BAGHDAD’S OLDEST CHEESE STORE: Surviving snipers, recession and importers

By Mustafa Jamal Murad in Baghdad

Down a narrow alley in the middle of one of Baghdad’s busiest markets, Sadriyah, is a small store that hasn’t changed for years. Cheese shop Beit Berto was established 120 years ago and has survived all of the country’s ups and downs.

The current shop’s owner, Mithaq Naeem Berto, 40, usually starts work at six in the morning. It is a routine he has maintained since he inherited the store from his father and grandfather, founder of the cheese store.

Even during the US invasion of Iraq, the cheese store was open every day. “Snipers used to shoot at civilians,” Berto tells. “But we’d run as quickly as possible to these alleys and open the shop so we could still earn a living.”

In the store today, Berto sells a variety of dairy products, including ghee, butter, yogurt and many types of cheese. His products come from villages in the countryside surrounding the sprawling Iraqi capital. “I have a lot of contacts from my father and grandfather, who passed their dairy skills on to their children,” Berto explains.

Berto has a unique way of preserving cheese. He places the saltier cheeses in a barrel filled with water and salt. Other types of cheese are kept cool in a refrigerator. “When cheese is kept in good condition, it doesn’t spoil and should maintain its shape and taste for several weeks,” the dairy expert noted.

Asked as to why the store – and his family too – has such an unusual, non-Arabic name, Berto explains that his great grandmother was desperate for a son but every time she had a boy, the child died. “So she promised God that she would name her son something unusual if he survived,” Berto recounts, adding that Berto means “pasha.”

His grandfather was named Berto and lived on to become the owner of this famous cheese shop, the younger Berto explains.

Beit Berto has been refurbished about six times over its lifetime and has also experienced extreme economic fluctuations. Two decades ago, the store was busier, Berto says: “Business was better and we used to open early and close late at night. Now that has changed and we closer earlier.”

This is because a lot of Iraqis now buy imported cheese or manufactured cheeses, far more than they will buy local, handmade cheeses, he explains.

Berto learned the cheese trade from his father, who also taught him about life in general, he says.

He remembers how one day when he was a child, a female cheesemaker came to the store carrying a large jar on her head. The younger Berto opened up the jar and saw the cheese inside was already smelly and going off. He told his father but the older Berto ignored him and bought the cheese from the woman anyway. After she left the store, his father threw the rotting cheese away.

Berto junior asked his father why he had done this, “We can’t force this woman to return home with nothing,” his father told him. “Her children are waiting for her there. “Not everything is yours,” his father told him. “You must think of others.”

To this day, Berto believes that considering more than just money and profit are the secret of the famous Baghdad cheese shop’s success. “The real capital of our store is the relationships built with customers,” Berto concludes.

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