There is so much to cover when it comes to Croatia’s food scene. Despite the country’s relatively small size, there is an astounding amount of regional variety.
Let’s get into the swing of things by introducing one of my favorite Croatian products – cheese!
Can’t resist a gorgeous cheese plate. Image: Pexels
Oldest cheese found in Croatia
Sir (pronounced s-ee-r), cheese has been an integral part of Croatian history from as far back as 7,200 years, where researchers from Pennsylvania State University found traces of the world’s oldest cheese along the Dalmatian coast.
Although records from the time are scarce, it is theorized that during the 4-5th century BCE, Thracian and Illyrian sheep farmers accidentally produced the first cheeses when milk they kept stored in bags spontaneously fermented and curdled. Today, cheese features heavily in both sweet and savory dishes throughout Croatia such as Burek and Strukli.
Sheep were the dominant livestock for cheese production. Image: Pexels
Yet, on the global culinary scene, Croatian cheeses remained shrouded in relative obscurity due to the lower levels of production, and the disconnect between traditional cheese producers and the international market.
However, this situation started to change when in 2017, Paški sir, a hard sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag with its delectable notes of wild sage and thyme, took home the gold for the best sheep’s milk cheese at the Global Cheese Awards, giving Croatia’s cheeses much-needed recognition.
Paški sir. Image: Gligora/Facebook
In recent years, Croatia has seen the launch of new types of high-quality cheese, as both artisanal and industrial producers continue to experiment with new additions and methods. Don’t be surprised to find both industrially produced cheese, alongside homemade cheese, on the tables of Croatian families.
Croatian cheese galore
This might come as a surprise but despite its small production, Croatia still boasts a mind-boggling variety of delicious cheeses like Škripavac, Tounjski, Creski, Sir iz mješine, Prgica, Lećevački, and Basa, just to name a few!
These cheeses are typically made from goat (kozji), sheep (ovčji), cow’s (kravlji) milk, or a combination of the 3.
Like Croatian food in general, cheese offerings tend to vary between regions but one of the staple cheeses that can easily be found on the shelves of every grocery store is svježi sir, or fresh cheese.
Svježi sir is typically associated with the regions of Zagorje and Prigorje, about an hour’s drive north of Zagreb. This creamy, delicate soft cheese is often consumed at breakfast and is made by processing cow’s milk which gives it its signature mild tanginess, comparable to greek yogurt.
Svježi sir, Croatia’s unsung hero of cheese. Image: Pexels
Derivatives of Svježi sir also include Posni sir, a low fat, smooth, spreadable version, and Zrnati sir which has a grainy texture that most closely resembles cottage cheese. More recently, Icelandic Skyr has also found local popularity due to its high protein, low-fat content. Although consumed like yogurt, Skyr is actually a sour milk cheese.
Another type of Croatian cheese that is commonly sold at farmers’ markets is what is known as Kuhani sirevi, or cooked cheese.
Different types of Kuhani sirevi. Image: Mate Bojčić/Facebook
Kuhani sirevi gets its name from the preparation method where cow’s milk is boiled (i.e. cooked) and curdled with vinegar, before the addition of salt and various spices such as paprika, basil, dill, and oregano.
The result is a semi-hard, rich cheese with a mild chew that when eaten on its own, has a sweet, clean, and grassy flavor. Some producers also smoke this cheese to produce a variant called Dimljeni sir, giving the cheese a delightful smoky aftertaste.
Aging Lećevački cheese. Image: Njuškalo.hr
Closer to (my) home, Lećevački sir may be one of the most widely recognized Dalmatian hard cheeses, having won several awards in the past. In fact, it was so well-received even back in the day that it was served in the Court of Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph (1848-1850).
This cheese originates from the Split hinterland and is made from the milk of either cow, sheep, or a mix of both. It has a mild, grassy aroma with a sharp, slightly spicy aftertaste as a result of the Mediterranean herbs (e.g. rosemary, thyme, sage) that the livestock graze on. Some culinary enthusiasts have even likened aged Lećevački sir, to Paški sir with its nutty notes and crunchy flavor crystals.
Sir iz mišine is a cheese produced in the regions of Zadar, Šibenik, Split and Dubrovnik. Sir iz mišine used to be made exclusively from surplus sheep’s milk, but is today produced with a mix of goat and cow milk.
Sir iz mišine, sold from its lambskin sack. Image: Njuškalo.hr
What makes this cheesemaking process unique is that the milk is aged in lambskin sacks (mišina), made from 6-month-old lambs. When the cheese is ready in the fall, it is transported and sold from these same lambskin sacks. This aging technique also imparts a distinct earthy aroma to the cheese, which is often used as an ingredient to flavor various dishes.
Unfortunately, this cheese is becoming more scarce since the process is kept alive by only a handful of cheesemakers in the region, so do try it if you chance upon it in a market.
Last but not least, there is Težački sir. Težački sir is a hard pasteurized Dalmatian cow milk cheese, aged for a minimum of 4 months. Some producers use this cheese to produce other varieties such as Težački Iz Maslinove, where the same cheese is aged for at least 6 months in pressed olive skins. As the wheels age, the cheese absorbs the flavor and aroma of the olives.
The making of Težački Iz Maslinove at Gligora. Image: Gligora/Facebook
BONUS! How to get the best of both worlds with a method of storing cheese that is unique to the area of Dalmatia and surrounding islands. Semi-hard cheeses are diced into cubes and stored in earthen, or glass containers filled to the brim with olive oil. This way, you get to try the best of Dalmatian cheese and the region’s luscious olive oil.
Sir u ulju, cheese preserved in olive oil for the best of both worlds! Image: My Tasty Pot/YouTube
A quick note on pasteurization
Some Croatian cheeses, in line with European cheese production standards, are made from “raw”, unpasteurized milk that comes straight from the animal. This process is forbidden and/or highly restricted by countries such as Canada, Australia, and the U.S.
Check for labels stating that the product is pasteurized – pasterizirano, or pasteurized and homogenized – pasteriziran i homogeniziran, or if you’re in a restaurant, ask staff for clarity on this.
All in all, I hope this short guide will help you traverse some language barriers and uncertainties when it comes to trying a slice of Croatia’s culinary wonders. Dobar tek!
For more on Croatian products, producers, companies, and exports, make sure to check out Made in Croatia.