The best place to see traditional Slovak cheeses being made is definitely Zázrivá Salash. There are quite a few salashes (or kolibas) around Slovakia, but none of those I have been to provided such a complex experience of our folk culture and cuisine as the salash between Zázrivá and Terchová – two villages well-known for their rich folklore.
Oštiepok (pronounced as oshtyiepok) is an egg-shaped, usually smoked cheese with a decorative pattern on its surface. Like other Slovak cheeses, oštiepok is made on a large scale in our dairy factories mostly from cow’s milk. Fortunately, there are quite a few private farms (called salashes) around Slovakia, where oštiepok is still hand-made in the traditional way. Some of these farms use a mix of cow’s and sheep’s milk, and only a few make oštiepok from a 100% sheep’s milk, which is much more nutritious and deliciously creamy. Zázrivá Salash is one of them, and I went there last month to document Zázrivá oštiepok production for you.
I was met by bača Laco and his son Maťo at a charming little koliba close to the pastures, where oštiepok cheese is made every day from fresh milk of either their own sheep herd, or the sheep farms in the close vicinity.
Bača (pronounced as batcha) is the highest rank in the Slovak salash hierarchy. It’s a senior, most experienced shepherd, chosen by the village community. Batcha organizes the life at the salash, is responsible for the sheep herd, and makes the cheese. He is aided by two or more valasi (or valachs), young shepherds who help with all sorts of salash jobs, including cheese making, cooking and cleaning.
Inside the neat and spotlessly clean koliba batcha Laco presides over a stainless cauldron filled with curds and whey. I am told the sheep’s milk had been treated with rennet at the temperature of 32ºC to curdle. The curds were then stirred and broken into pieces of about 1cm. Now the actual oštiepok shaping starts:
- Batcha Laco gathers up the curds in his hands and squeezes out the whey. He then fills a calibrated mug with the mass, transfers it onto a sieve, which is then passed to his son Maťo, who dips the sieve in another cauldron filled with water heated to 80ºC. At this temperature, the cheese goes through the first sterilization, and also becomes pliable enough to be shaped. That is Maťo’s job, and he moulds the cheese into an egg, while pushing the excess whey out.
- Maťo passes the cheese back to his father, who puts it in a two-part wooden mould with a carved ornament in it (he made the whole thing himself), and fastens the mould with a special binding. Two wooden pieces are pressed into both ends before the cheese is dipped in the hot water again for a few seconds.
- When the mould is taken away, batcha Laco soaks each cheese ‘egg’ in brine, which not only ensures its long shelf life, but also gives the cheese a typical salty tang.
- Finally, each cheese ‘egg’ will be placed in a phloem bag, and hung in a smoking hut for 2 – 3 days to get its unmistakable smoky flavour and a nice, golden crust.
It’s wonderful to watch the harmony between the father and son as they create these unique cheese pieces. They explain the particulars of each stage, they regale you with compelling stories of the salash life, and their family’s long tradition of shepherding. Yes, this is a valued skill passed from generation to generation. Batcha is a respected wise man, who has to display a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as courage in face of danger. He must show good judgement and a cold head when confronted with unexpected, and quite frequent, visitors to the salash, like bears and wolves.
Maťo is training to be a batcha, and he does it with all the pride, conscience and responsibility of his father. When he takes over, he will be the fifth in the family line to pursue the vocation.