The eastern province of Van is quite eye-catching with its lake reminiscent of a small sea but throughout Turkey, Van is known for its breakfast. Though a rather new-ish trend compared to the other dishes listed here on the page, one key component of that very breakfast is the “otlu peynir”, the herby cheese of the province.
What is Otlu Peynir?
The cheese is made either out of goat or sheep’s milk, though cow’s milk has been used in recent history. It is said to have 25 different herbs in it, such as wild garlic, alliums, thyme and wildflowers. But more realistically, it is usually a combination of those herbs, simply due to the availability. It is semi-hard and despite spreading all over the region in recent decades, the kind that can be found in Van is unique.
Cheese has been around for quite a while and the translations of ancient Sumerian texts show that even then, and we are speaking of 4,500-1,900BC here, there has been quite a variety of cheeses. In such texts is the mention of the addition of various herbs as well but sadly simply through the passage of time and no detailed descriptions it is not known what kind of flavor those cheeses had. (1) Saying that this particular cheese comes from that far back is a stretch but it illuminates the consistent nature of the human taste and how little some features have changed.
The exact first time when this cheese has been made is unclear but traces can be found in Evliya Çelebi’s “Travelogue” in the 17th century. In his habit of listing all things he encountered in his travels he also said that the people in Van had a cheese that had a variety of herbs in them. (2)
Legend has it that in a particularly tough winter the population of the province was cut off. Due to this long and harsh winter, people suffered from malnutrition and a lack of vitamins. During that time an Armenian doctor coming from Iran travelled to the region and used the herbs at hand to make a cheese that was initially used for medicinal purposes. With time, this cheese became an integral part of the local cuisine and is not only consumed for breakfast but is served at all meals. (2)
Aside from this legend, a recent archeological find in the region showed that there were herby cheeses preserved in sealed pots, dating back roughly 200-250 years. (2)
The reason why Van is so particular about this cheese is that the biodiversity in regards to their herbs gives them a more interesting flavor than, say, central Anatolian variations. (3)
Another factor is that to this day Van mainly consist of meadows and pastures (about 70%) and half of the population living in the countryside, making the tending of sheep a major source of income. (4) The city of Van has also not sat still and has applied to the Turkish Patent and Trademark Office and got their cheese registered in 2018. (5)
Otlu peynir literally means in Turkish “cheese with herb(s)”. The word “ot” as in a small plant, usually with medical properties, is said to date back to Uyghur Turkish. Some variations have it as “od” as well. The word for grazing has been listed in Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary of Turkic languages from the 11th century, “Diwan Lughat al-Turk” as “otlamak”.
As for the word “peynir” that stems from the Persian “پنير” (panir) it is said to stem from the Avestan word “payah” meaning milk.
(1) Andrew Dalby, “Cheese: A Global History”, 2009
(2) Emine Cihangir, Özlem Demirhan, “A study on creation of cheese tourism-based culture routes: The case of Van herby cheese” in “Türk Coğrafya Dergisi 75”, 2020
(3) Murat Tunçtürk, Rüveyde Tunçtürk, “Van Otlu Peyniri ve Yapımında Kullanılan Bitkiler ile İlgili Genel Bir Değerlendirme” in “Ziraat Fakültesi Dergisi Türkiye 13. Ulusal, I. Uluslararası Tarla Bitkileri Kongresi Özel Sayısı”, 2020
(4) Hasan Köşker, Sıla Karacaoğlu, “Turizmde Yerel Yiyeceklerin Önemi ve Coğrafi İşaretleme: Van Otlu Peyniri”, 2014