Written by: Anita Palada, Edward Kiersh
Photos: Tourist Board Kolan, Cheese factory MIH, Cheese producer Šime Oštarić
Grandma Tonica was a risk taker, a woman with a “secret recipe” which she shared with her family—a recipe that is now winning international acclaim.
Back in the 1990s Tonica Pernjak owned a small restaurant on the Croatian island of Pag, otherwise known as “Sheep Island.” Farmers, salt producers and other local people showered her with praise for the hard sheep cheese she hand-made in her basement.
That chorus inspired her. Tired of simply cooking, and hoping to launch a more profitable business that would use old-fashioned cheese production methods, and be environmentally-friendly, Tonica taught her son Dubravko, and later her grandsons, the intricacies of that remarkable recipe— and to have a “passionate” relationship with cheese making.
While she attributes her good health at age 88 to eating “lots of Pag cheese,” Dubravko and his sons learned their lessons well. They devoted themselves to following her recipe to make an indigenous Promenka sheep cheese that is naturally flavored by salt. They also strove to give their cheese various aromatic qualities influenced by the sheep’s grazing on pastures which contained thyme, sea fennel, sage and other herbs.
“Tonica had this wonderful dream, the special hands needed to adjust the moisture in the milk, to mold cheese, to really create magic,” insists Šime Baričević, the CEO of MIH SIRANA KOLAN, the Pag company that Tonica’s grandsons Šime and Marin now operate.
“Even though producing cheese on this barren island that is buffeted by strong Bura winds is very difficult work, she remained faithful to her dream. She always prized quality, doing everything by hand, keeping cheese on wooden palettes, not plastic, to increase flavor, and she always preached these lessons to her son and grandsons. She had the dream, they made it happen.”
Now appealing to Paksi Sir cheese connoisseurs in Croatia and other European countries, MIH has grown into a dairy with 550 sheep and 27 employees who are scrupulously schooled to respect Tonica’s revered production techniques. They painstakingly filter, cool, filter again the milk, add dairy cultures, and finally mold the cheese.
But as another Pag Island cheese maker Šime Ostarić says, “anyone making hand-made cheese must inject special energy into cheese, put yourself into the cheese. Cheese making can’t just be for money. Your hands must show love.”
Baričević is certainly passionate about MIh’s “unique” and highly-lauded Tartufin, or black truffle cheese.
“While all of our products are the result of our special environment close to the sea, our truffle cheese is unrivaled. We only use the choicest black truffles from Istria, so the smell is fantastic. This hard cow cheese made from Pag curd has black truffle aftertaste that is just superior, a cheese that shows our commitment to pure old-fashioned quality.”
Compared to the island’s largest cheese company Paksi Sirana, MIH with its’ 550 sheep is a relatively small company. That allows MIH to maintain the highest quality, and to make other artisanal cheeses such as Otancan, a cow and sheep cheese, and Kolanjac, a cow cheese. Both are also highly-regarded by aficionados.
Yet on Pig where scores of small producers offer tourists a selection of homemade cheeses on their farms and in Kolan houses, Šime Oštarić is a one-man, boutique cheese maker.
“Of course I want to profit from my work,” say this 31-year-old who only owns 50 sheep on his small farm near Kolan. “But i do this very hard work because I really do love the whole process.”
“My mother Maria taught me everything I know about cheese making. I’d come home from milking the sheep, and she’d patiently explain all of her secrets to me. That’s what cheese making is, secrets, your hands, your love, and also knowing the wind here, the ferocious wind here.
“The Bura can be very cruel, drying the land, and making it hard for the sheep to eat. Then I have to buy corn for them and hope. Hope to survive, and to show people that my cheese is made my way with the greatest of love.”