I was first introduced to the regional delicacy while at a dinner on the always active Tkalciceva Street in Zagreb, Croatia. One of the dishes on the restaurant’s extensive menu grabbed my attention instantly and I asked the locals eating with me that night about the Paški Sir Risotto that sounded so very good. After my first bite I was in love, but little did I know that a few days later I would visit the heart of Pag Island Cheese production and learn more about Croatian cuisine in the process.
Paški sir, or Pag Cheese, is widely considered to be the best cheese in Croatia. Like most artisanal delicacies, it is fairly simple in it’s preparation. The clinical definition of this delicacy is that it is a hard, sheep’s milk cheese made on Pag; but that definition doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of the delicacy. The cheese is uniquely flavored thanks to the island’s particular history of salt production. Intense winds spread the island’s salt dust onto everything, including vegetation. This means that only the most hearty, and coincidentally aromatic, plants can survive and it’s upon this salty, nice-smelling flora that the sheep feed. That’s why the only true Pag cheese can come from sheep raised on the island and it’s also why the cheese is so very, very good.
But this definition is far too antiseptic to accurately share the experience of tasting and enjoying this delicacy and it was only after visiting Pag Island itself that I truly understood the importance of the cheese. Driving from Zadar to Pag is an easy drive and a beautiful one, especially on the island itself. Since the times of the Greek settlers, Pag has been an important salt production center. Thanks to unique geography and those fierce Bora winds, salt made Pag important for a very long time. Throughout the centuries though another delicacy quietly coexisted, dependent on the same weather conditions that made the salt possible. Even though sheep have been roaming the craggy, gorse-lined hills of Pag for a very long time, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the cheese became a true export and commodity.
Until the creation of the dairy on Pag, families made and produced enough cheese only for local consumption. Gradually over time more and more people around the country learned about the superior flavor of Paški sir, until finally demand took over and a formal process of production was established. Today the Sirana Gligora dairy on the small island produces more than 50 tons of this prized cheese every year, mostly for Croatian consumption but there is some limited export as well.
More than a yummy snack, Pag cheese came to personally symbolize the culinary traditions in Croatia that were totally new to me. I had no idea that I would find such a varied and delicious cuisine and discovering it for the first time was an important part of traveling around the country. It was also a good reminder to me that it’s as important to focus on a new country’s food culture as it is anything else for a true look into the heart and soul of a destination.
What regional foods have you discovered on your travels?