If you ever wanted to know how a place tastes, try this highly regarded Croatian cheese that truly captures Pag’s essence.
Pag cheese (Paški sir) is one of Croatia’s most beloved cheeses produced exclusively on the island of Pag. Croatians love it and every foreigner who tastes it, can never forget its distinctive aroma. It is a hard cheese made from the milk of the Paška sheep, a breed of sheep indigenous to the island of Pag.
There is no telling how long this cheese has been around, but there is a recording from 1774 when a traveller Alberto Fortis wrote down that cheese is one of the most important products of Pag.
Island of Pag is famous for its barren land, mostly made of rock, so it doesn’t seem like a place where sheep herding would prosper, but nature has its ways. There might not be a lot of grass on Pag, but there is plenty of wild growing aromatic herbs and mediterranean spices which serve as food to the Pag sheep. These herbs are also a product of Pag’s particular geographical conditions – the wind carries salt and distributes it on the plantlife.
The sheep consequently lactate milk that is like no other, infused with salty aromas of their main diet. Because of the diet and the sheep’s lactating limitations, the milk output is very low, so to make only one Pag cheese, it takes milk from about 10 sheep.
Pag Island’s terroir and its impact on Pag cheese
The island’s climate, characterized by hot summers and mild winters, fosters ideal conditions for sheep’s grazing and milk production. The bura, a dry and cold northern wind, sweeps across the island, carrying with it sea salt that crystallizes on the vegetation. As the sheep feed on this salted flora, a subtle brininess is imparted to the cheese, enhancing its savory and slightly salty taste.
In essence, the terroir of Pag Island, with its aromatic herbs, Mediterranean spices, climate, wind, and salt, collaborates harmoniously to create Pag cheese’s distinct and delightful flavor, making it a true treasure of Croatian gastronomy.
The production of Pag cheese is a time-honored tradition that yields exceptional results. It all begins with the milking of the indigenous Pag sheep, known for their ability to graze on the island’s rugged terrain. Their milk, with its rich fat and protein content, forms the foundation of this cheese.
The milk is carefully heated and coagulated using natural rennet or enzymes obtained from lamb stomachs, creating curds and whey. These curds are then meticulously cut to small pieces to separate them from the whey, a process that demands precision to achieve the desired texture.
Next, the curds are gently drained and pressed into molds, shaping the cheese into characteristic wheels or blocks. Cheese wheels are placed in cool, well-ventilated rooms or caves for several months, allowing them to develop complex flavors and textures that are characteristic of this exceptional cheese. It’s this meticulous process that gives its distinct and celebrated taste, making it a true gem of Croatian culinary tradition!
Its savory flavour is enhanced by rubbing the cheese with ash and olive oil during production.
The salty, spicey aromas are best when paired with some prosciutto, grapes and a deep tannin-packed red wine, also providing your palate with a mouthful of traditional Dalmatian tastes.
There are two types of Pag cheese, young and mature. Young cheese has matured for up to a year, and the mature one is over a year. There are also differences in taste, the young cheese has a mild taste and is lighter in colour, and mature cheese is more spicy and darker in colour.
But it’s not only Croatians who appreciate the special taste of this unique cheese. This September Pag cheese won prestigious awards at the Global Cheese Awards fair held in Britain and was declared the Best Hard Sheep-Milk Cheese in the World. Pag cheese received a gold medal for the best cheese produced from sheep’s milk and the best delicacy made of sheep’s milk. In November last year in Spain’s San Sebastian at the World Cheese Awards, it won the Super Gold Medal for the Best Hard Sheep-Milk Cheese in Central & Eastern Europe.
Where to taste/buy Pag cheese? (novo)
You can find this renowned Croatian cheese in various locations, such as local markets, cheese shops, dairy farms and local restaurants. The availability of Paški sir may vary depending on the season and location, so it’s a good idea to inquire locally or online for the most up-to-date options! When buying, look for official labels and indications of quality to ensure you’re getting authentic Pag cheese.
Recipes with Pag cheese
This simple, classic dish features the rich Pag cheese flavour as the main star.
You can make potato gnocchi at home or simply buy good-quality gnocchi to speed up the process. Boil them for a minute or two and then fry slightly in butter for another minute or so, before finishing everything off with a generous amount of grated Pag cheese.
Grilled lamb with polenta
Janjetina na gradele is a traditional island specialty that involves cooking small pieces of lamb on a grill (gradele) over open fire. It is traditionally made for Easter and accompanied with pieces of polenta with Pag cheese. This may not be a dish you would make at home, but there are many restaurants that serve this jewel of Croatian cuisine.
Skradinski rižot is an icon of Croatian cuisine, made famous by the chef Anthony Bourdain. This dish is traditionally made by men and the preparation lasts for over 10 hours! It is essentially a veal risotto, with specially prepared bouillon being the key ingredient. The result of the hard work is a magnificent dish finished off with magnificent Pag cheese. Definitely not a recipe for the inexperienced cook.
Adriatic Stuffed squid
This dish features all the staples of Mediterranean cuisine: quality Adriatic squid stuffed with aromatic Pag cheese and pršut, seasoned with olive oil, garlic and parsley and paired with dry white wine. This is a dish you could try making at home, as it really boils down to cleaning and stuffing the squids and then frying them for a couple of minutes on low heat in olive oil. Use toothpicks to seal the stuffing in place.
Roasted asparagus with Pag cheese
A very simple dish best enjoyed during the wild asparagus season in spring. Season the asparagus lightly with salt, pepper and olive oil, then fry for a few minutes in olive oil. Add some lemon zest and again a generous amount of grated Pag cheese. You can even wrap each stalk in pršut or serve it with grilled chicken. Yum!
Kolan cheese festival (novo)
The Kolan Cheese Festival is an annual celebration that unfolds in the picturesque village of Kolan on Pag Island. The event pays tribute to Pag cheese, one of the island’s most renowned products.
The festival typically comes alive during the warm summer months, creating an unforgettable experience for visitors. At the heart of the event are several key highlights, such as cheese tasting, cultural enrichment, educational insight and local gastronomy.
Overall, the Kolan Cheese Festival is a harmonious blend of flavors, traditions, and cultural experiences, all set against the backdrop of Pag Island’s breathtaking scenery, making it a must-visit event for cheese and culture enthusiasts alike!
If you’re coming to Šimuni, don’t miss a chance to try Pag cheese right where it’s made.
You can buy Pag cheese in bigger supermarkets on Pag or try it in our restaurants at camp, but if you’re interested to buy it straight from the artisans that make them, here are some tips. Buy Pag cheese at Paška sirana shops in Pag, Novalja and Povljana, Gligora sirana shop in Kolan and MIH sirana in Kolan.
Some manufacturers even hold tours of their cheese production lines and cheese tastings, so you can get a behind the scenes look of how delicious cheese is made.
If you’re a cheese lover who likes to try out new delicacies, don’t miss out on The Cheese Feast in Kolan, held on the last Friday in August. Besides loads of cheese, it includes a Day of open doors in local cheese factories and autochthonous menus in restaurants.