Bryndza 1787 – an ancient cheese and the first Slovakian Presidium

16 December 2020

Slovakia, an independent republic since 1993, holds the unusual distinction of being younger than most of its cheesemakers.

Of course, Slovakia’s dairy traditions stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years. The national dish, Bryndzové halušky, resembles gnocchi in a cheese sauce, and the cheese used to make it, bryndza, was traditionally made from sheep’s milk in the Carpathian Mountains.

The word bryndza itself comes from the word for cheese in Romanian, and it was settlers from this region who first introduced the practice of making cheese from sheep’s milk around the 13th century. Up until that time, sheep were kept purely for meat, and cows were the only dairy animal. But it was sheep’s milk cheese that won over the hearts and palates of the people, becoming an essential part of the national cuisine.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?

To find out more about Slovakia’s first Presidium we spoke to the coordinator, Ladislav Raček. I ask him what differences there are between his bryndza and the version you can buy in Slovak supermarkets.

“Traditionally, bryndza was made with unpasteurized milk from local sheep breeds who grazed on mountain pastures. But nowadays the industrial food system dominates in Slovakia, and that extends to sheep’s milk cheese. So what most people now eat isn’t really bryndza, but an imitation. It’s made with pasteurized cow’s milk and a tiny proportion of sheep’s milk. These animals are raised for profit, so they live a short life in confined spaces eating growth-boosting feed. Fortunately, there are still some herders and producers maintaining the old way of breeding our indigenous sheep breeds and using their unpasteurized milk to make traditional cheeses.”

A Native Wallachian sheep. Photo: Ladislav Raček
Where do these local breeds of sheep live? What do they eat?

“Our traditional, protected breeds of sheep are the Native Wallachian, Improved Wallachian and the Tsigai, and all together there are less than 20,000 of them left. These sheep live predominantly on mountain pastures in national parks and protected areas at altitudes of up to 1400 meters above sea level. Without our support, these breeds, which are not highly productive either for dairy or meat, are doomed to extinction.

“Under financial pressure, most farmers have opted for foreign breeds and begun to use unnatural reproductive hormones to ensure year-round milk production, as well as feeding their animals corn or silage. As for the diet of our local breeds: our meadows have a unique composition, marked by their biodiversity.  The pastures generally boast between 40 and 90 different species, with a 60:40 ratio of grass to herbs. Among them, they tend to eat bilberries, which have medicinal properties and confer unique qualities to their milk and cheese.”

Šmirkaš cheese spread made with bryndza, red peppers and onion. Photo: Ladislav Raček

TRADITIONAL BRYNDZA

Speaking of diets, how does Bryndza fit into yours?

“Bryndza is a real pro-biotic bomb. Our traditional bryndza made with unpasteurized milk is a functional food that not only nourishes us, but also has a positive effect on our health. It contains up to a thousand times more useful microorganisms than yogurt: there are about one billion beneficial microorganisms from more than twenty different species in one gram of bryndza. This is because of minimal heat treatment it undergoes, which preserve its unique pro-biotic properties. We use it in a traditional soup called Demikát, a simple potato soup to which cold bryndza is added just before eating. Then there’s Šmirkaš, an uncooked cheese spread which also contains chopped onion and red pepper, that we serve with bread and wine.”

PRESIDIUM

Has the market for Bryndza 1787 changed much since it became a Slow Food Presidium?

With the Presidium we helped Bryndza 1787 rise from the ashes, like a phoenix. We are happy for the help of Slow Food on this. Bryndza made according to the original, natural recipe had pratically disappeared before then. But this year we produced over 140 kilograms of Bryndza 1787. Our intention was to create a “trilogy” of Bryndza, made with milk from three different breeds of sheep.

The first is made with milk from the Cigája breed of sheep, the second with the Zľľachtená Valaška sheep breed and the third with the Valaška (Wallachian) sheep breed. We managed to complete the first two of the three. Sadly we have not yet been able to make the third type yet, as we had problems finding money to pay for staff, and indeed with wolves. Our losses are huge: about 80 to 100 sheep per year. That’s 20% of the herd. So we’re working as hard as we can, but the full benefits of being a Slow Food Presidium haven’t been truly felt yet, in part because of this terrible year. We are still building mutual trust with the farmers and herders. Registering trademarks, laboratory tests and obtaining a protected designation of origin for Bryndza costs a lot of money, and will take a lot of time.

A sheep barn in the Slovakian countryside. Photo: Ladislav Raček

A ROUGH YEAR

How has 2020 been for the farmers and sheep breeders in Slovakia?

“Farmers and sheep breeders in Slovakia face economic and existential problems. Our subsidies from the EU have been cut. Corruption and complicated bureaucracy only exacerbate these difficulties. Another problem we have is with predators such as wolves and bears, which are abundant in our mountains. There’s a division in society between those who want to protect these predators as endangered species, and those who wants to protect farmers and shepherds. Our Wallachian sheep breed, it should be noted, is also endangered: the last 1500 in existence live here.

“Because of Covid-19, the sale of lambs to foreign markets, mainly to Italy, has not been possible. The animals remained here in Slovakia, some sold at unfavorable prices on the domestic market and the rest are still part of the livestock. Farmers lack cash; living animals which must be cared for but which cannot be sold are a burden. We’re in hard times, and the future is uncertain.”

A Wallachain sheep, one of only 1500 in existence. Photo: Slow Food Archive

BRYNDZA 1787 IS PRESENT AMONG THE VIRTUAL SHOWCASES OF TERRA MADRE SALONE DEL GUSTO: ALONG WITH OVER 400 OTHER PRODUCERS. YOU CAN FIND A SELECTION OF PRODUCTS TO BUY (DELIVERY WITHIN THE SCHENGEN AREA ONLY), AT OUR ONLINE MARKETPLACE.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it