Bryndza: the first Slow Food Presidium in Slovakia

Slovakia, an independent republic since 1993, holds the unusual distinction of being the only country at Cheese 2019 which is younger than most of its cheesemakers. 

Of course, Slovakia’s dairy traditions stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years. The national dish, Bryndzové halušky, resembles gnocchi in a cheese sauce, and the cheese used to make it, bryndza, was traditionally made from sheep’s milk in the Carpathian Mountains.

The word bryndza itself comes from the word for cheese in Romanian, and it was settlers from this region who first introduced the practice of making cheese from sheep’s milk around the 13th century. Up until that time, sheep were kept purely for meat, and cows were the only dairy animal. But it was sheep’s milk cheese that won over the hearts and palates of the people, becoming an essential part of the national cuisine.

SLOVAKIAN SPECIALITIES AT CHEESE 2019

There are two opportunities at Cheese 2019 to delve into the world of Slovak dairy culture. First, on Sunday September 22 at 3 p.m. in the Biodiversity House there’s a conference on Cheesemaker resistance in Europe, where the first Slovak Presidium (for Raw Sheep’s Milk Bryndza, no less!) will be presented alongside variants from neighboring countries, including a Ukrainian version on the Ark of Taste.

Second, there’s a Taste Workshop dedicated to Slovak cheese on Monday September 23 at 1 p.m. at IPC Velso Mucci where you’ll taste three exemplars, as well as traditional honeys, beers and desserts.

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SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?

To find out more about Slovakia’s first Presidium we spoke to the coordinator, Ladislav Raček. I ask him what differences there are between his bryndza and the version you can buy in Slovak supermarkets.

“Traditionally, bryndza was made with unpasteurized milk from local sheep breeds who grazed on mountain pastures. But nowadays the industrial food system dominates in Slovakia, and that extends to sheep’s milk cheese. So what most people now eat isn’t really bryndza, but an imitation. It’s made with pasteurized cow’s milk and a tiny proportion of sheep’s milk. These animals are raised for profit, so they live a short life in confined spaces eating growth-boosting feed. Fortunately, there are still some herders and producers maintaining the old way of breeding our indigenous sheep breeds and using their unpasteurized milk to make traditional cheeses.”

A Native Wallachian sheep. Photo: Ladislav Raček

Where do these local breeds of sheep live? What do they eat?

“Our traditional, protected breeds of sheep are the Native Wallachian, Improved Wallachian and the Tsigai, and all together there are less than 20,000 of them left. These sheep live predominantly on mountain pastures in national parks and protected areas at altitudes of up to 1400 meters above sea level. Without our support, these breeds, which are not highly productive either for dairy or meat, are doomed to extinction. Under financial pressure, most farmers have opted for foreign breeds and begun to use unnatural reproductive hormones to ensure year-round milk production, as well as feeding their animals corn or silage. As for the diet of our local breeds: our meadows have a unique composition, marked by their biodiversity.  The pastures generally boast between 40 and 90 different species, with a 60:40 ratio of grass to herbs. Among them, they tend to eat bilberries, which have medicinal properties and confer unique qualities to their milk and cheese.”

Šmirkaš cheese spread made with bryndza, red peppers and onion. Photo: Ladislav Raček

TRADITIONAL BRYNDZA

Speaking of diets, how does Bryndza fit into yours?

“Bryndza is a real pro-biotic bomb. Our traditional bryndza made with unpasteurized milk is a functional food that not only nourishes us, but also has a positive effect on our health. It contains up to a thousand times more useful microorganisms than yogurt: there are about one billion beneficial microorganisms from more than twenty different species in one gram of bryndza. This is because of minimal heat treatment it undergoes, which preserve its unique pro-biotic properties. We use it in a traditional soup called Demikát, a simple potato soup to which cold bryndza is added just before eating. Then there’s Šmirkaš, an uncooked cheese spread which also contains chopped onion and red pepper, that we serve with bread and wine.”

What does it mean for you to make bryndza a Slow Food Presidium? What are your hopes and goals for the future?

“Our Bryndza has historically been exported to Austria, Germany, Hungary and Poland and today its production is under threat. Our aim is first of all to supply high-quality traditional sheep’s cheese to Slovak consumers, chefs and everyone who may have forgotten the true flavor of this cherished cheese. Then, once we have improved the domestic situation, we can start to think about exporting our bryndza to foreign markets, which could be of significant help to our local economy. But the most important thing of all is maintaining the sustainability and economic independence of our small-scale farmers and cheesemakers in rural, mountainous areas.”

A sheep barn in the Slovakian countryside. Photo: Ladislav Raček

A SWEET NOTE

Let’s finish with dessert. What is žinčica? Do you make this too?

Žinčica is a drink made from sheep’s milk whey and may be either sweet or sour. It’s made from the whey that remains after bryndza cheese has been produced. It’s heated gently, and after the protein has precipitated, the lumps are broken up, and can be drunk immediately, when it will be sweet. It can be stored for up to 2 days at room temperature to make it sour. Normally, after the production of bryndza, the whey is given to pigs. But we want to remind consumers that this fine, low-fat cheese is good for us too. It can be used as a low-fat substitute for butter, as a filler for pies, or as a complement to real bryndza in our traditional dumplings. Above all, it’s another way for herders to make the most of the milk the sheep give them, which can be good for their incomes and for our health.”

Come to the Taste Workshop dedicated to Slovak cheese on Monday September 23 at 1 p.m., and taste the delicious bryndza for yourself!

GET YOUR TICKET NOW!

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