The cheese of Croatia’s Pag, naturally seasoned by the island’s herbs, is both special and unique
One island of 10,000 inhabitants, one special wind, 17 herbs and milk from 30,000 Paška Pramenka sheep contribute to making the award-winning Paški Sir (pronounced Pashki Seer), unique to the island of Pag in Croatia. By law, only milk from sheep on that island can be used to make this unique cheese.
The island of Pag looks like the moon, very rocky and dry, with relatively few plants. Yet it is this barrenness and landscape that provides the conditions that contribute to the uniqueness of Paški Sir, assisted by its inhabitants whose families have been raising sheep and making cheese for generations. It is even more than a cultural icon. “It is in the blood,” explains Šime Pernjak of MIH Sirana, whose family has been making the cheese since 1890.
A Fortunate Locale
Another key ingredient of Paški Sir is its location in the path of the Bora wind, which ferociously sweeps down from the Velebit mountains on the east side of the channel and picks up salt, which it then deposits on the island, including on the herbs that the sheep eat.
In fact, it’s the 17 different herbs on the island that make the cheese uniquely flavored and very aromatic, adding levels of complexity to the taste. Another level is added by the fact that these herbs are distributed differently throughout the island, making it possible for each village to produce a slightly different aromatic cheese. The sheep’s favorite herb is sage, always a noteworthy addition to the aroma and flavor.
The sheep, Paška Pramenka, an indigenous breed of the island of Pag, are autochtonous. Their unique DNA sequence gives them the hardiness and strength to live outdoors year-round, even during a Bora wind that could rage up to 180 miles per hour. The sheep can survive under harsh conditions by eating only 35 ounces of food per day and drinking salty water. They are even immune to bites from the two poisonous snakes on the island.
In many ways, Paški Sir is simultaneously an old and new product. It is a bit of a mystery exactly when this cheese started being made on the island, but it is documented that Paški Sir has been produced here since at least 1774. Even during the Homeland War of Croatia from 1991-1995, cheese production continued. And without electricity for 26 months, refrigeration was limited to the natural outdoors. During that time, Germans, Swiss, Italians and Austrians came to the island to purchase Paški Sir directly and sell it in markets back home, knowing that the people needed the cash to survive.
After the end of the Homeland War, Paški Sir became available to the world market. That production continues by three main companies—MIH Sirana Kolan, Sirana Gligora Dairy and Paška Sirana; by smaller OPG (artisanal) concerns; and by families for home consumption. It is still produced in the traditional way as required to receive the certificate of authenticity, though the three large producers have modernized their processes to meet EU production standards and requirements, such as pasteurization.
All over the island, signs advertise Paški Sir for sale, sometimes at roadside stands, sometimes in people’s homes and sometimes in shops.
And scattered throughout the various hillside fields are the small, old stone huts called ‘stani’. Traditionally, the men stayed in these, caring for and milking the sheep twice daily by hand, an extremely strenuous activity resulting in deformed elbows after a lifetime of milking. Although some farms with larger budgets have purchased milking equipment, most are too small to afford this expense and still milk by hand.
The stani are now mainly used for grass and equipment storage. But when driving on the island, one can’t help wonder where the sheep are. “You probably can’t see the sheep; they are the same color as the rocks and blend in,” Toni Herenda of Sirana Gligora Dairy told me. Looking for moving rocks is hard while driving, however, but sometimes you get lucky.
For cheese producers and consumers alike, the production year follows a cyclical pattern determined by the sheep. Collecting milk occurs from January to generally June or July, depending on the conditions. The cheese is usually sold out by October.
When milking finishes, the sheep are fed a high-quality, high-protein diet for a month to recover their strength. Then a male sheep is introduced into a single pasture of up to 25 females in a ‘harem system’. This very controlled and registered process maintains the quality of the herds, which is necessary due to the sheep genetics. The provenance of each sheep is known and recorded in a scientific method of animal husbandry introduced by MIH.
Work continues year-round for the people who care for the sheep and cheesemakers. Even when not being milked, the farmers will check on their sheep at least twice every day, making sure they have eaten, are healthy and that everything is alright. Sheep have personalities, and any change in the behavior of one or all is significant and must be investigated. Added to that is the maintenance of the old stone walls separating the pastures, and it can be a lot of work making Paški Sir.
While the sheep are tended, the cheesemakers continue to tend to the cheese making. Paški Sir must be monitored, washed with a salt solution to remove any exterior mold, usually weekly, and the cheese rounds are flipped daily until packaged. Young cheeses are available for purchase within three months of production, while the harder aged versions take up to a year and a half to mature.
The milk that MIH uses is sourced within about 2 miles of its factory from their own 400 sheep as well as individual farmers. Each step of the process is closely monitored, including the sheep, milk, EU-required micro-bacterial culture (which is neutral) and the people. Nothing else is added. The 20 employees are a family, with trust being a key component to the process. They produce their Pag cheese with the unique and traditional recipe of 1890, fulfilling the legacy of the Pernjak family and their commitment to their ancestors. The cheese carries the label “Croatian Sun”, which denotes the product’s origin.
Gligora, another family-owned company with the second generation running the business, is coating its Paški Sir with wine, olive or cherry pulp that impart mild, but not overpowering, flavors. Their tasting room, the only one on the island, offers beautiful views of the hills and countryside. Gligora’s retail store sells all of their cheeses as well as other artisanal products from Pag Island.
The third company is Paški Sirana, a joint-stock company located in the town of Pag that looks out over the Pag salt flats.
Paški Sir Characteristics
As for the cheese’s characteristics, Paški Sir smells mildly of herbs. It can be slightly grainy on the tongue and while it seems mild, the flavors strengthen with age so it pairs well with many foods. The aged version almost has a nutty, caramel flavor.
With Paški Sir, the two most important things to remember are to store it properly and eat it at the proper temperature. It’s important to let this cheese come to room temperature to savor the full joy of its flavor—its feel on the tongue, the aromas and the various notes. At cooler than room temperature, the cheese does not release its aromas, greatly affecting the flavor. Test this by pinching your nose, taking a bite or two and savoring the flavor. Then release and inhale through the nose, again noting the flavor. The difference is remarkable.
Once at the right temperature, the classic way to enjoy Paški Sir is simply sliced and eaten plain or paired with something that is suitable to its age. The easy-to-cut young cheese is lovely paired with fig jam or sage honey, both also from the island.
Aged Sir goes very well with olive oil drizzled on it. Because it is hard to cut, it must be broken apart. It also can be grated and added to pasta, soups and goulash, which is a frequent meal, though not considered a traditional Croatian dish.
Paški Sir at any age can be paired with thinly-sliced Croatian prust (similar to Italian prosciutto) on a platter with the usual Croatian vegetable accompaniments of sliced cucumber, tomatoes and peppers.
Paški Sir is special not only for the elements involved, but also because of its scarcity. Every year, the cheese sells out, and the producers are unable to make more due to the limited supply of sheep’s milk. Each sheep produces less than four cups of milk per day, and it takes approximately 20 cups to produce 2.2 pounds of Paški Sir. Even with 30,000 sheep on the island, there is a shortage of milk to meet the demand for this cheese.
This cheese’s excellence, authenticity and uniqueness have been recognized by the many awards it wins year after year in the international cheese competitions—from best in the world to best in class, from Croatia to European and American competitions.
Paški Sir is made in Croatia, but consumed with passion all over the world. This is a product of the island, its special conditions and its hard-working people, from those who care for the sheep to those who help to turn their milk into cheese. It is truly a Pag Island product, worthy of its awards and notoriety.