Although it’s a small country when compared to its neighbours, Slovakia’s landscape varies quite dramatically as you travel from the High Tatras mountains in the north to the Danube Lowland in the south. A similar variety can be perceived in regional cuisines, local accents and the people’s mentality as you go from one Slovak region to another.
The Liptov region in the north of the country is certainly one of the most visited. It’s got beautiful mountains, ski resorts and thermal spas, as well as caves, cycling trails or outdoor swimming pools.
When I went to Liptov two weeks ago, it was mainly because I wanted to do some more photography for the book I’m preparing about Slovak cuisine. But at the same time, I needed to get out of the city and closer to the countryside, which brings out all shades of green and a wonderful array of flowers at this time of year.
I knew they made a famed sheep’s milk cheese at a salash (a Slovak word for a sheep farm) in Liptovská Lúžna, and had heard about the friendliness of local people, so that was where I wanted to spend my Saturday.
Getting to Liptov is easy, as it lies on the main railway line connecting Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – with Košice, the country’s metropolis in the east. The Liptov region is served by regular fast trains stopping in Ružomberok and Liptovský Mikuláš, where you will find convenient bus services to all tourist attractions in the area. And if you’re as lucky with the weather as I was, you may soon find yourself basking in the fresh spring colours somewhere far away from the madding crowds.
I fell in love with the village of Liptovská Lúžna in an instant. Wherever I walked, my eyes met tastefully designed country houses with neat courtyards and well-kempt gardens. It looked like a long village to walk through, but it helped me feel its atmosphere and get to know the people. Some were locals, others just weekend residents spending a couple of days at their cottages out in the countryside.
It’s not very touristy up there, so I was immediately acknowledged as a visitor, and greeted with a friendly “Dobrý deň” (or ‘Good day to you’). Saturday is a ‘cleaning day’ in most Slovak households, and for village people it also means working in the fields or gardens, cleaning up courtyards or engaging in DIY.
The highlight of my trip to Liptovská Lúžna was, of course, my visit to the milk farm, which is set at the end of a small road leading to the pastures. When you see the lush greenery of the meadows, the happy sheep flock and even happier farm workers, you understand why their cheese is such a success. I particularly liked the painting on the front wall of the main farm building. It shows two happy-go-lucky shepherds from my favourite children’s book Maťko and Kubko.
I had a chat with the farm workers, and was offered to have a taste of fresh sheep’s milk cheese and a mug of žinčica. I couldn’t help but take another photo of Maťko and Kubko riding a bear – an illustration from the episode I have translated into English for the forthcoming book.
I was curious to see how žinčica was prepared, so they let me have a look inside a traditional cooking hut, where the whey was being heated slowly over a small fire.
I was told that at temperatures around 85 – 90ºC the whey starts throwing gentle bubbles, which is when the cauldron is taken off the fire and the thick upper layer is scooped away by a large wooden ladle. It is then poured into a metal milk can where it cools down, while being stirred gently to make žinčica smoother and creamier. Žinčica is often likened to an ‘elixir of life’ by Slovak cheese experts, as it is a high quality probiotic drink with a wide antimicrobial effect. It used to be an everyday food and drink of shepherds and salash workers.
There are quite a few salashes in Liptov and the one in Liptovská Lúžna is definitely worth a visit. They move the sheep pens around the village to ensure the best quality of pastures, so you may not find all the sheep in one place, but you can always buy fresh sheep’s milk products at their milk farm shop.