Paški Sir (Week 15)

Paski Sir II
Croatia’s Cheesy Pride: Paski Sir

Cheese: Paški Sir

Producer: Sirana Gligora

Where: Kolan, Pag Island, Croatia

So here is a picture of Pag, an island just off the coast of Croatia. There are less than 10,000 people who call the island home, but there are some 40,000 sheep. They’re a little smaller than average, these Paška Ovca, and they are indigenous to the island. From the coastal Velebit Mountains of Dalmatia, the Bora wind barrels down, picks up a lot of salt from the air over the water and drops some of that salty moisture on the pasture where the sheep run around, mostly freely. The herbs and grasses on the island the sheep feast on are pre-salted, if you will, like the grass in coastal Normandy around Issigny, where the best butter in the world comes from. These roaming sheep produce about half a liter of milk a day, so half a quart of milk. That is little, even by sheep standards (half a gallon is sort of average, compared to three quarters of a gallon from a goat and 8 gallons from a cow). Add to that the fact that the sheep are still often milked by hand in the fields where they graze and you have one labor intensive dairy operation going. But at the end of that long laborious process, there is Paški Sir, the cheese from Pag, which wins medals all over the world and makes Croatians proud.  Depending on who you believe, the farmers on Pag have been making cheese for hundreds of years (some writers believe since the days of the old Romans) and of course there is the popular suggestion that at one point it was used as currency, which seems a little farfetched. I am sure it may have been a barter unit in some sense, but it is hard to see that someone would buy a cow and say: “I’ll pay you 34 cheeses for that nice animal there”. One way or another, the cheese from Pag has very, very deep roots. Alberto Fortis, an Italian who traveled around Dalmatia in the 18th century wrote about the salt, the sage honey, the wool and the cheese from Pag in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, but by that time, it had already been around for a good long while. The Gligora family has been at it since 1916 and towards the end of the previous century father Ivan and son Šie have begun to take, as they say, the cheese to the next level. Among other things, they send their products all over the world provided you’re happy to pay the rather splendid shipping fees. You may find that is it more prudent to just wait until you travel to Croatia to get some. A competitor, Paška Sirana has an excellent video. Great images, and with English subtitles.

Paski Sir Cheese
Vino, Kruh i Sir. The cheeses from left to right: Kozlar, Dinarski and Paski Sir

Paški Sir is a cheese that needs a bit of time to unfold in your mouth, don’t eat it hastily. At first, it is what you’d expect from a sheep cheese: it is hard, crumbly and drier than most cow’s milk cheeses. And then, as it melts in your mouth, your tastebuds tell you: “wait, wait, there is more”. I will leave it to experts to give the complex flavors names; I will simply say that there is a lot to savor in an innocent looking piece of Paški Sir, and only if you take your time, will you discover why it gets those accolades the Croatians like to tout. I am sure it tastes great in a variety of dishes, but it is expensive enough that you want to carefully cut it up and eat it with a glass of Croatian red rather than in the mac and cheese from the crockpot. It has a nice crunch – most if it hits the market after aging for about a year so there are the little white protein crystals that lend the cheese even more texture. Shave it on your salad like you would Parmigiano, or eat it with figs – if you can get them, from Dalmatia. Aside from the Paški Sir, I also had a taste of Gligora’s Dinarski Sir, a crumbly, salty cow’s milk cheese from the Dinaric Alps and their Kozlar, a semi-hard goat cheese, also quite salty but very creamy and if fact, I ended up liking it at least as much as the cheese of the week. But I waited until we had left Croatian territorial waters before admitting that aloud. I am sure the Croatians would seriously frown on my preference and I wanted to stay out of trouble.

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Dalmatia (Week 15)

Krka Waterfalls
Waterfalls in Krka National Park

Of course, if I would title this post Croatia, it would just be a bit too easy. Dalmatia is much cooler, because it is a little less used and has a faint echo of dog to it. Yes, those spotty white dogs do come from this part of the world, originally. The bit with the 101 of them originates in England: a playwright by the name of Dodie Smith wrote the book, Disney turned it into a movie 5 years later. But back to Dalmatia. This week, the cruise ship I was on stopped there twice, first in Zadar, then in Dubrovnik. Zadar is a city as old as dirt, at least 2,900 years or so. They have ample old stuff to prove it too: there is a roman forum, the church of St. Donatus that is a cool 1,100+ years old and massive fortifications because a lot of people over the centuries have had their eye on Zadar. Alas, I did not see any of it, because I traveled by bus to the nearby Krka National Park which is know for some pretty impressive waterfalls. They are near the town of Skradin and the locals call them Skradinski buk. There, now you know that ‘buk’ is Croatian for waterfalls and the number of situations in which this knowledge will come in handy are legion. Water here flows over a series of travertine terraces and some very easy walking trails take you by a handful of historical structures, meticulously restored, and over, und and past myriad waterfalls. Best really to look at the pictures, they do the place much more justice that words can. Back in Zadar, there was just enough time to have a listen of the Morske Orgulie, a water organ designed by Croatian genius Nikola Bašić. He put 35 big pipes under a terrace at the waterfront and as the water moves in and out of the tubes, it creates some very random low whistles. Time was tight, but I could easily imagine sitting there for quite a while just letting the seas sing to you. It was beautiful. Bašić also created the roundish array of solar panels, which collect the light of the sun and gives it back during the evening and night in constantly changing colors. Two intrepid fellow travelers did stay behind in Zadar and we so kind to get me some bread, a bottle of Dalmatian red wine and three pieces of cheese from the Gligora cheese shop. And that can only mean one thing (wait for it….): week 15’s cheese had to be Paški Sir, the sheep cheese from the island of Paks, just off the Dalmatian coast.

Easter in Dubrovnik
Easter In Dubrovnik

Further down along that very same coast is Dubrovnik, probably the most visited city in Croatia by a wide margin. This is not just because it is such a popular cruise stop: Dubrovnik, with its massive medieval walls, its bright, wide and clean streets and its friendly people is a three dimensional postcard in many ways. Like other living and breathing cities, it has flaws and imperfections, but there are moments, such as on Easter Sunday when there was a stage with costumed dancers and musicians in front of the 16th century Sponza Palace, where you could be forgiven for thinking that you are actually in a really well done version of the EPCOT center – Dubrovnik is almost too perfect.

St Blaise in Dubrovnik
St. Blaise atop his very own church

Across from the modest palace is the church of Sveti Vlaho, St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city, a very elegant baroque church and between them stands Orlando’s column, with a bigger-than-life-size statue of a medieval knight who, according to legend, defended the city against the Saracens. Of course he did no such thing, but that’s too long of a story for here. Orlando and France’s Roland are one and the same person and in the Middle Ages, Roland/ Orlando became sort of a generic brand name for heroes of all shapes and sizes. The column, along with the surrounding buildings and the bell tower at the end of Stradun, the main street in Dubrovnik is the heart of the city. Not far from here is Rozario, tucked away a little behind St. Nicholas’ church. It’s a small friendly restaurant that serves splendidly simple fresh food at prices that are more than reasonable. Must…eat…their…marinated anchovies…

Dunbrovnik rooftops
Dubrovnik’s Rooftops from the City Walls

A few blocks further away in a street that runs parallel to Stradun is the place where you can get all the souvenirs you could ever want to bring home from Dalmatia, including ties with Glagolitic letters (yes, I have one of these and I will surely wear it one day. I will. I really will….). The shop is called Medusa and they’ll take all the money you want to spend on the local economy – they really do a good job in marketing Croatia. Not to miss is the Franciscan monastery from 1317, which houses one of the oldest pharmacies in the world that still functions as one – it goes back to that same year. Once you’re here, near the Pile Gate, the huge fountain is a curious landmark, and you are also close to a set of stairs that afford access to the massive walls, which you can walk all the way around town. They charge an entrance fee, and it is somewhat of a workout, but not doing it once you have made it this far is like – well – think about things where you are almost there and then, you retreat. You will leave Dubrovnik and always wonder how much more exciting your visit would have been with a walk along the walls.

Dubrovnik harbor
Dubrovnik Port

The harbor area, finally, is the best hangout in town. There is water everywhere, some teenagers jump into the azure waters from the rocks below the walls and there is a coming and going of small vessels, among them the tender boats of the large cruise ships. It is also the place to practice the most important word of the local language: sladoled. Ask for it, and ye shall miraculously receive ice cream. And the Croatians make some mean ice cream, just like their sheep cheese – more about that in another post.