Cheese in Croatia

Tastes of Nature, Tradition and the Good, Old, Simple Life

The variety of cheese produced in Croatia reveals a centuries’ old fusion of influences and local knowledge, but also the resourceful and creative mindset of local inhabitants. With a production of 35 000 tons of cheese in Croatia per year, the overall production seems poor compared to the cheese production in countries such as France, Italy or Germany. However, it is also notable that a little less than 4 mil people live in Croatia currently, and that despite the odds, traditional knowledge about cheesemaking lives on. As a result, the variety of cheese on a relatively small territorial area with a relatively small population is curious. It literally takes a visit to another village or island to arrive at a different terrain of cheese, and the differences even if subtle, are noticeable to an enthusiast of these dairy delicacies.

Fresh cottage cheese

Even though we don’t exactly know how, the appearance of the first cheese was most probably a lucky accident about 7000 years ago, discovered by noticing the changes in milk carried in stomachs of animals on nomadic travels across the desert somewhere in the Middle East. The Sumerians were the first who left us inscriptions about cheese making, and the drawings on walls found in Egypt dating to about 4000 years ago also show that cheese was produced systematically. By the times the Romans ruled in Europe and beyond, cheese was found all over Europe with distinct traits pertaining to different regions, including Croatia, where cheese-making has already been known by the ancient Illyrians. By the Middle Ages, cheese was an important staple of diet and lifestyle, as we witness in one of the oldest law written in Slavic language in Croatia in the 13 ct, the Law Codex of Vinodol. It states that all visitors to their town must bring along a gift in the shape of two pieces of cheese.

Fast forward to the 20th and the 21st centuries, there are a few tricks the local inhabitants have mastered when it comes to cheese making over the centuries. One of the simplest, yet healthiest dairy product comes in the shape of cottage cheese and its varieties, a tradition that has fed generations and that today, is slowly dying out. But not all is lost and there have been significant improvements in valuing the old knowledge. Recently, there’s been a splurge of interest about the hard and semi-hard cheese products that are the result of traditional cheese-making in Croatia.

Fresh cottage cheese and varieties

Put simply, fresh cottage cheese comes in at least two varieties: made either from sheep or cow milk. It is best bought on a local market where people who actually have cows and sheep bring their own dairy products and sell them. In Croatia, most people have their own favourite supplier they are faithful to. Some even go as far as reserving their cottage cheese portion in advance from their favourite cheese-maker. Those who know, know. Fresh cottage cheese may not look like an explosion of tastes for its pure white colour and a texture that is soft and sometimes grainy, but even if you don’t relish in its pure and fresh taste, there are a plethora of ways to add flavour as cottage cheese goes excellently with both sweet and salty dishes. As I was taught at home, fresh cottage cheese is seasoned with traditionally, red pepper powder (depending on where you are in Croatia, hot or mild), thinly sliced garlic or onion, and served with cornbread, some ham and/or eggs, spring onions, radishes or any seasonal vegetables, and eaten as a great power-breakfast on weekends when there’s enough time for a hearty breakfast. It is also common to put fresh cottage cheese in sweet dishes such as cheese štrudla, pita, burek or štrukli, which are all domesticated and localised variants to pastry foods that can be found in the Turkish cuisine, which has, among other, neighbouring cuisines, influenced the Croatian cooking a great deal.

Resourcefulness saves the day, so it is common to make additional cheese types from fresh cottage cheese. For example, fresh cottage cheese shaped into cones and seasoned with hot paprika powder, dried on the sun becomes prgica. Prgica also exists in many variants, and in some places, its subversions are called: trdek, medimurski turoš, bjelovarski kvargl. All these cheese makers will claim their version is made in a special way and most probably it is. Smoked and shaped and/or seasoned with paprika and chives it becomes a semi-hard or hard cutting cheese that can be put in sandwiches, any cold plate or salad.

Lički škripavac cheese is made in an area between the Adriatic sea and the lowlands in continental Croatia called Lika. They make all sorts of interesting dairy products in Lika such as skuta, basa or plain lički sir, but the most known dairy product from the green pastures of Lika is a cheese known as škripavac. In English, it means ‘the squeaking one’. It is called that way because it makes a squeaking sound while one chews it, due to its special consistency. It is pure white, semi-soft and made from cow’s milk and cut in slices and served with home-made bread, ruccola or some wild herbs. Some also like to fry or grill it and serve it as a vegetarian main dish, but that way it may lose its fun squeaky sound.

Škripavac

Award winning cheese

Internationally acclaimed golden and silver cheese awards prove that the quality of cheese produced in Croatia is being recognised. The most popular of the acclaimed Croatian cheeses are made of sheep milk on the island of Pag, Paški sir (the cheese of Pag). Paški sir has a unique taste because of the special diet of the sheep that live on Pag island, owing much to the island’s geography. The geography on the island, in turn, is produced by specific weather conditions, specifically, the strong bura winds, that blow from the Velebit mountain towards the sea and the island, carrying particles of salt that land on the terrain already made bare from the winds. On its other side where the winds haven’t had much effect, the Pag island is rich with Mediterranean wild herbs that sheep feed on. When browsing the pastures for food, the sheep also cross to the bare side of the island to lick the salt on rocks. The combination of Mediterranean herbs and sea-salt influences their digestion, and finally the amount of salt in the cheese, so it is not uncommon to find salt crystals in the Paški cheese.

With its sweet, rich taste that is best paired with olives, locally produced prosciutto (pršut) and some home-made bread, it is impossible to go wrong with Paški sir. Grapes, sage honey and virgin olive oil also go well with Paški sir.  Paški sir that is slightly older is served with red wine Plavac Mali, and if it’s younger, it goes excellently with Žlahtina. If you grate it, it goes excellently with pasta dishes or risottos. To get the best quality of Paski sir, buy those made by Gligora, Paska Sirana or MIH Sirana Kolan, but if you have the time, buy some that are home-made and sold by the roads alongside bottles of olive oil and calendula oil and other local products.   

Istrian cheese Špin is a semi-hard cheese made of cow and sheep milk, nearby Poreč in Istria, by Agrolaguna. Istria has a specific soil, terra rosa, which is unlike the soil elsewhere in Croatia, influencing the diet of sheep and cows that feed on Istrian pastures, the reason why these cheese have a special quality. Agrolaguna makes a variety of cheeses including the Istrian skuta, cheese with truffles, cheese wrapped in walnut leaves. To be quite honest, if you’re a foodie, it’s definitely a good idea to visit them personally while on holiday in Istria and taste all they have to offer on their cheese trail tastings. Learn all about these magnificent cheeses on this website.

I’d like to go on and on but truth be told, cheese is even better tasted. Beyond the obvious gastronomic factor of enjoying cheese for its health benefits and taste, there’s also a need to preserve the knowledge of cheese-making – simply by eating more cheese. Since the art of cheese-making is being carried by less and less active cheese-makers, we are in danger of losing some of the variety we currently still enjoy. Hence, not everything should be bought in supermarkets. Supporting your chosen local cheese-maker allows them to carry on making quality, locally produced cheese.

I’ve only mentioned a few, but a cheese aficionado might consider Rapski sir, Krčki sir, čebričnjak, ćički sir, tounjski sir, basa, skuta, Grobnički sir, dubrovački sir and so on. If you do taste some, share your experience in the comment section. Have a pleasant cheese-tasting!

Ravijojla Novaković

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