The origins of cheese stretch back to Mesopotamia and the Sumerian peoples. When the people discovered they could milk their animals, they began to drink this milk and transport it on their journeys in the stomach of a young horse (or other animal). Stomach enzymes caused the curds and whey to be separated, and the people realized that they could drink the whey and eat the curds.
Migratory shephardic people in Turkey, who would spend their summers in the mountains and then return to the seaside in the winters, relied on the stomachs of young lambs to activate the process of separating the curds and whey. They produced what was called oğlak cheese.
Today, a commercial vegetable-based rennet is used to start the cheese-making process. While the process has become more industrialized, many Turkish cheeses may be less known to the global community. This can be attributed to the fact that it is still made on small farms in small quantities, and cannot travel well. There are some well-known brands though, such as Pınar, Mis, and Yörükoğlu. When buying Turkish cheese, I would recommend going to a cheese shop or to a cheese stand at a farmer's market. The pre-packaged versions of Turkish cheeses sold in the refrigerator section are not typically as good as the fresh ones.
Some of the most common cheeses to be aware of are: beyaz, kaşar (taze & eski), tulum, dil, örgü, lor, and labne.
- Beyaz - often compared to feta. I cannot comment on what "real" feta is like in Greece, but beyaz peynir is definitely much better than the pre-packaged feta cheese sold in American grocery stores. It is most famously produced in Ezine (Çanakkale). It can be served at practically any meal, but it is most often eaten with breakfast or mezes. I wrote a previous post about it here with more details of the different kinds and pictures from Ezine!
- Kaşar - tastes like mild cheddar. It is also seen in breakfast (as part of a cheese plate, on top of menemen, or as an ingredient in mıhlama). It comes as taze (fresh) or eski (aged). The fresh one is softer and tastes more like mozzarella, while the aged one is harder and tastes more like cheddar.
- Tulum - While I was studying abroad, there was a cheese shop that I passed every day but was a little bit nervous to go to because I did not know anything about Turkish cheese or how to order it. One day I was feeling up to the challenge so I went in and told the shop keeper that I liked beyaz peynir, but I wanted to try something new. This was the cheese he gave me a sample of, and it quickly became one of my favorite Turkish cheeses. It is made from goat's milk that is left to mature inside goat's skin for a few months. The result is soft and crumbly, and is often served before spicy meat dishes, as a meze with raki, or with walnuts.
- Dil - a stringy, white cheese often served with breakfast. It is best bought fresh and in water, but is also sold pre-packaged in grocery stores.
- Örgü - a braided, hard, salty cheese made from cow's milk.
- Lor - soft, crumbly cheese often used to fill börek.
- Labne - a soft creamy cheese without salt (similar to Italian mascarpone).
Source: The Treasury of Turkish Cheeses, Susanne Swan (Boyut Kitaplari) 2004, Istanbul