Travel

Meet the makers: the Balkan cheese producer

On her farm in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dragana Brkan produces škripavac, a cheese unique to this corner of the Balkans Monday, 8 April 2019

By Malou Herkes

“To make cheese as fresh as this, you need homemade rennet and, of course, it’s all about the quality of the milk, which depends on what our cows eat,” says Dragana Brkan, slicing white slabs of škripavac and juicy tomatoes before doling it onto plates to be eaten together.

Milky, sweet and slightly floral, škripavac is a cheese specific to this part of the Balkans, where cows — including Dragana’s 20-strong herd — graze year-round on the mountain’s wild edibles, from heather to sage.

A refugee from Dubrovnik after the Yugoslav Wars, Dragana and her husband moved to the isolated village of Slavogostići, close to the Croatian border, to take over his grandfather’s farm. She’s now one of just a few cheesemakers — most of them female — producing škripavac in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It was very hard at the beginning; we barely had a roof. No windows or water, but I saw the opportunity in making cheese for market. Nobody was doing it.” Indeed, Dragana was the first to start making škripavac for commercial production following the breakup of Yugoslavia. “I learnt from the women in the surrounding villages, who were only making it for their own families.”

In her spotless kitchen, the morning’s raw milk has been curdled and separated, speckled with salt, and lined up in rows of saucepans that she uses as the moulds. In a few hours, they’ll be ready to join the already packed shelves in the adjacent maturation room. “It’s best eaten fresh, within two to three days, but it can be left to mature. When it’s dry, we preserve it in oil,” she tells me.

Dragana’s business flourished as she fought to bring electricity to the village, growing her herd at the same time. Today, customers travel from all over the region, often crossing from Croatia, to buy her cheese. Dragana, along with a growing number of local women who have followed suit, is transforming tradition into a commercial enterprise, and saving a local product from extinction, too.

In your fridge

Westcombe Cheddar Curds
Škripavac translates into English as ‘squeaky’ (for the sound it makes when eaten). This is similar in texture, also made from raw milk, and has a sweet, milky taste. £18.70/kg.

Ashdown Forester’s
A young, firm, unpressed cheese with a slightly soft texture, comparable to škripavac once it’s been aged for a few weeks to a few months. £19.20/kg. 

Graceburn
A soft cheese, not dissimilar to feta, steeped in extra virgin olive oil and rapeseed oil, infused with thyme, garlic, bay and pepper. £8 for a 250g jar.

Graviera From Tinos
A hard Greek cheese made from cows’ milk, Graviera is semi-sweet with an intense yellow colour. £8.20 for 350g.

Where to try it
Dragana’s cheese is sold at the daily market in the city of Trebinje. To enquire about visits to her village, contact Slow Food Trebinje

Published in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food.

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