This year’s shepherd’s season is drawing to a close with days getting shorter and nights palpably colder. Summer greens are still a prominent colour in our countryside, but they are slowly giving in to a rich array of autumnal hues. It’s a wonderful time to be out and about, especially when the weather is as agreeable as on this crisp, sunny day, which I decided to spend at my favourite salash in northern Slovakia.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a salaš (pronounced as salash) is the Slovak word for a wooden cottage close to sheep pastures, where shepherds live and work. Most of these pastures are in the mountains, and some of the farms have adjacent restaurants (often referred to as kolibas), which serve traditional Slovak specialities made from locally sourced ingredients.
Zázrivá Salash is seated on a hillside above the road between two distinctive Slovak villages of Terchová and Zázrivá. Apart from the salash and the restaurant, there’s only a couple of chalets below the forestline skirting the vast, green spaces dotted with trees.
Delicious, homey food is far from the only attraction that pulls me back to this place. I love to walk around the farm, watch the sheep, goats and horses grazing the luscious pastures, see the shepherds at work and listen to their stories. A shepherd’s life is not as bucolically carefree as it seems at first sight. Shepherds face everyday challenges, too, yet theirs are completely different from what most of us experience in between office walls.
Today I’ve come to learn more about oštiepok (pronounced as oshtyiepok), an artisanal cheese hand-made by the shepherds. I’m not surprised to hear they’ve been up and working since 4:30. Apart from the flocks of sheep, goats, ducks and geese, the farm also houses rabbits, cows, hens, pigs and even ostriches. All the animals have to be fed and taken care of the first thing in the morning.
They provide high quality meat for the restaurant, as well as fresh eggs and milk, which is locally made into dairy products like butter, yoghurt and cheese.
The reputed Zázrivá oštiepok is not only a delicious experience for your taste buds, but also a feast for the eye. Each piece bears the farm’s logo and a specific design carved onto the surface. You can see the cheese being made on the spot if you arrive at the right time, or arrange your visit in advance.
Despite their daily work commitments, I’ve always found the shepherds welcoming and more than happy to talk to visitors. It seems that this kind of socializing is a perfect counterbalance to the otherwise solitary life on the farm. They will show you how to make oštiepok cheese or žinčica drink, they’ll walk with you around the farm and let you feed or cuddle the animals. They will teach you things about their flocks that you won’t find in biology books. Theirs is the practical knowledge that comes from first-hand experience, years of observation, and from deep understanding of the workings of Mother Nature.
If your luck is in, you’ll be taken for a horse-and-carriage ride, and if you’re brave enough, the shepherds will let you try milking the sheep. At the end of the excursion, you’re most likely to head to the restaurant, a cosy place with a beautifully carved wooden decor that perfectly matches the traditional Slovak menu.
After a meal, I always end up in the shop next to the restaurant, where they sell all their artisanal cheeses together with other products from the farm. In the showroom adjacent to the shop you can see how parenica (parenitza), korbáčiky (korbaatchiki), and other traditional Slovak cheeses are made.
I never leave the shop empty-handed. On my last visit I succumbed to buying a chunk of traditional bacon, a lump of house-made butter, and a loaf of wonderful potato bread baked on the premises. I resisted the temptation to buy their kremeš (a kind of cream cake) simply because I was too full after the meal of Šúľance s makom I’d had before.
The great thing about Zázrivá Salash is that it is isolated enough not to attract big crowds. Regulars and hungry (or curious) drivers will stop for a meal or look-around, but the place is not served by public transport, and so it retains its tranquil atmosphere and rustic charm. It was a perfect setting for the cover photo of A Taste of Slovakia book, wasn’t it?