• Ġbejniet (plural of ġbejna - the name of Maltese cheese) have been made on the island of Malta and Gozo for hundreds of years. (Sam Venn Photography)Source: Sam Venn Photography
Ġbejna is the Maltese cheese that has been made and eaten by people living on the Maltese islands for hundreds of years. But in Australia, it's virtually unheard of. We suspect that's about to change.
By
Yasmin Noone

25 Jan 2022 - 8:14 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2022 - 3:43 AM

There’s an ancient Mediterranean cheese that’s shrouded in generations of family memories that’s virtually unknown in Australia.

This cheese is versatile - served fresh or pickled - and is so important to people of the Maltese islands that it’s recognised as a national source of culinary pride.

Ġbejna is Malta's very own cheese. Bearing the markings of the mini cheese basket it's made in, ġbejna is a unique cheeselet that stands for so much. 

Ġbejniet (plural of ġbejna) have been made on the Maltese islands for hundreds of years. The cheese is so important to Malta’s food identity that ġbejna producers are trying to achieve EU-wide protection of the destination origin label for its traditional recipe.

“Fresh ġbejna is soft and creamy with a wobbly, almost panna cotta texture. We serve it simply with sea salt, cracked pepper and olive oil.”

Head chef at Waterline By The Bay in Cronulla, Joseph Spiteri, hails from a family of ġbejniet suppliers from the Maltese island of Gozo. 

“My dad started working with my grandfather when he was 12-years-old,” recalls Spiteri, who immigrated to Australia in 2016 and now lives in Sydney.

“My grandfather died suddenly when my dad was 18. So my father took over the ‘mestier’ (profession), selling ġbejniet. He kept his father’s customers in Malta, some of whom he still serves today."

Fresh v pickled and peppered ġbejniet

So what are ġbejniet and how do they taste?

Although the cheese is unique, Spiteri explains that it’s most comparable to mozzarella. The fresh cheese can be grated over pasta or used to fill ravioli and pastizzi.

“Fresh ġbejna is soft and creamy with a wobbly, almost panna cotta texture. We serve it simply with sea salt, cracked pepper and olive oil.”

A pickled version of the cheese is also widely popular throughout the Maltese islands. To achieve this variety, you must air-dry it before placing it in a pickling solution. The cheese is then rolled in black pepper before serving.

Spiteri explains how, even now, his father continues to buy air-dried cheese from a local farmer. He then pickles and peppers the product himself, before selling it.

"That’s why whenever I smell vinegar or pickling liquid today, I remember my dad, his pickled cheese and how I used to help him when I was a child."

“He puts the dried cheese in a vat full of vinegar and whey. You can smell the aroma of the pickling liqueur from a mile away when you open the vat. That’s why whenever I smell vinegar or pickling liquid today, I remember my dad, his pickled cheese and how I used to help him when I was a child.

Spiteri’s father is now semi-retired and has scaled down his production, owning just a couple of vats in his garage. “However, the pickling liqueur is still alive, as it’s sort of like a sourdough: it’s probably as old as him.”

Maltese cheese making: a proud culinary practice 

Making ġbejna is a culinary tradition for many Maltese families, including my own.

My mother was born in Malta in the 1940s and immigrated to Australia in 1968. I remember she made peppered ġbejna now and again throughout my childhood and on one very significant occasion when she was quite sick before she died.

I recall how her pickled cheese tasted unlike any other dairy product I’d sampled. Its uniqueness preserved its beauty.

Thin slivers of vinegary ġbejna spiced with black pepper were always served with a cracker. Although the cheese was soft to touch, it was also thick and chewy: delicate and complex all in one bite. 

Ġbejniet was a dish mum used to figuratively sprinkle with flakes of subtle nationalism, as she was so proud to make the cheese from scratch in Australia. It was never an easy task to source the right ingredients and kitchen tools to make the cheese outside of Malta, especially decades ago. So when she managed to produce the Maltese cheese, in sickness or health, time always stood still for a few moments – stopped by the strength of a connection to her birthplace that allowed memories of home to flood back to mind.

Spiteri tells me he knows this feeling only too well. It wasn’t until the chef left Malta that he started making the cheese himself - in Malta, he used to buy it ready-made.

He says the flavour of ġbejniet also transports him home. “I started cooking more Maltese food when I left Malta because I wanted to eat Maltese food to feel more connected to my culture. I missed my mum’s cooking.”

The original recipe for ġbejniet are based on using an unpasteurised sheep’s milk, salt and rennet mixture, but can also be made using goat’s milk. In Australia, sheep milk is virtually inexistent and goat’s milk is too expensive. So to make the cheese, Spiteri uses cold-pressed cow’s milk (available from most supermarkets) that works well with rennet.

Now, Spiteri makes ġbejna every week and serves it at Waterline – a modern Australian restaurant focusing on seasonal produce.

“I like taking traditional ingredients and dishes, and elevating them to what is called ‘modern Australian cuisine’. But what is modern Australian cuisine, really? Well, it’s a medley of all different cuisines, including Maltese.

“So I feel proud to be able to make and serve this cheese, as it’s my heritage. Maltese food is close to my heart.”


 

Ġbejna: Make your own

Makes six

Ingredients

  • 1.5 L milk (Jersey milk is best as it’s pasteurised by cold pressing and not by heat treatment.)
  • ½ ml liquid rennet, diluted in 5 ml pure water
  • ½ ml calcium chloride solution, diluted in 5 ml pure water
  • ¼ tsp salt per ġbejna each seasoning

Equipment

  • 1 non-reactive stainless pot (stainless steel or heat-safe)
  • Cheese baskets
  • Thermometer
  • Balloon whisk
  • Large knife
  • Ladle
  • Collander or draining mat with lid

Method

  1. Heat milk gently until reaches 37°C.
  2. Stir in rennet and calcium chloride, and mix thoroughly.
  3. Cover with lid and leave 30 mins at room temperature, somewhere warm.
  4. Cut the curd in a diamond pattern.
  5. Cover and leave at room temperature for a further 3 hrs, until the curds separate from the whey.
  6. Ladle the curd into each of your baskets.
  7.  Season with ¼ tsp salt sprinkled on each ġbejna.
  8. Put on drain mats or in colander, cover and rest 24 hours in the fridge.
  9. Flip cheese, repeat salt seasoning (another ¼ tsp each ġbejna) and rest another 24 hours in the fridge.

NB.  Salt may seem excessive but most of it will be in the whey runoff, and it is also an important preservative, especially if the cheese is to be dried.

How to make whey caramel sauce
It can make cheese and it's also a cheese and yoghurt byproduct. We're talking about liquid whey and now we're turning it into a caramel sauce.

If it’s too hot, leave them in the fridge, but always let the cheese come to room temperature before serving as the flavours will be much better. They can be eaten fresh with an heirloom tomato salad, fresh basil, crusty bread and olive oil. They can also be used in summer pasta with garlic, chilli, herbs and cubed ġbejna tossed with spaghetti. You can also mash it with parmesan, parsley, pepper, an egg and use this mixture as a filling for traditional Maltese ravioli or between the sheets of your next lasagne or pasta bake.


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