Jāņi cheese – a symbol of Latvian identity

The Jāņi midsummer festival cheese is a fixture on the Jāņi table. But why does this seemingly ordinary treat acquire such meaning during this time of the year?

In her book “Jāņi Cheese” (Jāņu siers), Linda Dumpe writes:

“The Jāņi cheese belongs to the oldest layer of the Latvian folk tradition. Ancient rituals are intertwined with the processes of cheese making and eating. These rituals arose from the significance with which ancient Latvian farmers invested animal husbandry, which was determined by the conditions of Latvian nature, its weather, the wet clime of the seaside, rich meadows and pastures in river and lake valleys. Nowadays, the Jāņi cheese has become a token of the Latvian identity, a bright and popular symbol of Latvian culture in its interactions with other nations.”

The symbolic significance of animal husbandry in cheesemaking is also suggested by the old saying: “You have to eat cheese on Jāņi night so that the farmer's cows will be blessed.”

Such is the cheese's importance, it has been granted European Union protected status, as previously reported by LSM. The EU describes its as "a fresh sour-milk cheese prepared as follows: milk is curdled using only the yeast of lactic acid bacteria or curds. ‘Jāņu siers’ is produced from milk and curds; these are heated to remove the whey, and butter or cream, eggs, salt and caraway seeds are added to what is left. The resulting mass is heated and intensively stirred until a homogeneous consistency is obtained."

Read the full description in this EU listing, which also includes a very handy recipe should you wish to make industrial quantities of the stuff yourself.

Until 19:00 today, the traditional Grass market offers a wide variety of cheese at the Dome Square in Rīga, and it is readily obtainable year-round at markets and supermarkets across Latvia. But only at Midsummer does it take on mystical significance, particularly when paired with ale!

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