“No, we do not have any cheese for sale I’m sorry,” apologizes Macedonian cheesemaker Aleksandar Dimovski to crowds of people flocking around to try his two Slow Food Presidium cheeses at Cheese, the four-day Slow Food event ending today in Bra, Italy. “We could not bring very many cheese rounds as Macedonia is not a part of the European Union. These are smuggled cheeses, Nikolce here is a smuggler!” he says laughing and patting his friend Nikolce on the back.
The small Eastern European country boasts an impressive array of typical foods including many cheeses, which are continuing to be made using largely traditional methods. Aleksandar is the manager of the dairy that produces Mavrovo Reka Mountain Pasture Cheeses Presidium; a lively presence offering tastings of the goat cheeses made from the milk of some 10,000 goats herded by 60 shepherds.
Belo Sirenje is a white, crumbly feta-like cheese with a fresh, neutral and salty taste. “We eat it with everything: breakfast, lunch, dinner, in between, with meat, fruits, whatever.” The second cheese, Kashkaval, is made from the same milk but is very different, light yellow and solid in appearance with a rich and creamy taste.
“Kashkaval used to be the rich mans cheese. Before the war you could not get it if you were poor. And even now, it is expensive if you buy it in a restaurant. You can see that it is very solid: all the air is pressed out of the curd. This is the result of the work of very skilled producers: the cheesemaker shapes the curds into a sack-like shape and lets the air escape through ‘the navel’. If it is not done properly the cheese will split as it ripens.”
The dairy employs some 70 people, most of which are shepherds. Each shepherd takes as many animals as they can handle – usually around 200 to 300 but very experienced shepherds will take up to 500 – and leads them from pasture-to-pasture, moving from high altitudes in summer to the lower areas in winter. Usually the shepherds work in four large loose groups – which they like to call brigades – each of about 2,500 animals.
The long daily routine of the shepherd starts with milking at 5.30am. By nine they are ready to let the animals out to graze and they return at five in the evening. The animals are milked again and by eight in the evening tractors arrive to collect the milk. Previously the cheese was made up on the mountains, but that is not allowed anymore and so the milk has to be transported daily to the dairy where traditional methods continue to be employed, albeit it in a new setting.
“I think hygiene is one of the most important things in the cheesemaking process: it is hygiene, hygiene, hygiene, and then some more hygiene,” emphasizes Alesandra. “Our cheese is made from raw milk so you cannot be careful enough – but this means we can ensure that our end result continues to be lovely and typically Macedonian. It comes from the mountains, you know…”
Find out more about Mavrovo Reka Mountain Pasture Cheeses Presidium.
Cheese is Slow Food’s biennial event dedicated to sustainable artisan diary products. The four-day event in Bra, Italy ends today.