Pag Island: The Unexpected Home of an Award-Winning Sheep’s Cheese
Croatia has been on the rise as a tourist destination lately, what with its romantic sandstone buildings and arresting sapphire seas that embrace its pristine beaches. Yet one of its greatest treasures is almost entirely unexpected: cheese production. Specifically, Paški Sir, or Pag cheese, a hard sheep’s milk variety that’s been bagging international awards and seeing increasing demand.
The cheese itself is named after its home – Pag, a rocky island just off the Adriatic Sea, and is a product of the area’s unique terroir.
“This cheese contains the essence of the island,” says Martina Pernar Škunca, the spokesperson for Paška sirana – the oldest cheese factory on the island. “It’s a rocky environment with very little grass growing on it but these are full of aromatic herbs which our sheep eat. That’s what makes their milk so special and unique.”
Indeed, unlike many other cheese producing regions, these botanicals are not mere grasses but are actually Mediterranean shrubs like sage, cypress spurge and cherry laurel that grow on rocky soils with a high salt content.
That’s thanks to the Northern winds which blow salty sea particles across the landscape, forming a vital part of the plants’ nutritional uptake, and hence the sheep’s diet.
The resulting flavour? One that Škunca describes as “full flavoured, pleasantly saline and butterscotch-y without being too dry.”
The Importance of Pag Cheese
Cheese production is a vital part of the island’s economy. It is after all, home to a population of less than 10,000 with some 100 families engaged in rearing sheep and selling its milk to cheese factories and makers.
While the island produces more than just Paški Sir, over 300 tonnes of this unique variety are made each year. Most of it is enjoyed domestically but the cheese is also exported to countries like the US, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Montenegro. In Hong Kong, it’s available at some gourmet grocers like Profood.
Despite increasing demand for the cheese, production is limited due to the lack of pastures. The 35,000 sheep on the island only go into milking season the first half of the year, when they are milked twice a day.
It then goes through a four step production line: “The first is pasteurisation of the milk, the second is making cheese and the third is salting,” says Škunca. “After these three phases, the cheese goes to an ageing room where it stays on wooden shelves for at least three months.”
But the magic of Pag doesn’t just end at the milk. It’s at the third stage, salting, which is called salamurenje that the cheese meets sea salt, the island’s other precious commodity.
Dubbed as the island’s ‘white gold’, the salt is known for its high quality for being derived from unpolluted waters and kissed by the gentle Adriatic sun. It’s so appreciated in fact that neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina imports this salt to make Livanjski Sir – their own cheese.
The ultimate question though: How does one enjoy this cheese while fully appreciating its origins?
It depends on how long the cheese has aged for, says Škunca. “Younger Paški Sir that’s aged till 6 months is softer and lighter – we have this as an appetiser together with prosciutto,” she says. “Older cheese aged from nine months or more is harder, darker and very rich, and it’s eaten as dessert with a glass of red wine, or stronger white wine.”
If all else fails though, it can simply be drizzled with a good olive oil, or shaved over salads.
Source: Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau