The bus driver shook his head. “Zatvoren,” he said, looking at my ticket to Pag. “Closed.”

I was scheduled to travel to Pag, a barren, moonscape-like island off Croatia’s northern Dalmatian coast, but the bridge was closed. Paški most – the bridge connecting the island to the mainland – is the only point of entry by road, and the bura, a powerful north-eastern wind, thwarted my plans.

The bura (also known as bora) can reach hurricane-strength speeds; its 2004 record in the Dalmatian city of Split was 174.6km/h. Its mighty gusts define Pag and its famous cheese, Paški sir, dusting wild herb-filled pastures with Adriatic sea salt, which gives the sheep’s milk a unique flavour. Robust, salt-coated aromatic herbs – including sage, sea fennel, St John’s Wort, immortelle and thyme – are a treat for the sheep.

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After spending the night on the mainland waiting for the bridge to re-open, I headed to Pag the next morning. Clouds shrouded the steely blue-grey Velebit mountain range like a thick wool cloak. The bus crossed the narrow bridge to the island over the short stretch of sea, making its way past sand-coloured hills and snaking suhozid (limestone dry walls). Neat, rectangular salt flats were orderly in an otherwise untamed landscape, and giant white wind turbines revolved lazily. Looking at the calm surface of the slate-blue Adriatic, it was nearly impossible to believe the violent bura had pummelled the island just the day prior.

This skinny, finger-shaped island, about 60km long and shy of 8km at its widest point, is home to around 35,000 to 40,000 hardy, autochthonous sheep called paške ovce and 8,500 human inhabitants, many of whom are involved in the cheese business. From small family artisans to its largest producers, Paška sirana, Sirana Gligora and Sirana MiH, Paški sir is the island’s pride.

Pag’s award-winning cheese is continually making headlines. Paška sirana won a Gold Award for Sheep Milk Specialty Cheese at the Global Cheese Awards in 2017; that same year, Sirana MiH won a gold medal for its Paški sir at Croatian Cheese Days; and Sirana Gligora’s Paški sir won the Super Gold Award at the World Cheese Awards in 2018. In 2019, Paški sir achieved ZOI status, Croatia’s national equivalent of the European Union’s PDO (protected designation of origin), which specifies that Pag cheese can only be made on Pag using milk from Pag sheep and salt from the island. ZOI status is a phase before obtaining PDO status from the European Union, and producers are eagerly awaiting protection of the Paški sir name throughout the EU.

“Paški sir was the food of the people for centuries – they ate it for survival,” said Milan Orešković, head of production at Sirana Gligora, a creamery founded by Ivan Gligora in 1995 and managed by his son, Šime. Costing as much as 100 euros for a 2.6kg wheel, Paški sir is now a delicacy that locals give as gifts and eat on special occasions.

“It is not a cheese for the sandwich,” said Martina Pernar Škunca, marketing manager at Paška sirana. Founded in 1946, this is the oldest creamery on the island and it produces 100 tons of Paški sir annually. Pernar Škunca’s father, Ante Pernar, was CEO of Paška sirana for 35 years, and her family is one of the owners of the company.

It is not a cheese for the sandwich

Young Paški sir most closely resembles young Manchego in taste and texture, while the harder, caramel-coloured aged version contains crystals and is reminiscent of a nutty, piquant Pecorino Romano. I bit into a slice of young Pag cheese and relished its herby, salty flavour – echoes of the bura’s influence. This semi-soft version can be enjoyed shaved on top of pasta and risotto or melted in pasta dishes as a sauce, while aged Pag cheese is best savoured by itself and is often served crumbled and drizzled with olive oil.

“The bura gives milk that salty touch,” Pernar Škunca said. “Bura is our strong ally in production.”

Production begins after the sheep’s milk is deposited into refrigerated collection tanks scattered around the island; it is filtered and measured, then pasteurised. Additional cultures are added to replace what is lost during pasteurisation, and rennet coagulates the milk into a firm pudding consistency. Sharp mixer knives break up the mass into rice-like curds, which are heated to evaporate some of the whey liquid. The curds are drained and separated from the remaining whey, then hand-packed into moulds and pressed.

When the pressing is finished, the formed cheese is submerged in the salamura, an Adriatic salt solution-filled tank with salinity levels nearly seven times that of the sea. Paška sirana and Sirana MiH age their cheese on wooden planks, while Sirana Gligora uses plastic. Young Paški sir is aged a minimum of 60 days per ZOI regulations, and the aged version can remain in the caves six months and beyond.

“You must handle it like a baby,” said Sirana MiH director of production Šime Pernjak, explaining the laborious process of washing, oiling and turning the cheese by hand as it ages. “Cheese needs hands.”

The island cheesemaking tradition has been in the Pernjak family since 1890. Pernjak’s father founded the family’s Sirana MiH creamery in the town of Kolan, and their modern production facility was constructed in 2006.

Milk from Pag sheep is always in demand, but the future supply is uncertain. “As people grow old, their children don’t continue the cheesemaking tradition,” Pernjak explained. Some young people are leaving the island for positions in other European Union countries, resulting in a dwindling shepherding community.

In the past, Pag families passed on shepherding traditions, but now some people from the mainland are paving the way for Pag’s cheese future. Ana Besak, 20, followed her boyfriend to Pag from a village near Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. She works as a shepherdess at a milking station owned by Paška sirana.

“This is actually what I love to do,” Besak said, explaining that her family raised goats and she has always had an affinity towards animals. She told me about her favourite sheep, named Milica, Dragica and Slavica, who sometimes eat out of her hand.

Eleven years ago, Ivana Protrka followed her husband, Josip Fabijanić, to Pag from the town of Vodice on the Dalmatian coast; five years ago, they took over Fabijanić’s father’s milking and cheesemaking business, OPG Fabijanić. Fabijanić was working in IT and had no wishes to follow in his father’s pastoral footsteps, but Protrka’s father-in-law convinced them to take over the business and continue the family tradition. Protrka had no experience with dairies or sheep: her eclectic background includes studying law, working on cruise ships as a waitress and later a sommelier, and owning two flower shops. The couple and Fabijanić’s mother now make up to one ton of Paški sir each year and also provide milk to Paška sirana.

“They looked at my fingernails and said: ‘How are you going to milk sheep?’,” Protrka said, laughing and holding up her long, polished red nails.

Other shepherds needn’t have wondered about her milking abilities. Watching Protrka at work, expertly manoeuvring the milking machines and sheep that lined up at her command, no-one would guess she was relatively new to the business. Although many shepherds on Pag still milk sheep by hand, Protrka wanted to take advantage of technology. The milking station, designed by her husband, corrals the sheep so they can be milked by machine, creating an organised way for 170 sheep to be milked twice a day in approximately four hours total.

This is, for me, like heaven

She occasionally milks sheep manually, though: “Some sheep have [a] big and very soft udder, so I prefer to milk those final drops by hand,” she said.

At first, Protrka was afraid of the sheep, but she grew to love them and they became less skittish around her. “They have names, and when you call them, they’re like dogs,” she said. “They’re just like people – some are nice, some are not nice, some like to fight. When you’re nice to them, they’re nice to you.”

Now, she can’t see any other life for herself. “This is, for me, like heaven.”

Before leaving Pag, I had lunch with Pernar Škunca and her five-year-old daughter at Hotel Boškinac, a family-run boutique hotel, restaurant and winery located on the northern part of the island. Perched on a hill amid dense pine woods near vineyards and olive groves, the restaurant’s elevated cuisine incorporates local ingredients such as lamb, cheese, fish, herbs, honey and olive oil in creative, modern ways.

I couldn’t pass up ordering the scampi soup with seasonal wild asparagus and Paška skuta, a ricotta-like cheese crafted from the remaining whey during the process of making Paški sir. Presented in a whimsical green-and-white spiral, the Paška skuta was creamy and fresh, complementing the grassy asparagus and salty Adriatic scampi flavours.

After lunch, we ventured up to the tip of the island, driving on a one-way road bordering the water’s edge. In the foggy distance, the neighbouring islands of Rab, Cres and Lošinj rose out of the sea like phantoms, signalling impending rain. On our way south to Pag town, we took photos in ancient olive groves as droplets began to fall. I licked the mist from my lips – the hint of salt was a final taste of Pag.

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

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