Alan Coxon uncovers a hidden treasure…

TV Chef and Food Archaeologist Alan Coxon has dug up a culinary treasure on the little known Croatian Island of Pag . 2010-09-01

Paški Sir

Velebit mountain range and the rocky pastures of PagTV Chef and Food Archaeologist Alan Coxon has dug up a culinary treasure on the little known Croatian Island of Pag .
The island of Pag is found in the Adriatic with a culinary heritage dating back to the Romans it`s location and environmental conditions lends itself perfectly to cheese production and possibly why today it boats a multi award winning cheese called ” Paski Sir”.

The principals of cheese making have been known to humans for at least 5,000 years and it was probably discovered by accident a long time before there was written documentation. While no one knows who the first to make cheese was, it is accepted that it was probably discovered by accident.

Legend has it that nomadic tribes in Central Asia who carried milk in animal skin bags were amongst the first discover cheese making. The saddlebags were probably made from the stomach of animals which contains the coagulating enzyme known as rennin. The results from the motion of galloping, which in effect churned the milk, was the separation of milk into curds. You can imagine reaction of the first to discover this when he opened his bag to take a drink after a long days ride through the dry desert, only to discover his only drink had turned solid. With nothing left to do he probably ate it anyway and sat in wonder at his delicious high protein lunch. It wouldn’t have been long before people realised that the curds could be matured and pressed together to produce larger loafs of cheese.

Most scholars agree that the art of cheese making probably traveled from Asia Minor to Europe, where it developed at the hands of the Romans, who most certainly brought this artisan craft to the Island of Pag in 1BC.

From every corner of the world cheese making developed into an art of its own and there are an enormous array of techniques and a broad range of animals who provide the milk. Reindeer cheese in Scandinavia, Boar cheese in Africa, Water Buffalo in Italy, Yak in Tibet, Mare in Russia and even Spider Cheese in (Spinnenkaese) Germany, though not literally from the milk of spiders.

The art of cheese making evolved under the Romans and they became respected artisans, much of the cheese that the developed is still available today in one form or another. As most of Europe fell under Roman rule, they embraced cheese making and developed it under their own unique and local conditions.

The tradition of Paški Sir

The Island of Pag has a long tradition of cheese making and agriculture. As the most indented Island in the Adriatic, Pag has perfect climatic conditions for making cheese.

The Island of Pag’s eastern landscape is dominated by the beautiful mountain range on the mainland, Velebit. It’s on these snowy peaks where hot and cold air amasses, and particularly in winter, gives birth to the famous Pag Bura. A strong, cool, dry wind that gathers strength as it tumbles down the southern slopes of Velebit onto the calm seas. Here, it creates a beautiful scenery of tiny sea droplets swirling in the air, not unlike dust devils dancing on the surface of the water. The Bora then dries and turns into dry salt dust, which it then scatters all over the Island of Pag, turning it into a beautiful white salty Island. The salt dust becomes wet when it falls onto the vegetation, as if it was thrown upon it as boiling water, and in these conditions upon the rocky hills of the Island of Pag, only the extremely resilient and aromatic plant species will survive. The best known and most precious is the fragrant Pag’s Sage, there are numerous colonies of this purple bloomed plant which adorn the pure white limestone in May and fill the air with its scent.

Paška Ovca (Pag Sheep) has survived for centuries in these conditions. They are small in stature with a thick coat to protect them from the Bora. They are apt to traversing the rocky terrain where they graze freely on the aromatic salted herbs of the island such as Sage, Rockrose and Immortelle.

On the Island of Pag only the strongest and most resilient will survive, but sheep and man have survived together throughout the ages. Paška ovca have provided wool, meat and finally cheese which is the essence of the island, and man has risen at dawn in the winter Bura to milk, build shelters and keep watch over the sheep. It’s never been easy on the Island of Pag, but with this perfect fusion of unique conditions, the reward is well worth it with the delicious Paški Sir and the distinction of its taste

As early as 1774 there is recorded documentation of Paški Sir. The travel writer Alberto Fortis, on his way to Dalmatia, wrote about Pag’s products of sea salt, sage honey, wool and Paški Sir. This is a time when the shepherds of Kolan would have live on the rocky hills above the pastures, in stone huts that were adorned with sedge and reeds.

There was no private ownership of the land and the majority of the pastures were located on the hilly parts of the island, they are recognisable today by the stone walls that encompass them. From far off, the intricate stone walls resemble the famous Pag Lace (Paška Čipka) as they snake and twist across the rocky summits.

The Shepherds kept watch of the sheep and in the stone huts, milked the sheep and made Paški Sir. As the pastures slowly became privately owned, so the Shepherds moved back into the town of Kolan and their stone huts became pastoral homes. As Shepherds commuted to and from the pastures to care for the sheep, so it was the women of Kolan assumed the role of cheese makers. Paški Sir slowly but surely gained importance not only as a food for the locals but also as a commodity to market across Croatia, and thus became an important source of income for the villagers of Kolan.

This was a time when agriculture began to establish cooperatives between Kolan and other villages of the Island such as Novalja, Pag and Povljana, which brought Paški Sir from the household into the markets. Yet the production of milk, cheese making and its maturing were all under conditions that with out an expert, could not answer the strict legal criteria of food in traffic.

The Gligora Dairy history is related to the life and work of its founder and owner Ivan Gligora and his family.

Ivan Gligora was born in 1950 into a traditional family in Kolan. Primary school was completed on the island before Ivan moved to Rijeka to study for a teaching qualification. However, financial hardship fell upon the family and Ivan had to leave before he completed his degree. Determined to finish his education, Ivan realises that the only way to a full degree would be a scholarship. He learnt that ‘Zagreb Creamery’ was looking for students to study in the dairy industry and they duly gave Ivan a scholarship. Schooled in the town of Kranj in Slovenia, Ivan became the only educated technologist from all the islands of Croatia, so they sent him back to his native Pag to work in their ‘RO Pag Dairy’.

Looking for more challenges, Ivan left the Island of Pag once more, this time for the City of Zadar where he transferred to the pure dairy cultures department of Zagreb Creamery. Ivan worked here for the next 20 years, during which time his knowledge and skills and insight were rewarded with promotion to Head of Production, with a growing reputation of one of Croatians most respected technologists.

During the war in Croatia, when Zadar was under constant shelling and attack, Ivan continued to work and help supply the city daily with fresh dairy product. After these difficult years, Ivan and his family, wife Maria and children Marina and Šime, decided to move back to their native Pag, where Ivan was employed again in the same factory, now called Paška Sirana, as Head of Production and Sales.

Ivan’s creative spirit began to become restless and he felt the need for growth. In 1995 Ivan opened a small production in Kolan called ‘Sirenu – malu siranu’, which means ‘small dairy’, later to become ‘Gligora Sirana’ which means ‘Gligora Dairy’. This was followed by years of sacrifice and hard work by the whole Gligora family.

No doubting the quality of his cheese, Ivan exhibited at numerous exhibitions. For two years in a row his cheese was a winner at the Zagreb Fair in the dairy products category. And after entering into the All Croatian Fair, Ivan won his first Gold Medal. Next he set out to conquer Europe. In Italy, amongst some of the finest cheese from around the world, Ivan added two more Gold Medals to his collection.

The international association of ‘Sant Fortunat’ which promotes equality in all areas of human life, awarded Ivan a medal for his contribution to the quality of human life.

In 2008, 2009 and 2010, Gligora Dairy won the right to put the prestigious 3 star Superior Taste Award from the International Quality and Taste Institute on its Paški Sir. Gligora is the only producer of Paški Sir to carry this mark, and one of only a few companies in Croatia to obtain it. In addition, Ivan Gligora’s Paški Sir is the only Paški Sir to be awarded ‘Croatian Origin Product’ (Croatian Chamber of Commerce) and to be certified Kosher.

In 2010, Ivan put the crown on his many years of work in the construction of a new and modern equipped Dairy in Kolan. In a very short time, he managed to meet the rigorous conditions for the tender and refund from EU funds. The family and all involved were able to build and equip this sophisticated Dairy in just 6 months.

Today, the new Gligora Dairy employs over 20 people and produces over 50 tones of Paški Sir in a year, as well as over 150 tones of other cheese products. Gligora buys milk from over 150 of the islands shepherds.

Ivan’s son, Šime, who has a masters degree in Agriculture, continues his fathers work and leads the production of the new Dairy. Šime has won quality titles at the Zagreb Fair with Paški Sir, as well as a Silver Medal at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards in the UK, one of the biggest cheese events on the calendar with over 3000 entries from around the world.

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