Croatia has some of its food products protected at both a national and European level, their status designated by their unique place of origin. Pag cheese (Paški sir) is one of them.
While young Europeans tan themselves and party all day at the loud and vibrant beachside clubs of Novalja, elsewhere on the island of Pag, many quieter aspects of its inhabitants' lives would look instantly recognisable to their ancestors of centuries ago. One of these is the making of cheese.
Famed for its age-old production of Pag salt, the rearing of sheep and Pag lamb on the island is similarly ancient and the picturesque lines of weather-beaten dry stone walls which criss-cross the terrain attest to such. The rocky hills and sparse, distinct vegetation on Pag limit the possibilities of animal husbandry here, but sheep are more than happy with the offer and thrive on the island's slopes.
Blasted so fiercely by seasonal winds like the Bura, some parts of Pag island look barren and positively alien. This wind deposits a thin film of sea salt across the land. Impacted by these two corrosive elements, only the most-hardy of vegetation survives and this includes wildflowers and wild herbs, such as the sage which famously flavours the island's honey. It is this film of salt and these foraged foods which find their way into the diet of the island's sheep, imparting their distinct and aromatic flavours into Pag lamb and Pag cheese.
As is traditional, the sheep's limited yield of milk is taken between January and the beginning of July. Like that undertaken across all of Croatia, the subsequent cheesemaking process does not use animal rennet. Instead, a microbial rennet is employed. This results in all of Croatia's cheese being vegetarian friendly.
Pag cheese is left to age from between five to eighteen months depending on the desired end product, although you can obtain Pag cheeses that have been aged for over 10 years. The ageing is affected by seasonal changes in humidity and temperature, both of which affect the flavour, with younger cheeses being more creamy, holding a fresher aroma and appearing yellow in colour. The older cheeses are darker, edging towards brown, have a much more pungent aroma and are harder, more grainy on the tongue in texture and hold a fuller, more mature flavour.
Pag cheese is famous among cheese lovers the world over. It is far from being the cheapest cheese you can buy in Croatia as the internal market must compete with the high demand for its export. But, Croatians love this delicacy and so, when they buy it, it is treated with respect. It is taken from the fridge before serving and then presented at room temperature, allowing the full aroma and flavour to be released.
Often it is cut into thin, long triangles and will be the star turn on a plate. Otherwise, it appears alongside prosciutto on a platter of delicacies. In each case, as always, its best friends on the pallette come from nearby; figs, grapes, olives, anchovies or sage-flavoured Pag honey. It can elsewhere be found in pasta dishes and risottos. The strong flavour of Pag cheese means it stands up well against some punchy spices, like black pepper and also the full-flavoured red wines made elsewhere in Dalmatia.
Click here to find out what European recognition does for Croatian produce and see all of Croatia's best delicacies which are protected