging. In this case, pasteurized milk is curdled in the standard cheese-making process, and the curd is removed and placed in cheesecloth overnight, where it is pressed into a firm shape that will later be cut into blocks. It is then matured for one month in a solution of salt and whey before being ready for consumption.

Romanian cuisine makes widespread use of telemea, and the cheese has become so tied to Romanian culture that it has a Protected Designation of Origin status in European Union law, as do cheeses such as gorgonzola that is associated with Italy. The Protected Designation status is afforded to eight varieties of telemea cheeses, named after the regions they are produced in. These include the Romanian cities and surrounding regions of Arges, Brasov, Carei, and Sibiu, the central region of Harghita, the town of Huedin, the northwestern region of Oas, and south central Valcea.

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