When we arrived at the bridge connecting Pag, the island of Cheese to Croatia’s mainland, we got out of our car to feel the wind. Named bora, this violent wind churned the sea hundreds of feet below. The seawater that had been turquoise just a few miles south, was now deep, dark blue and riddled with white caps; the bora lifted clouds of seawater into the air. The terrain was equally beaten, and I didn’t see any shrubs that grew over three feet tall. A couple of metal poles stood bare along the roadside, their signs torn off and carried over the edge of the cliff. When I got out of the van, I walked at a 45-degree-angle.
Why is this type of environment so good for cheese making? Well, because of the cute little “sheepsees”. Smaller than average, Pag sheep are a unique breed, with stock that originates in Sardinia, and size counts on Pag because there’s very little food. “All of the rocks in the fields are turned over each morning,” explained Ante Ostaric, manager at Paska Sirana cheese factory. “They have to be that persistent to find enough food.”
As we drove across Pag, I couldn’t help feeling bad for the little sheep. They huddled behind rocks among one another with their sad little sheep expressions. Then I tried Paski Sir. The most famous cheese from Pag (which retails at $30 a pound in the U.S. if you can even find it, but which is quite affordable in shops along the Dalmatian Coast), Paski Sir is the richest hard cheese that I’ve ever tried, with flavor crystals, aka tyrosine (condensed white balls of amino acid), that popped in the mouth.
Many of the world’s greatest culinary products come from harsh conditions. The best olive oils and wines are made from trees and vines that have had to suffer—from the salt wind and arid soil of southern Italy, to the hail and stints of intense heat in Oregon. The small size and reduced diet of Pag sheep produces milk with a very high fat content, which results in very rich cheese. To me, it tasted as though brie and Parmesan procreated.
If you like wine with your cheese, you can visit Vina Otoka Paga winery (just up the road), which provides free tastings every day during the summer, and sometimes in the winter. Besides the cheese, Pag is worth visiting for the all-night beach parties in the summer, when the wind is less severe.
Before the cheese tasting, I toured the coastal city of Zadar (33 miles south), and heard the world’s first Sea Organ (San Francisco has built a replica, but the idea originates in Zadar). Built by Nikola Basic, the organ is actually played by sea waves. Our guide, Ana explained how it works:
Play Sea Organ Zadar
Zadar is a city of 75,00 built on a small peninsula, and the homes are built right up to the edge of the sea. The ancient Roman ruins around St. Donatus’ Church are just steps away from the waves, and the restaurants remain committed to Mediterranean fare. Ana took us to her favorite pastry shop, Pekarnica Krostula, which served excellent burek (a savory phyllo pastry filled with cheese).
At first, the city didn’t strike me (especially after visiting Dubrovnik , Split, and Sibenik), but it quickly won me over when we visited the outdoor market where honey, strands of garlic, essential oils, and several different types of rakija were being sold. Ana explained that old folks eat figs and drink rakija in the morning. “Figs are good for digestion and rakija is good for circulation,” she explained with a laugh, which seemed to imply the dubiousness of the theory. This didn’t stop me from trying Maraska distillery’s Marischino liqueur, one of the most famous liqueurs in Croatia. Maraska distillery is located in Zadar, and the powerful, cherry-infused booze was delicious at 11am.
Tomorrow morning we leave early for the Istrian Peninsula, one of the only places in the world where high-quality white truffles grow. It’s also known for its beaches, olive oil, wine, and hilltop towns. I can’t wait. In fact, I’m dying to eat those truffles. Dy-ing.
Restaurant Recommendations in Zadar
2Ribara – $-$$$
The décor isn’t traditional, but the food is. The pizzas are good if looking for a budget option, but try the octopus salad or the brancin ili orada na zaru (grilled sea bass), which comes with the traditional side dish blitva na dalmatinski (Swiss chard and potatoes). The bass is baked with a secret topping, but the waiter let the following ingredients slip: thyme, parsley, rosemary, Grana Padano, basil, garlic.
Blaza Jurjeva 1
Krostula – $
Excellent breakfast pastries. The burek sir, a phyllo dough and cheese pastry, was the best I had in Croatia.
Multiple locations. See website
Hotel Recommendation in Zadar
Falkensteiner Club Funimation Borik – $$$$
This five-star hotel has an especially good breakfast buffet with a huge selection of foods from around the world. The rooms are modern, and most have views of the sea. There’s a theme park too, and this hotel is great for travelers looking to entertain their children without leaving the hotel. It is located a 10-minute drive outside of Zadar. 15 minutes free WiFi in the room.
Majstora Radovana 7
Restaurant Recommendation in Pag
Na Tale – $-$$
Located in the center of Pag, this restaurant specializes in lamb rotisserie, a very popular cooking method in the area. The whole lamb is slow-cooked on a spit in a large rotisserie, and served with potatoes and grilled onions. The décor is rustic, but the service is professional.
Stjepana Radica 2
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com