The production of high quality cheeses from raw milk has a long tradition in Mavrovo National Park even if it has been recorded a constant decline due to the difficult working condition, lack of infrastructure, lack of supportive state policies, low interest of young people in continuing the traditional mountain activities. As far as the kashkaval (the most appreciated product) is concerned, the villages of Lazaropole and Galichnik, which are some of the most preserved old style villages in Western Macedonia, are the only places where this hard yellow cheese is produced according to the traditional methods in the Shar and Bistra massifs. In Western Macedonia, the possession of sheep flocks has always represented an important indicator of the social position. According to the folk tale, at the end of each spring during the Ottoman period when the flocks belonging to the great land- and flock owners of Galichnik where coming back from the plain of Thessaloniki to the pastures of Bistra and Shar, the first sheep reached the peaks at the same time when the last one was leaving Thessaloniki. Today, the sheep flocks pass the winter months in Central Macedonia, in Gradcko along the Vardar River. The craftsmen (or majstori in Macedonian language) are a community within a community, which is represented by those who are producing the cheese (with particular reference to the kashkaval, which requires the most complex procedures). All of them come from a single village, Krklja, in the municipality of Kriva Palanka, which is close to the border with Bulgaria, at the opposite side of the country. The decline of this activity among the inhabitants of the small village of Krklja is probably one of the most important factors which put at risk the production of the traditional kashkaval in the area of Mavrovo. To produce kashkaval the milk is set at a temperature of about 32-38°C. Rennet quantity depends on the sources of the rennet, but it should be sufficient to give firm curd in 45 min. Usually, it is cut into 5-6 cm pieces. Then, it is left to harden and then in 10-15 min cut again to pea-sized curds (8-10mm). Keep the temperature to 36-38°C. Stir until curds harden, and then let it settle. Remove half the whey and then press the curd in the vat. Then press in the cloth (6-10kg per 1 kg curd) to partially cheddar the curd. Curd must reach pH 5.2 (1.2-1.35% acid) in 18-20h before final scald. Leave in 5kg blocks to ripen. Test a piece of curd in hot water at 72°C. Curd is cut into thin slices (5mm). Put the strips into wooden baskets, immerse approximately 10kg of the slices in hot water at 70-74°C and stir for 1-3 min with wooden slat to obtain homogeneous plastic mass. Then kneed the curds on a table and knead 2-2.5% coarse salt into the plastic curd, then place it into cylindrical metal moulds to cool. Turn five or six times and next morning remove the mould. Dry salt the cheese for 35-45 days at 16-18°C, 90% RH, 5-7 times. Turn regularly. After salting, wash the cheese with a cloth wrung out in salt water. Cheeses dry for 5-7 days at 15-18°C and one day on the sun. The milk to produce mountain pasture cheeses in Mavrovo National Park is obtained primarily from a local sheep breed called Sharplaninska. The name of this breed comes from its area of breeding, the Shar Planina massif, which is located in the northwestern part of Macedonia and in the Southern part of Kosovo. This breed, as the name suggests, is historically linked to the area of Shar Planina and to its population. Sharplaninska belongs to the Pramenka group of breeds, widely spread in the Balkan Peninsula. The region is situated at crossroads of the land and sea routes between east and west, and is very complex both geographically and ethnically. It is known that the peat sheep (Ovis aries palustris) was present during the Neolithic period in the Balkan area. This long-tailed sheep descended from Ovis orientalis vignei. In this region, around 3000 BC the short-tailed copper sheep, descended from Ovis musimon, was also present. The name pramenka comes from the word pramen (“lock”), referring to the way that the coarse, open fleece hangs in opens locks, often with a part running along the middle of the back. Due to a great degree of adaptation to ambient conditions numerous types of pramenka sheep evolved in separate biogeographic localities. The main characteristic of the Sharplaninska is its completely white head, ears, and legs. The head is small, rams have well-developed horns, and most of the ewes are polled. The body is short, the legs are thin, and the hooves are strong. Taking in consideration that the Sharplaninska has been subject to a wide phenomenon of merinization (selection using Merino sheep), the pure Sharplaninska is facing extinction and survives only in few remote villages of the Shar Mountain massif. With particular focus on kashkaval, the production of Mountain Pasture cheeses is at risk due to the following reasons: Lack of public policies supporting semi-nomadic sheep-breeding and production of local and traditional cheeses; introduction of strict food safety and hygiene standards; competition of industrial cheeses; and poverty leading to the purchase of cheaper industrial cheese. The semi-nomadic sheep-breeding and the production of cheese from raw milk in mountain areas still represent important economic activities, which are directly linked to the cultural identity of this area and should be preserved and promoted in order to combat the strong trend of depopulation.
Image: © Nikolce Nikolovski