A History of Paški Sir cheese on the Island of Pag

The principles 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 not discovered by intended design.

 

Sirana Gligora Paški Sir

Early dairy machinery

Legend has it that nomadic tribes in Central Asia, who carried milk in animal skin bags were among the first discoverers of cheese making. The saddlebag was probably made from the stomach of animals which contains the coagulating enzyme known as renin. 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 travelled 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 1 BC.

 

A low fat quark type cheese is placed in wooden boxes full of spider mites. The mites crawl all over the cheese and after 3 months the mite excrement turns the cheese reddish-brown. After a year, the cheese is black and ready to eat.

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 (Spinnenkaese) in 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 they 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 on the Island of Pag

The Island of Pag has a long tradition of cheese making and agriculture. Pag has also boasted the biggest salt production works in all of Croatia, where today over 60% of Croatia’s salt is produced. This traditional industry has existed on Pag for almost a thousand years and in fact, the beginning of economic prosperity and the establishment of the principal town ‘Pag’ owes itself to the so called ‘Valle de Pago’ a natural shallow cove where salt production is possible. It’s mainly because of this ‘White Gold’ as it was know, that the history of Pag is littered with invasions. First it was the Romans who identified the rich salt fields and with them brought the knowledge of cheese making to the island, in the middle ages the Venetians took control and with them came great organisational skills. Later, control passed to Austro-Hungarian rule, a sophisticated and cultured people who after gaining control of Pag in the 18th century introduced agricultural reforms which helped to shape the island as it is today. More conflict would ensue however as the Italians, Germans and Serbs all saw the potential of the Pag’s ‘White Gold’ and fought for the right to control it. But for the inhabitants of Pag, who were the real beneficiaries, continued through-out to learn from their so called masters and develop the art of cheese making to perfection.

 

Valle de Pago

Ariel view of the Island of Pag

The diversity of cheeses all over the world lend taste and texture from the environment in which it is born from, and in that respect Paški Sir is no different. For vegetation, soil, geology, climate and culture all add to the combination of unique conditions which make Gligora Paški Sir a very special cheese.

If you are lucky enough to see the Islands of Croatia from the air as you fly from Zadar to Pula, you will see a ripple effect across the terrain like someone shook dust from a rug. With the impressive mountain range of Velebit running some 450km down Croatia’s west coast, followed by sea and island, sea and island, in almost linear uniform the landscape unfolds. It’s easy to imagine the violence that must have ensued to produce such dramatic scenery.

The Island of Pag is the most indented of all the 1000 plus islands in the Adriatic and boasts the longest coast line of all. With the eastern skyline dominated by the hugely influential and enormously beautiful Velebit mountain range, Pag’s low lying rocky terrain is situated in such a geographical position that creates its own unique micro climate.

 

Velebit mountain range looming over the Island of Pag

High above the summits’ of Velebit, hot and cold air amasses from east and west where it gives birth to the infamous Bura. A powerful, cool, dry wind that particularly in winter, gathers pace and power as it crashes down the southern slopes and across the Adriatic. Here, whips up the surface of the sea creating a beautiful scenery of tiny sea droplets swirling in the air, the spectacle is not unlike seeing thousands of dust devils dancing across the sea towards the Island of Pag. The powerful Bura dries the water droplets and carries with it dry residue of sea salt dust which is scattered all over the Island of Pag, tuning the pastures into beautiful white salty fields.

It’s in these conditions that the most resilient of wild herbs flourish on the Island. Wormwood, Rockrose, Mint, Immortelle and Lavender are all found rooting deeply and sheltering between the rocks. The most sought after of the wild herbs is a unique strain of Dalmatian Sage, which is considered to be the ‘gourmet of Sage’ par excellence. During the spring months of April and May, Pag sage transforms the landscape as it becomes adorned with a deep purple flora.

Paška Ovca (Pag sheep) evolved in these harsh winter conditions for centuries. Small in stature and with think winter coats to

The hardy Dalmatian Sage roots deep on the rocky pastures to survive the winter Bura

protect them against the winter Bura, Pag sheep have become experts in foraging and traversing the rocky hills. Adapted to the hardy vegetation and rich herbs, Pag sheep have always been left to feed freely upon the aromatic herbs and grasses.

Man and sheep have survived together on the Island of Pag throughout the ages. The sheep have provided the wool, meat, milk and of course the cheese, which is an essence of the island. Man has risen before dawn in the winter Bura to milk, protect and keep watch over the sheep. It’s never been easy on the Island of Pag but with these perfect and unique conditions for cheese making, the reward of the delicious and refined Paški Sir is well worth the effort.

The art of cheese making has developed here throughout the ages and 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 at this time 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.

 

Ancient stone walls snake across to rocky terrain of Pag

The Shepherds kept watch of the sheep and in the stone huts, milked the sheep and made Paški Sir on cooking pots over a fire. As the pastures slowly became privately owned, so the Shepherds moved back into the town of Kolan and their stone huts were to become pastoral homes. As Shepherds commuted to and from the pastures to care for the sheep, it was the women of Kolan who 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.

Each family passed on the artisan skills of cheese making through generation to generation over hundreds of years, as is the case with the Gligora family. Today you can still find many family homes where they make and sell Paški Sir from the kitchen.

 

Paški Sir is still an important source of income to many family homes on the island

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, Ivan’s father and grandfathers before him were all skilled in the art of cheese making, passing on the artisan skills through generation to generation. Ivan completed primary school on the island before he 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, he 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, skills and insight were rewarded with promotion to Head of Production, with a growing reputation, Ivan became one of Croatia’s most respected dairy technologists.

During the war in the 1990s, Zadar was under constant shelling and attack, but Ivan continued to work and help supply the city 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 and Šime Gligora

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 ‘Sirana Gligora’ (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 many 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, among 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.

 

3 Star Award for Sirana Gligora in 2008, 2009 and 2010

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. Sirana Gligora is the only producer of Paški Sir to carry this mark, and one of only a few companies in Croatia to be awarded with it. In addition, Sirana Gligora Paški Sir is the only Paški Sir to be awarded ‘Croatian Origin Product’ (Croatian Chamber of Commerce) and to be certified as a kosher product.

In 2010, Ivan put the crown on his many years of work with 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 advanced Dairy in just 6 months.

 

Production begain in Jaunary 2010 in the new Gligora Dairy

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 200 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

Paški Sir won a Silver medal at the 2010 International Cheese Awards

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.  Šime will now lead Sirana Gligora Paški Sir in its attempts to become a recognised name in the every increasingly competitive EU and American cheese markets.

Visit www.gligora.com for more information on Paški Sir or email Simon Kerr at simon.kerr@gligora.com

You can also follow Paški Sir on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/paskisir?ref=ts

and Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/PaskiSir

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5 responses to “A History of Paški Sir cheese on the Island of Pag

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