In the Zakarpattia region, traditional cheese enterprises unite to save an old profession and sheep breeding as a field.
Three furry clouds are heading from subalpine meadows to the valley, to the epicentre of the action where cattle from three masters will enter the equipped pounds – about a thousand of sheep which are baaing and ringing with their bells will become the heroes of the celebration here. There is a “race track” decorated with ribbons and even a “runway” for the sheep beauty contest. Everything to please tourists.
The village of Horinchevo, the Khust district, the Zakarpattia region, hosts the Bryndza Festival for the first time. Except for producing cheese, the program also includes the activities mentioned above. The goal is to catch attention to sheep breeding, more precisely, to save it from decay, to make it again an honourable business, now it is neglected. Sheep are announced the stars of the celebration.
And goats. They say a flock is impossible without them. Each flock has about one-third of goats as they help sheep-masters: they lead sheep, give more milk though it is thinner and contains less fat than sheep milk.
In fact, the main heroes of the festival are herdsmen. Most of them were taught sheep breeding by their fathers, who were also taught by theirs.
Mykhailo Popovych has also been a teacher for many young sheep-masters. He has been in the business for 75 years already, maybe even more. The man is 92 years old, he was a boy when started to take care of sheep and take them to mountainous pastures. He hasn’t been working for only the last two years.
“It isn’t easy, indeed. You have to take care of sheep, do the milking, make cheese and also care for your own comfort as you live on a meadow for months when it is hot, rainy, stormy. You also have to protect your flock from wolves,” he says. Mykhailo Popovych complains that young men don’t want to do this job because it is hard and not prestigious so traditions are disappearing.
However, Vasylko Bon, 12 y. o., enjoys this job. It will be his third time this spring to take sheep to the meadow. “Yes, I like it! What is the most difficult? To protect sheep! Our pasture is oooover there, see? The Yafynnyk meadow. There are wolves there. As for cheese, I already know how to make it! Cheese from our sheep is the best in the district!” the boy says and runs to line sheep and goats so they won’t wander across the pound as it’s time to do the milking.
Older sheep-masters craftily grab cattle through a special hole in the fence and proceed to the first stage of producing bryndza: get milk, a regular sheep gives minimum 400 grams.
However, sheep-masters say that doing milk is not the first stage – at first, sheep have to be at grass for long: at a clean place with nice grass. Flocks always migrate from one pasture and meadows to others as they work better than any lawn mower – they eat even stems. Local sheep-masters say that Carpathian hills with wild grasses are the best pastures.
All the guests can taste mountainous meadows: the freshest milk is served. Another barrel is used by the best traditional cheese masters. They do it how it was done a hundred years ago: neither technologies nor equipment differ – e.g. a special barrel where bryndza is kept to get its taste is called berbenytsia. The masters are happy to get attention so they show the whole process of producing the product which can be called “the extract of the Carpathians”, they are sure: traditional cheese concentrate all the useful elements local nature can offer, it also gives strength and health.
“What do you need to make a good cheese? You need to have skills and love the business!” Yuri Duvalka, a flamboyant sheep-master from Lipetska Poliana, says. He has 200 sheep and 100 goats.
The master attached a budz (a head of cheese which has been just made) wrapped in gauze to a stick so it will get rid of extra thrusting. To make a, let’s say, 8-kilogram budz, the master took about 50 litres of warm milk, filtered it and added kliag – a substance from a lamb or goatling’s stomach which contains abomasal ferments and helps the milk to clot). It is important to do it as soon as possible after doing milk so milk will stay fresh, almost sterile, containing no odd elements.
In about an hour after adding kliag, the mass traditionally is stirred with a special tool called kolotylka (kolotyty is to beat). Most frequently, it is made of a fir stick. Then, a sheep-master forms a budz which has to “have a rest” hanging on a stick.
But it is not an end: zhentytsia (thrusting) which is left in the barrel is poured to a pot and heated while being stirred. When the grainy mass has appeared, it is separated and cooled. This is how vurda (“Carpathian ricotta”) is made – a soft crumbly cheese with a delicate taste. Many people prefer it to Bryndza.
Today, there are about 198 thousand sheep in Zakarpattia, most of them are located in mountainous areas or near mountains, for example as in the Khust district. There are officially 22 200 sheep.
Vasyl Prodan has a flock of 250 animals. He sometimes takes sheep to meadows and wants it to be so forever. “We don’t want this profession to be forgotten, we want it to be respected! There are many young men who would like to become sheep-masters! However, they don’t do it because it is hard to sell products. That’s why we decided to unite, to found the Khust Sheep-masters Association and cooperate to make us heard and known. We unite our flocks, care for promotion, this festival has also been arranged by us… Unfortunately, flocks are becoming smaller. We want to encourage and involve more young men in sheep breeding!”
The main sheep breeding product is cheese. Naturally, a certain part of the meat is also used but the market isn’t developed properly. Leather and wool issues are problematic: there is no processing technology so sheep shearing is more expensive than the cost of a product itself. However, Carpathian cheese, Bryndza in particular, is well sold across Ukraine. Bryndza cuisine is also being promoted.
Fedir Shandor, a tourism and gastro-tourism expert, has introduced some dishes, “Bryndza is an authentic Carpathian product, it is made in all eight countries which have the Carpathians. Introducing the bryndza cuisine, we have taken it into account, in particular, the fact that the Balkans also have Bryndza. So there are banosh with Bryndza, a famous “shopsky” salad, the simplest one with tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper dredged with bryndza; bryndza spread on bread; fried sausage flavoured with bryndza; classical omelette and dumplings; roasted beet with nuts; famous Croatian bryndza soup… The most popular dish among guests is strawberry with bryndza. “
“Why are such events important? People unite and see they are needed. Yes, today, unfortunately, the sheep-master’s profession can be considered the one which is disappearing. That’s why now they are in the centre of attention! Sheep-masters like it, they see attention and respect, that people are interested in their job and in their product. For some time, sheep breeding was considered a marginal profession, but now people have turned back to eco-products, to traditions!”
Subalpine meadows aren’t natural, they have appeared due to sheep breeding, due to sheep, to these “lawn-mowers of mountainous hills”. Also, due to sheep breeding, a special breed of dogs has appeared – kuvas, a Carpathian sheepdog. Many other things are connected with this craft: national clothes and its elements, e.g. huni or kotsovani, folk musical instruments, e.g. trembita, “sheep-master’s cell”, household goods, e.g. wool blankets and coverlets, and meat and dairy cuisine. A big layer of household, traditions, a part of the culture, and all these are due to sheep, sheep breeding. If this craft decays, Lord forbid, all this will also disappear. What coverlets and bryndza without sheep? What Carpathians without sheep?” Fedir Shandor says.
To save sheep breeding, protect sheep-masters – this is the mission of the festival and other events of the Khust Sheep-masters Association. Inna Pryhara, a co-founder of the festival, says, “We have to protect sheep-masters from themselves and even from customers. It is important to explain what the job of sheep-masters is like and why it costs money. A sheep-master can’t sell cheese for 4 USD for a kilogram, I believe that a market price can reach 16 USD. Why it should cost more – because it is a hard job, these people spend the whole season on the meadows, just almost under the sky, without electricity, etc. We try to show it, explain and increase the price on bryndza so sheep-masters could earn more, live better. In order to make a job prestigious to encourage young men to join the profession not being embarrassed to say: I am a sheep-master!”
“The profession is really disappearing: our research shows that in 2015, the Khust district had about 60 sheep-masters who had flocks from 100 sheep and more, now, there are just about 30 of them. Three years ago, we offered to unite to save sheep breeding from disappearing. We started with 7 masters, now there are 10 of them. As for the “Traditional Khust Bryndza”, this is how we call our product, it is good not only for Zakarpattia residents because it has a delicate taste, it isn’t spicy, and it can be eaten the whole year long with heavy food in winter as well as with salads. And it is a unique social product which has a value, idea,” the manager of the Khust Sheep Maters Association says.
While the freshest and biggest cheese heads were getting tougher, furry and horned heroes of the festival, led by their caring sheep-masters, set off for new pastures – to cut Carpathian grass and turn it into a useful tasty product.
…. Budz will be kept in a pantry or fridge for some dozens of days, if it is mixed with salt and put under pressure, in three days, we will have bryndza which has an almost unlimited expiry date. It means the celebration of the Carpathian product will last…
Really: how can the Carpathians do without bryndza, sheep, and sheep-masters? And just during the festival, the flocks of the participants widened: on the first day, a goatling, and on the second day, a lamb was born!
By Alla Khayatova
Photos by Serhiy Hudak