In a previous post I wrote about the rainy season, which starts in October, and how Bedouin wait for the precious precipitation and why it is so important to their desert life. But when spring moves in, the Bedouin do more than just plant seeds.
Although today most Bedouin have settled into towns and cities around Sinai, there are still many who return to the desert and their nomadic way of life, if only for a few short months each year. Beginning in March, Bedouin move to the green wadis and plains of south Sinai. They pack their pick-ups (more convenient than their camels!) with blankets, dishes and utensils, water, and other supplies. Of course, they won’t forget the goats and sheep. And they head to the mountains, where the women erect tents to protect them from the wind and sun. Their tents are made of blankets and sheets of scrap plastic and material. The tents used to be made of goat hair, but today the families are not able to raise enough goats to get the wool needed tents. Sometimes several families will camp in close vicinity, forming a small temporary village in the desert.
When the Bedouin are participating in these spring activities, they say they are “na-ja-een“, which translates loosely as “pasturing”. And this past April, Eid took us on a safari to Zaranik to na-ja-een and so that I could learn how the Bedouin women make butter and cheese from their goats’ milk.
Early each morning, the young women and girls will load their donkey, if they are lucky enough to have one, with their water, lunch, and supplies for the day. They will set off with their herds of goats, staying with them as they graze on the desert greens throughout the day. The girls will find a cool place in the shade or in a cave and will spend the days chatting, laughing, and making bracelets that they will sell later in the cities. Before the sun sets, the girls will lead the goats back to camp. There, the older women will give water to the animals and milk the nanny goats in preparation for making butter and cheese.
Some of the goats’ milk, along with a few pinches of salt, is poured into a specially-treated goat skin sac, tied off at the end with a piece of rope. A tripod-style contraption is put together out of branches and rope and the sac is placed on a cloth that is then tied to the tripod. The sac of goat’s milk hangs comfortably, as if enjoying a laze in a hammock. The woman then swings this hammock back-and-forth, back-and-forth. She will do this for about thirty minutes, taking short breaks to rest her tired arms. She has been doing this for many, many years. She knows instinctively when the milk is ready, feeling a change in the swinging of the sac as the milk thickens.
The sac of shaken milk is then removed from the tripod and is let to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. The woman then places the sac in front of her crossed legs, beats it softly, and then gently folds the sac, pushing the thickened milk fat to the top.
Carefully, she uses a metal spoon to scoop out the soft butter that have formed.
The butter will then be placed in a container and mixed with dried desert herbs that the women have collected. They call this herb butter “samen-shihhi” and it is used to cook and flavor certain meals.
The goat’s milk that is left in the sac is then poured into an old flour sac and hung in a corner of the tent. There it will sit for a day or two, the liquid slowly straining out as it forms what is basically a yogurt.
This thick yogurt will then be laid on trays and placed on the roof of the tent to dry in the sun, forming chunks of dry, hard cheese.
This hard cheese will last longer in the hot desert. It has a strong but pleasant, salty taste similar to Istanbouli cheese. It will be re-hydrated and used later in fettah dishes, which of course Eid promises to share with us soon!