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Versatility of sheep milk

Multifunctional role of sheep in traditional Slovak livelihood has been sufficiently "celebrated "in the section about "Bryndziarstvo." In this chapter we would like to pay sheep tributes once again and focus this time on the milk products other than bryndza.

The main product from sheep milk has for centuries been a lump cheese, processed both as a target product as well as semi-product for a variety of further dairy foodstuffs. The lump cheese has been produced in all sheep farming regions of Slovakia using the same traditional Wallachian method for centuries. The method is based on fermentation using natural rennet called ‘klag" which is basically a substance being prepared from stomachs of sucking calves, lambs and goatees before they started to feed themselves on green fodder. At the beginning, stomachs were obtained at "salase" themselves, later on, however, were mainly bought at butcher’s.

Cleaned stomachs were inflated and consequently dried up. Some head sheep farmers (called "bacovia" – plural from ‘baca’-in Slovak) used not only the stomach skin, but also its content. As the stomachs consumption was considerable, each ‘baca" had a generous supply prepared for many weeks in advance. Natural rennet was obtained in the following way: Dried stomachs were cut into smaller sections and necessary amount was submerged in boiled jelly. It was left there for several days and then it was strained to obtain liquid substance.

‘Klag" was used for sheep (also cow and goat) cheese production in places where Wallachian sheep farming tradition was common. Apart from killed animals' stomachs, some plants (their roots, leaves or fruits) as, for example, Gentian root, mushrooms, birch sap, wild apple vinegar, etc were used. Numerous "bacovia" preserved these "special" alterations as their well-safeguarded recipes.

Natural rennet is added to the milk with the temperature of freshly milked milk, which is subsequently stirred up and covered by a sheet, left to ferment. Milk curdling takes about 20-25 minutes. Correctly curdled milk should be of jelly consistence easily flaking off the vessel walls. "Bacovia" used a very primitive technique to identify this stage using their fingers. If the jelly did not stick to them, it was just right. Fermented jelly was further on stirred with a wooden ladle to break it into fine small pieces to prepare a smooth mixture. Using metal ladles was, according to folk wisdom, strictly prohibited as it could cause a sheep udder ailment. After a thorough stir up a sheet, leaving its content to set for 5 up to 10 minutes covers the vessel back again. At the end of this period, thicker matter should be concentrated at the bottom, liquid like matter (whey), on contrary, should form the upper part.

In the next stage, lump cheese is collected to a flex sheet. "Baca" ability to collect cheese is measured by his proficiency in cheese lump forming. As we have already mentioned in the previous paragraphs, lump cheese is both a semi product as well as a final commodity offered on village tables and on fairs. This cheese has always been known under a great variety of local expressions, for example, sheep cheese, sweet (fresh) sheep cheese, lump cheese. It can be consumed as a complement to bread and boiled potatoes or it is popularly used to prepare cheese dishes such as "halusky," thick pasta noodles and other pasta dishes.

However, lump cheese has been mainly used as main material for further dairy product preparation as briefly described in the following paragraphs. At first, we have to mention that the character of further lump cheese processing was influenced by market demands. "Bryndza" was by far a chief cheese product on the territory of Slovakia. In some regions, also sheep butter was quite rarely produced. Whey - as a by-product – was used for a preparation of a popular drink called "zincica." Lump cheese matter has been, however, grossly used for a production of especially tasty and well sough-after kinds of smoked or steamed cheeses, we must say real delicatessens for gourmets. In some smaller regions, peculiar sorts of dried cheeses were highly popular.

"Zincica"

Whey is a by-product of the lump cheese collection phase and is further used as a chief substance for "zincica" production. It is necessary to point out that this dairy drink has been greatly popular in all regions of Slovakia for its distinctive fine taste. We personally love this drink, once being a major staple foodstuff of sheep farmers. Any "zincica" left over was sold to local villagers allowing thus sheep farmers to enrich their diet by shopping for other staple products.

"Zincica recipe" is identical in all most important features. Whey is transferred to a big metal pot subsequently being placed over some open fire. Firstly, it is gently heated up being stirred continuously. When first bubbles start appearing on the surface, pot is set aside and "zincica" is being collected from the top section. According to follow-up steps we recognise several different kinds of this drink. "Smooth zincica" was most commonly cooked, other peculiarities included "sour zincica," "curdled zincica," etc.

Another characteristic feature of the whole "zincica" business was carving of special wooden mugs for its drinking called "crpaky." Actually, "zincica" was responsible for the creation of a brand new craft, as there was a great demand for traditional and stylish "crpaky" production. They were usually beautifully carved with figurative motifs adorning their handles.

Smoked cheese

Another typical method of conservation a variety of homemade products is smoking. Majority of sheep cheeses is also smoke preserved to prolong their durability. Away from the practicality of this method, there are more "down-to-gourmet-bellies" reasons behind such processing. One must try to believe that there is nothing to beat high quality homemade smoked cheese.

"Ostiepky" are the most popular of Slovak smoked cheeses. Secret of their preparation is thoroughly "guarded" in 3 bastions of Slovak sheep farming: Liptov, Orava, Pohronie. Basic processing method is identical for all of these regions. Lump cheese is, once again, the starting point for the whole process. In the first step, lump cheese is hand crushed into tiny pieces pushing the excessive whey out. The following step represents hand kneading of individual pieces into one compact matter combined with its submerging into "zincica" vessel. The third step can generally be called steaming and ladle forming. Hand-shaped lump is placed on a wide ladle subsequently being dipped for 15 seconds into boiling water. Then it is lifted and formed on a ladle. This step is repeated all over again 3 more times. The fourth step is actually a phase of final "ostiepok" shaping into its desired form using wooden moulds. The cheese is slightly steamed while still in the mould. Then it is taken out and is left to "marinate" in jelly for 12 hours. The following stage is characteristic by smoking itself. "Ostiepok is placed into phloem bag and hung in a special smoke house where it is left for 5/6 days. Traditionally, cheese was smoked inside "koliba" which must have been very unpleasant for their dwellers, to say the least. Folk saying goes that a genuine "valach" is the first class "thoroughly" smoked "stuff" if we are to believe this folk wisdom. Best quality products were reached after burning pinewood.

Regions did not differentiate wooden "ostiepky" moulds as they were acquired from individual wood carvers from all over the territory. These moulds were chiefly of a oval shape and were generously adorned by simple folk ornaments. One average "ostiepok" weighed approximately 50-65 dkg (1.3 pound).

Another fairly peculiar category of smoked cheeses is "edible art" one comprising various animal figures such as hens, cocks, rabbits, baby dear and, of course, the ever present heart motif. They were used to please children and as a sign of young "valasi" affection for their beloved sweethearts. All these figures were produced from the waste matter left over after "ostiepky" production thus making the whole process utterly effective.

The traditional "ostiepky" production is still alive and thriving. Nowadays, thanks to the smoked cheese general popularity in public, new smoked cheese varieties are also being manufactured. We will not exaggerate when saying that Slovak cheeses have found their way to the majority of European tables and are highly regarded and credited even in the cradle of cheese-making industry in Holland.

Steamed cheese

Another traditional product of Slovak cheese-makers is cheese preserved by steaming. Pohronie region, mainly Brezno with its surrounding area, is the home of this conservation method. The most important ‘representative" of this category is popularly called "parenica," simply meaning steamed cheese. Initial production stage is identical to the smoked cheese technological process. Lump cheese is hand crushed into small pieces and pressed into a wooden vessel. This mass is hand formed into flat shapes put into flex bags and left to leaven in warm conditions near open fire, usually for 12-18 hours. Well-raised mass is further processed by the means of steaming and warming up in hot water, followed by kneading and slow pulling into long flexible strips. Strips are firstly being pulled by hand, later they are stretched on a flat worktop. In the following step they are dipped into jelly for a while. Finally, the strips are once again spread on the worktop and are woven into small snail-like curls. Traditionally, these curls, by the way very decorative, were tied up by a delicate cheese string. For a final "taste improvement," "parenica" was dipped again for 2-3 hours into a cold jelly. Then "parenica" was placed in a smoky "koliba" to gain its characteristic yellowish shade. If it was left in smoke-free larder, it kept its original white colour.

In Orava region, another kind of steamed cheese called "korbaciky" (it is actually cheese strings being interwoven into fine braids) was home produced. Most commonly, however, they were the result of cow milk processing.

We can say that steamed cheese production, mainly Pohronie specific method, can be classed as Slovak uniqueness and therefore we feel it should be preserved as an intact part of our cultural heritage. Nowadays, equally to previously mentioned smoked cheeses, these cheeses are vastly popular forming many times necessary complement of our tables. New technological approaches to the traditional method greatly improved hygienic standards of products, thus eliminating probably the only real problem of home produce. As in the previous section, we can highly recommend these delicatessens for both immediate consumption and dishes preparation.

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