Photos by Stipe Surac
From SENSA Magazine, Croatia (English Translation):
Paški cheese is Pag’s “yellow gold.” Young Paški, aged for a few months, tastes like a three-month-old Manchego—creamy and mild. The aged cheese crumbles like Parmesan and is often served drizzled with olive oil to bring out the intense herbal and nutty flavors. Locals, especially elders, often call this cheese—aged for approximately a year—“real Paški.” As I let an olive oil-coated nugget of aged golden cheese melt in my mouth, I can almost taste the sage and salt-covered grasses on which the sheep grazed.
With the changing seasons and vegetation, every batch of Pag milk has different characteristics. The aging process also affects the taste of the cheese. “Young cheese is softer, with lighter colors, and has not yet crystallized,” Martina Pernar says. “Aged cheese is almost brown, and is harder and spicier. Younger cheese is eaten as an appetizer with pršut, and older cheese is consumed as a dessert, paired with good wine.”
“I think it is a question of taste,” says Marin Oštarić from OPG Vlado Oštarić, a small producer in Kolan. “Some people like young cheese, some like cheese that is more than a year old. I prefer spring cheese, when sheep start to eat more green grass and herbs—especially May cheese, when it is seven or eight months or older—just enough that it begins to crystallize.”
The key difference between the larger Paški cheese producers and the smaller producers is that the large factories pasteurize their milk, while smaller producers use unpasteurized milk to make their cheese. However, Sirana Gligora has recently started to produce small batches of unpasteurized Paški cheese, and has plans to make it more commercially available in the near future.
“Factories use higher temperatures, and homemade cheese is made from warmed milk, the temperature of the lamb’s stomach,” says Ivan Balabanić, a Kolan cheese maker. “There aren’t any special methods of Paški sir production—every producer in Kolan has the same method. What distinguishes good cheese from bad cheese is the quality of the pasture and the hygiene of the sheep and tools. People who feed their sheep corn or hay that is not from Pag have lower quality milk—so their cheese is not really Paški sir!”
Other small producers have similar sentiments. “Homemade, authentic production is the only way to make Paški sir,” says the cheese maker Dražen Crljenko of OPG, his family’s agricultural production in Pag town, who is the third generation to continue the tradition of making Paški cheese. “Homemade cheese is the only ‘real’ Paški sir. The large dairies produce an excellent Pag cheese, but they use pasteurized milk, which is a fundamental difference. Pasteurization kills all negative but also positive bacteria in the milk, which are essential in the process of making cheese. To compensate for the eliminated bacteria, they add some starters and cultures that are artificially produced.”
Franjo Zubović’s family has been making cheese in Kolan for more than a century. “The method and traditions have not changed greatly since the days when our grandparents made cheese,” Zubović says. “What has changed greatly are hygienic conditions in the places of milking, of barns, of the containers for storage and transport of milk.” Paški cheese has played a very important role in the Zubović family. “My parents made their living exclusively from income they made selling cheese,” he continues. “We are extremely proud of our cheese, and have received much praise from our regular customers.”
Life for small producers is not easy. During the milking season, they wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning to milk their sheep. The milk is transported in clean, sterile containers to the family house or small production facilities, where cheese production begins. In the afternoon, the process is repeated. The work starts in January or February and continues nonstop through June. “There is no rest during that time,” says Dražen Crljenko of OPG in Pag town. “No one can be sick, regardless of the weather.”
Another small family producer, Figurica, is situated across from Sirana Gligora in Kolan. Figurica makes their own Paški cheese, which they sell to guests at their restaurant. Ivica Oliverić, the founder and owner, makes two batches per day during the production season—one early in the morning and one in the afternoon. Despite being a small producer, Oliverić still churns out a considerable three tons of cheese per year.
Figurica’s cheese production facilities are located below the restaurant, and their temperature-controlled aging room is above ground. Each wheel is marked with the Roman numeral III, Kolan’s number, and 53, Oliverić’s identification number, so people know which producer the Paški comes from.
Another Kolan producer also serves their cheese in its popular family restaurant, Konoba Beledvir. Fabijan Oštarić’s family produces approximately 1.7 tons of Paški cheese annually. Oštarić says life on Pag has always revolved around sheep and cheese. Years ago, wool was just as important of a commodity as the sheep’s milk and meat—he remembers his grandfather wearing socks made of wool called “škofuni.” Now, synthetic materials are cheaper and easier to manufacture, so the once coveted wool has little value. But cheese making has remained an important aspect of the island’s economy and identity.
“Every day in our life is about cheese and sheep,” says Oštarić. “We live for cheese production, and we live of it!”