An Interview with a Master Cheese Maker
An Interview with Master Cheese Maker Suzana Starčević at Sirana Gligora
Ivan Gligora took a brave step in 1995. After 35 years working as the chief dairy technologist for a state run dairy company, he established his own small dairy in Kolan so he could realize his creativity and establish his beloved Paški sir on the world map. The odds were certainly stacked against him but with incredible determination, sacrifice and vision he was able to achieve his ambition.
No doubt though his task was made that much easier with the help of dedicated team and in particular his first cheese making apprentice who has been and still is, the backbone of production at Sirana Gligora.
So here we talk with Suzana Starčević, one time apprentice, and now multiple-gold medal winning Master Cheese Maker at Gligora.
I know you’re very busy Suzana but thanks for talking with us. Are you originally from the Island of Pag?
S.S. – No I was born and raised in the city of Zadar some 70 km away on the mainland.
So why come to rural Kolan from Zadar?
S.S. – My sister married and settled on Pag and her husbands family we’re all involved in domestic production of Paški sir and keeping sheep. Through my sister I heard about an opportunity to work with Ivan Gligora. Ivan had opened a dairy 2 years previous and his production was quickly expanding so he was looking for an apprentice cheese maker. I started working for Gligora in 1998.
Had you known about making cheese before you worked with Ivan?
S.S. – Not at all. I mean I was familiar with Paški sir, most people in Croatia are. I was young and eager to learn and had heard a lot of good things about Ivan. It was exciting to have the opportunity to learn and work with him. There were just 4 of us at that time all supervised by Ivan, he taught me everything I know about making cheese, though I’ve no doubt I’ve still got a lot more to lean.
How were things different then, compared to production today?
S.S. – The principals are exactly the same, nothing has changed there but in the old dairy things were much more physical. We had a press that had to be tightened by hand via a huge wheel, it took me a while to get used to the physical part and it was much more hands on. So I suppose it’s much easier in that respect today.
In the new dairy we have greater control over every aspect of production but it wasn’t straight forward finding all the right variables. Ivan and his son Šime are still heavily involved and I talk with them regularly, we’re always progressing, producing new cheeses and adjusting to the new international market. There is definitely always a challenge, that’s not changed.
What cheese are you making today?
S.S. – We’re making a cow milk cheese with chilly, first time we’ve ever made it. I like the look of these curds and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a great cheese.
How can you tell? It looks just like a vat of milk to me.
S.S. - See here the curds? They’re very supple, and flexibility is excellent. There’s not much taste at this stage but I’m looking for many other signs about the cheese, this will tell me how to treat the milk, how long and what temperature to cook them.
So it is still a hands on job then?
S.S. – Yes, just not as physical. I need to be here every day to make sure we’re treating the milk right, each batch from the farms is slightly different and so reacts differently, mostly depending on the seasons.
You’ve won quite a few Gold medals and other big international recognition for the cheese that you have made. Would you consider yourself to be a master cheese maker?
S.S. – (laughs) No not at all. Ivan Gligora and his son are the master cheese makers. I’m very proud to have taken such an important role and to be given this responsibility but everyone here is involved and credit for the awards go to everyone who works for Gligora. When our Paški sir won 3 Super Gold Medals in 2010 I was delighted, it set a bench mark for us and we’re always trying to produce the best we can.
I think you’re being a little modest Suzana. So, what are your duties in a normal day?
S.S. – I start early, usually around 5 am when we’re making Paški sir. I’ll then start to move the milk through the pasteuriser and into the vat, It can take a few hours to coagulate the milk depending on the volume so I’ll keep a close eye on that as well as checking any milk that’s been delivered. After the cheese is pressed I’ll help with the skuta production then we’ll all clean and sanitize everything.
Skuta, What is that?
S.S. – It’s a fresh cheese made from the whey, liquid left over after the cheese is made. Yesterday we made Skuta s tartufima, with Istrian truffles inside. It’s pretty incredible
Favorite Gligora cheese?
S.S. – Paški sir of course, but I also love Dinarski sir (cow and goat milk from the Dinarik mountains).
And a cheese other than Gligora?
S.S. – Why? I’ve got all the cheese I could eat right here
And finally, who’s your favorite Croatian singer?
S.S. – Miso Kovać for me
Thank you Suzana, that cheese is looking excellent!
Gligora’s new cheese with chilly will be available in a month or so through Gligora Cheese Shops throughout Croatia as well as through Gligora Cheese & Wine Online