Sheep Cheese Tasting in Pag
During our time in Zadar, we took a day trip to do some sheep cheese tasting in Pag, the Croatian island famous for its “paški sir.”
Paški Sir - Croatia’s Delicious Sheep Cheese from Pag
Paški sir - literally Pag cheese - is a mouth-wateringly delicious Croatian sheep cheese. Made from pasteurized sheep’s milk, the flaky, crumbly cheese has a texture somewhat similar to Spanish Manchego.
Having been to Croatia years prior, Chipp remembered tasting this local delight but couldn’t for the life of him remember the name. When we got settled in Zagreb, he insisted on finding some at the supermarket.
Chipp to guy at the cheese counter who spoke a little English: “I’m looking for a local cheese - a kind of hard sheep cheese - made somewhere on the Dalmatian Coast.”
Cheese counter guy: “Ah - that’ll be paški sir!”
Walking out from behind the counter, this cheese expert/guru/savior pointed out the two brands of paški sir they sold.
Jenna’s reaction: “Is it really necessary to buy this expensive cheese?” Chipp’s defense: “Necessary? No. Recommended? Absolutely! If you don’t like it, I’ll admit that I was completely wrong (a painful undertaking for Chipp).”
So, cheese and a bottle of wine in hand, we returned to our apartment. Slicing a few narrow slivers, Chipp offered one to Jenna. She immediately converted to Team Paški Sir!
Part of what makes this cheese so special is the sheep’s diet on the island of Pag. On the inland side, Pag looks like a barren moonscape. On the side facing the Adriatic, windswept shrubs climb from the coast up to the island’s highest ridge. These winds end up coating Pag’s vegetation with a layer of salt. Sheep then munch on these local shrubs - a mixture of sage, lavender, rosemary, and other aromatics - giving their milk a unique flavor in the process.
What’s a PDO?
These conditions that help create such delicious cheese on Pag beg the question, can you make paški sir elsewhere? While bourbon may be synonymous with Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the United States if distillers follow appropriate procedures. What about this Pag-produced flavor explosion?
This question led us down a rabbit hole of culinary designations.
Apparently, paški sir is classified as a PDO product, that is, one with a “protected designation of origin.” According to the internet, a PDO label “identifies products that are produced, processed and prepared in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region concerned.”
In other words, paški sir not only requires local ingredients, it must be processed by Pag specialists using their traditional methods on Pag. In Spain, Manchego falls into the PDO category. In the UK, generic cheddar and blue cheeses aren’t protected, but West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and Blue Stilton cheese fall under the PDO umbrella.
So no, despite the few-glasses-of-wine-brilliant business idea, Chipp will not be investing in a paški-sir-producing farm anywhere in the United States…
A Gligora Cheese Tour and Tasting
While paški sir must be produced on a Pag, the island has a few different actual producers. On our day trip up from Zadar, we decided to visit one of the larger ones - Gligora - due to its tasting room and production-facility tours.
Pretty much an hour on the dot, the drive from Zadar to Gligora’s facility in the Kolan portion of Pag takes you through some incredibly diverse terrain for such a small area. Driving inland from Zadar, you cut over tree-covered hills before turning northwest. To get to Pag, visitors cross a metal-arch bridge onto the southern tip of the island. Crossing over this, it really does look like you’re driving onto the moon, with that whole portion of the island nothing but rock and blowing sand.
Gradually, this barren landscape sprouts vegetation as you approach the town of Pag, where you cross an inland lagoon and ascend a steep series of switchbacks up and over the ridge bisecting the northern portion of the island - hell of a view from the top!
On the far side - the Adriatic-facing part of Pag - pine forests gradually give way to hillside fields dotted with that lavender, sage, and rosemary so crucial to the paški sir flavor. And, as expected, sheep dot these fields, with stone fences marking the boundaries between farms.
Gligora - understandably - sits right in the middle of this sheep-filled region. Since we arrived a little before our scheduled tour, we started with a tasting. We were here for the paški sir, but Gligora produces a variety of other sheep- and goat-milk cheeses, making the full tasting quite a culinary parade - cheeses, olives, jams, grapes, and other local treats - all accompanied by more Croatian wine. In retrospect, it was probably wise to do the tasting before the tour, as it would’ve been tough walking through an entire production facility for this delicious cheese on an empty stomach.
Cheese board cleaned, we linked up with the Gligora guide to begin our tour. To avoid compromising the ingredients, we all had to don pseudo-surgical suits - can’t risk messing up the deliciousness with a stray hair! For the next 30ish minutes, our guide walked us through the production facilities, explaining the whole process - from sourcing the sheep’s milk to forming the cheese to properly rotating the aging wheels.
A few interesting points jumped out on the tour. One, it takes seven liters of sheep’s milk to make a kilo of paški sir - good bar trivia. Two, staff need to flip the aging wheels of cheese twice a week by hand so that that fat stays uniformly distributed throughout. If not, it all seeps down to one side, drying out the other portions of the wheel. Three, paški sir is made in much smaller wheels than Parmigiano Reggiano, meaning it’s only aged for two weeks to two years, depending on type (the longer the aging, the thicker the rind). Parm, on the other hand, has no maximum aging period, with some resting for up to 100 months.
Cool experience, doing the whole cheese tour - and a first for both of us.
Pag’s Other Culinary Delight - Roasted Lamb
Wrapping up at Gligora, it was time for lunch, and we wanted to try a local dish we just learned about on our cheese tour.
Paški sir - understandably - takes the headlines when it comes to Pag’s food scene. But, another item - far more challenging to get outside of Pag - pulls locals and tourists alike to the island’s restaurants.
With thousands of sheep, Pag, by extension, has thousands of lambs. Yes, it’s critical to compartmentalize images of these cute little fur balls when you’re eating them, but the way Pag chefs prepare this meat - with nothing but local olive oil and salt for seasoning - makes that compartmentalization an easy process.
Raised on the same milk and aromatics flavoring paški sir, these young lambs translate into incredibly moist, tender, and flavorful roasts. So good that, when we tried to grab a bite at the seaside restaurant most known for serving this dish, they essentially laughed at us when we said we didn’t have a reservation. Maybe we can fit you in next week…
Okay, Plan B. We backtracked to the town of Pag, looking for another restaurant that had the local lamb on the menu. Fortunately, we found one - would’ve been quite disappointing if we hadn’t, knowing we wouldn’t be back to Pag for some time.
Na Katine sits right on the harbor in the town of Pag, letting diners sit in the shade of their patio and look out at the water. More important than this view, though, was the fact that A) Na Katine was open, and B) accepted walk-ins for its roasted lamb. We’re in luck!
Unbelievable. We ordered the lamb by weight - maturely opting for a half kilo instead of a full one. True to form, Na Katine served chunks of this roasted delight, dripping with fatty, meaty juiciness and seasoned with nothing but local olive oil and salt. Yes, we ordered a salad as well to appease Jenna, but both of us could’ve sat there for hours and just nibbled on lamb alone.
Oh yeah, the lamb’s traditionally accompanied by some crisp potatoes - do a wonderful job soaking up the aforementioned juices!