Beloved Slavic Staple – Tvorog Cheese

If cooking is considered art, tvorog gets a well-deserved place in its gallery of fame.  Like cottage cheese in Europe and the USA, tvorog has no adequate translation in any world’s language. For instance, France is fromage blanc, and in Spain – requesón. In India, one of its incarnations is called paneer. According to a famous Russian-language lexicographer Vladimir Dal, tvorog got its name from the verb “tvorit,” meaning “to create.” This specific name wasn’t used until the 18-19th century. Before that, the product was called “syr,” which now stands for regular cheese in most Slavic languages. Therefore, traditional tvorog pancakes are called “syrniki,” which often causes flashes of cognitive dissonance for non-native speakers.

I personally consider tvorog a younger brother of “syr,” too impatient to mature and too delicate to live longer. In Slavic cultures, tvorog is a staple product, ready to be consumed immediately. The luxury of matured delicacy was not allowed – just freshness of milk with a note of sourness. 

Jack of all trades born by mistake

The legend has it that tvorog was created by accident when someone didn’t notice the milk went sour. This is a perfect example of when the “ouch” moment actually becomes a constructive revolution. Three centuries ago, the Slavic would place a clay jug with soured milk into a traditional masonry stove for several hours, keeping it warm, not hot. The resulting substance was drained and pressed, producing almighty kitchen magic of that time.

Back then, with no chance to keep tvorog fresh for over 2 days, it was actually double-made to obtain the driest grains possible. This “dry tvorog” was much more expensive and a very in-demand staple food for travelers. Some claim that an incredibly hard and pressed tovrog was used for cutting out buttons. There is no proven evidence of that, but in some cultures, people would make special ritual necklaces from cheese beads (in Mongolia, this tradition is still practiced). 

Interestingly, tvorog could serve as a construction material, too. If mixed with flaxseed oil, chalk, and water, it was understood to be effective water and fire-proof coating for wood. Thus, the symbolism of food and dining as a process of bringing people together at one table translates into a “brick and mortar” concept of actual construction. No wonder that tvorog has become one of the most beloved fillings for the famous Ukrainian dumplings – varenyky, aka pierogi – a uniting and sacred dish of the vast Slavic population.

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