Ready for some cheese? Read on for an appetising tour of some of Slovenia’s funkiest cheeses and to see how Slovene cheesemakers are making it big in the world of cheese
I was eagerly counting the days till the second edition of the Slovene Cheese Festival 2019, especially after having thoroughly enjoyed last year’s first run of the festival. 1 October finally arrived, so I drove out to the Brdo Congress Centre in Kranj, my stomach rumbling gently in anticipation.
Striding through the door, my nostrils quivered at the assertive cheese bouquet that filled the air. My eyes caught site of the many voluptuous cheese displays laid out before me. What more could a cheese lover want? Just the opportunity to get their hands on that cheese, I suppose. 🙂 Hmm… The gentle rumble of my stomach rose to a crescendo as I browsed through the aromatic aura that hung above the cheeses.
Eighty-four different cheeses were there for the tasting. Of every texture from crumbly to soft and creamy; cheeses from cows, goats, and sheep; cheeses seasoned with herbs, or aged in grape skins. For the sake of my belly’s contentment, I had to make an effort to be choosy and not eat all in sight, as cheese overload is a hard one to digest.
So I went about selecting the most eye-catching and curious cheeses from among 33 enticing cheese displays (each cheesemaker could exhibit as many as three cheeses). The 33 cheesemakers at the festival consisted mainly of boutique dairies, except for three of Slovenia’s large producers: Pomurske Mlekarne, Mlekarna Planina, and Mlekarna Celeia.
A lot of the boutique cheesemakers that I spoke to emphasised that they don’t feed silage to their animals. Silage is a type of fodder produced from green foliage crops that have been preserved by acidification, which is achieved through fermentation. The milk or cheese produced by animals fed on silage is known to have a different taste that is not as pleasant as that produced from animals that feed on pasture.
I tasted a variety of cheeses ranging from fresh to aged, and soft to hard cheeses, some with mould, and others seasoned. Here are some cheeses that really stood out:
- Ekološka Kmetija Planko & Kleh’s fresh goat cheese
- Sirarstvo Orešnik’s eco-ripened soft goat cheese with thyme, and a goat and sheep cheese with blue mould which they’ve named Patricija
- Pustotnik’s Sir Kozovč—a semi-hard cheese made from a mixture of goat and sheep milk
- Kmetija Žerjal‘s Tropinc—a hard goat cheese immersed in a container filled with Teran grape skins and left there to acquire their aroma and flavour, which is then removed and aged for one year. I also liked this cheesemaker’s Gmajnar—a goat cheese with Karst herbs, and Brin—goat cheese infused with juniper.
During lunchtime, chef Jože Godec of Resje restaurant in Bohinj brought out multitudes of cheese-based finger-food servings. There were seven different options, including baked potato with the very particular cheese from Bohinj known as Mohant, cheese burgers, ravioli stuffed with skuta, and buckwheat pancake with goat cheese mousse and crunchy, popped buckwheat kernels.
All the ingredients that Jože Godec incorporated into these mini-dishes are typical Slovene, but this remarkable chef added a few innovative streaks to them. Those popped buckwheat kernels were really tasty, and are great for adding a crunchy touch to a dish that’s dominated by smooth textures.
Here’s something I’d never tried before: a cheese and chocolate combo. Kmetija Podpečan had trayfulls of chocolate-covered cheese cubes, some with chilli on top, others with seeds. And what a sweet deal they made with their chocolate-making friends! The farm and chocolate-makers swap their products. This is actually how many people here in Slovenia roll, by exchanging their home-made or home-grown products.
Back to the choco-cheese combos: These proved to be a hit with chocolate and cheese lovers, but I still prefer to eat the two separately. It’s true that certain cheeses pair succulently well with sweet foods like dried fruit, jams, and honey. However, in my humble opinion, chocolate is too good to eat with cheese, and vice versa.
Dedicated to Cheese
Slovene cheesemakers are ever so dedicated to their craft, and the Slovene Cheese Festival is a true representation of this. I interviewed Katarina Brence, a new-generation cheesemaker from Pustotnik Farm, whose family is part of the festival organising committee. When I asked her how cheesemaking has progressed over the past couple of years in Slovenia, she replied “Cheeses are much better than they were 15 to 20 years ago. Producers have taken an interest in furthering their knowledge and developing new technologies.”
Slovene cheesemakers receive their cheesemaking education in a few schools around Slovenia, including the Biotehniški Center Naklo, near Kranj. They get a basic knowledge, but there’s a lack of practice.
Some of the smaller dairies who want to make it big in the world of cheese turn to travelling abroad to countries such as Switzerland, Austria, France, and Italy. That way, they can gain hands-on practice. At Pustotnik, for example, Katarina acquired most of her knowledge from her parents, particularly her mother, who studied in Switzerland for a while some 30 years ago.
Regarding making it big in the world of cheese, it’s not necessarily in terms of quantity, but rather quality.
What’s to Become of Slovene Cheese?
Cheese has started to take a more important role in Slovene gastronomy. It’s only recently that people in Slovenia have started to incorporate cheese into food dishes and desserts (other than just sandwiches and pizzas), and being more attentive to how they display cheeses on platters. They’re also paying more attention to how to pair cheeses with wines and craft beers.
Katarina of Pustotnik said that for the cheese sector to develop, cheesemakers must work on integrating their cheeses within the gastronomy and culinary fields. One way of doing this is by connecting with chefs and restaurateurs. “Another way is to educate the public about how to eat cheese,” says Katarina. “When people visit our farm for a tour and tasting, I make it a point to explain which cheeses to eat with what, how to serve cheese… as much as I can to instill a deeper appreciation for and knowledge about cheese.”
Mark Your Diary
The Slovene Cheese Festival is taking place on the same day, every year. So all you cheese lovers out there, be sure to mark October 1, 2020, in your diaries. At the third edition, you will definitely come across a few cheeses that you’ve never had the opportunity to taste. Till then, all we can say is “More cheese, please!”
More About the Slovene Cheese Festival & the Association of Rural Cheesemakers of Slovenia
Success After Success
Last year’s Slovene Cheese Festival was the very first of its kind in Slovenia. The Association of Rural Cheesemakers of Slovenia (ZKSS) organised the event to commemorate the 20th anniversary since its inception. Originally, the ZKSS thought up the festival as a one-time event to celebrate the occasion. However, due to last year’s success, the association has established it as a yearly event.
Strength in Numbers
Some 20 years ago, a group of farmers and dairy producers joined forces to form the cheese association (ZKSS). Slovenia back then didn’t have the small private cheesemaking dairies that it has today, having only major corporations doing mass production. So cheesemakers felt the need to come together as an association to develop the cheese aspect of Slovenia’s gastronomy.
Since its inception, the association has been based at KGZS – Ptuj Institute. Its 118 members come from all over Slovenia and are active in the field of education, promotion of cheesemaking on farms, and raising the quality of cheese products. The association is an active member of the Farmhouse and Artisan Cheese and Dairy Producer’s European Network (FACE).