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This traditional Karakachan breed of sheep was once plentiful in Bulgaria. In the early 20th Century there were 500,000 and by the late 1950s, when farms were nationalized, the number had shrunk to 160,000. Today there are only about 400.
The sheep are small, about 57 cm (1.87 feet) at the withers, with short and thin tails. The wool is coarse and long - up to 40 cm (15,4 inches) and the color changes with age, becoming lighter. When young the animal is black, then brown, and ends up with almost grey fur. Sider and Atila Sedefchev from SEMPERVIVA - the Bulgarian nature protection organization that specializes in the conservation of endangered local breeds - started the project to save the Karakachan breed dog in 1992. It is one of the oldest European breeds in Europe and was used to guard livestock - mainly sheep - and protect them from wolves and bears in the high mountains. While searching for these dogs, the sheep were discovered, as well as a traditional breed of Karakachan horses. These workhorses are used to carry baggage, traveling the dangerously narrow and high rocky paths. The Karakachans, Balkan nomadic people who were livestock breeders, are thought to be descendants of the ancient Thracian livestock breeding communities located in the high mountains of Bulgaria.
Each sheep produces about 50-60 liters of milk per season. The milk is very rich (fat content of 6.5 to 8%) and high quality. About 20 kilos of white cheese, called Sirene, are made each day, 400 kilos each year. Yogurt, which originated in Bulgaria, is also made each day. The sheep are milked twice a day. The milk is immediately filtered through a cloth and rennet added (lamb or kid). A lid is placed on the container for about two-and-a-half hours as the curd forms. It is cut with a knife then left for another half hour. The young cheese is placed in a special fabric and then in a small cloth-lined wooden crate made from the wood of a Balkan endemic tree called Macedonian Pine. The cheese is covered with the fabric, the lid put on the crate, and something heavy, usually stones, is placed on top. The cheese is then left to dry for four-to-eight hours, depending on the weather.
When dry the cheese is firm to the touch. It is then cut into tile-size pieces (about 12 cm), salted with large-grained sea salt, stacked one on top of the other in large tin or plastic barrels and closed with a lid. The brine forms and the next days the barrel is opened and topped off with the whey mixed with salt. To make the traditional Bulgarian Yogurt - called Kiselo mleko - fresh milk is boiled, left to cool down to body temperature and then the original Lactobacillus bulgaricus is used.