Bryndza, a soft, full-flavored cheese, is made by crumbling and remixing fresh or aged sheep’s milk cheese. Its origins can be traced back to the pastoral traditions of the Wallachians, who came from Romania and settled in the Slovak Carpathian Mountains between the 14th and 17th centuries. The Wallachians reared sheep and practiced transhumance, the seasonal migration of livestock, spending the period from April to November up in the mountain pastures. Sheep were vital to their lives, providing milk, meat, and wool.
The Wallachian shepherds, known as pastieri or bačovia, used the name Valaška (Wallachian sheep) for a small local sheep breed with twisted horns, a wedge-shaped head, and a white fleece that was coarse and dense. This hardy breed had adapted to the harsh climate and rugged slopes of the Slovak Carpathian Mountains, and was so frugal that in the winter it would feed on leaves and pine needles. These days the Valaška shares the mountain pastures with another hardy local breed, the Cigája, recognizable by its dark head and lack of horns.
The story of Slovakian Bryndza began in 1787, when Ján Vagač opened a creamery in Detva. The shepherds who lived up in the remote farms known as salaš would sell their sheep’s milk cheese to Vagač. These cheeses would be crumbled, mixed together, and packed into wooden barrels (gelety), then sealed with a layer of butter. The resulting new cheese could keep for long periods, and so could be sold in the cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like Vienna, Bratislava, or Budapest.
At the start of the 20th century, when there were around 80 producers across Slovakia, Teodor Wallo refined the production method, making Bryndza creamy, spreadable, and unlike the drier, more granular variations of Bryndza found in Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Poland. The secret was the addition of a water-and-salt solution to the mixture. What’s more, as noted in the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus (1917), the cheese had a rich and unique bacterial flora, a naturally probiotic set of lactobacillus strains that the researcher who identified it defined as “Karpathenokokkus,” still found today in the Bryndza produced in the Tatra and the Carpathian Mountain pastures.
In the period after the Second World War, the agricultural collectivization process assigned land, flocks, and production facilities to large farming cooperatives. Many shepherds became employees, and the cheese began to be made in factories. In 1989, the system collapsed, leaving a series of problems: large factories in need of costly renovation, food production standardization, a loss of artisanal knowledge and traditional products, and the abandonment of the countryside.
Nowadays Bryndza is made by first producing a raw sheep’s milk cheese, then leaving the mass to drain in a cotton cloth, where it ferments for a week. The resulting form, weighing around 2 kilograms, is trimmed of its rind and cut into large pieces, which are mixed in a machine together with salt or a saline solution for a few minutes.
The resulting creamy spread, with a delicate and pleasantly acidic flavor, can be eaten fresh or used in various traditional recipes, like the famous bryndzové halušky (potato-and-flour dumplings with melted Bryndza), pirohy (ravioli-like dumplings filled with Bryndza), demikát (potato and Bryndza soup), and smirkaš (a spreadable mix of Bryndza flavored with paprika and spring onions).
The Bryndza found on the market today tends to be made with a mix of cow’s and sheep’s milk, often using pasteurized milk and microbial rennet, and bears little resemblance to the original traditional product. Many versions of Bryndza are even made from imported powdered milk. The cost of the industrial products is often lower than the artisanal Bryndza made by shepherds in local cheesemaking cooperatives, and its quality is worse, too.
The PGI awarded in 2008 allows Bryndza to be made from a mix of pasteurized milks. Even though it permits the use of wooden tools, in practice the producers are often hampered by the restrictions of the health authorities, who would prefer to see steel utensils.
The vast majority of the sheep raised in the country, around 337,000, come from more productive commercial breeds (Lacaune, East Friesian), with only 18,300 sheep from native breeds like the Valaška and the Cigája. Without European Union contributions, the farmers protecting these breeds would soon stop farming them, because they are not able to obtain a profitable price for their cheeses. Few people want to be a pastier these days, a poorly paid and isolated way of life with little social recognition.
The Presidium unites producers who farm the historic Slovakian sheep breeds on pastures in the central region of the of the Slovak Carpathian Mountains, at altitudes between 500 and 1,400 meters above sea level. They milk the sheep from April to November, without giving them feed or silage and without carrying out any kind of mutilation. They use the raw milk to make Bryndza, without adding selected starter cultures, which they sell directly to consumers or local restaurants. The producers have decided to call their Presidium Bryndza 1787, because they want to revive the Slovakian tradition that dates back to Ján Vagač, while also safeguarding the heritage Slovakian breeds and preserving the high mountain pastures.
The middle region of the Carpathian Mountains runs in Slovakia