17 June 2011

Ovčí Syr Stands

Ovčí syr means, literally, "sheep cheese." Signs litter the roadsides of Slovakia, particularly in the mountains, with nothing but these two words. The rest of the products sold at ovčí syr stands are only implied - there is often "žinčica" (a sheep's-milk whey drink) and sometimes frozen fish or even vegetables - but not promised. These aren't grocers, they are cheese mongers, and they don't pay much attention to anything else. Above is one of the more modern and product-rich ovčí syr shops that we've been in. The display cases and selection were unexpected and impressive.
The whole thing was squeezed into this little, wooden cabin next to a winding road near Levoca. This type of market feels like a holdover from earlier days, when travelers on popular routes needed a quick bite of cheese on their way from place to place. It's rare to see ovčí syr places in towns or cities, though they do exist. Usually they are on the outskirts, near roads and passing cars and - most importantly - the animals themselves. When we pulled in, a boy on a bicycle stopped by to ride in circles near our car, staring at the license plate.
The smoked "oštiepok" that we bought there was imprinted with the Slovak coat of arms, but this type of cheese is pressed into myriad molds. There are more traditional designs shaped into simple balls, a popular subset of easter egg patterns and some oštiepok are sold in cutesy little-lamb forms. It has a strong smokey flavor and aroma, without much room left over on the tongue for the taste of cheese. It's bouncy and makes an audible squeaking noise in the teeth, which is fun but unsettling.A more representative stand, with it's own flock attending closely in the meadows behind, was this little hut. Nestled in a pothole-ridden pull-off, it was popular and staffed by a disinterested woman. The guy before us in line began drinking his žinčica before he'd even paid.
We bought two different types of uniquely Slovak cheese there: "korbáčiky" (which means "little whip") and "parenica." The parenica is the one that looks like rolled bacon, and is a smoked and steamed cheese that's tough and almost fibrous in texture. It's not bad, but the taste is more akin to cured meat than to dairy. The korbáčiky is a softer and more cheesy type. It's greatest quality, of course, is the novelty of the consumption process. It's strange to untie a cheese and untangle individual strands.
Ovčí syr signs are comforting. They are a reminder that not everything in Europe has been homogenized and that the ubiquitous Tesco, Billa and Lidl supermarkets haven't completely cornered the market on groceries. If there is a romantic image of the Slovak Tatras, it is of the mountain shepherd standing beside his flock. A Slovak man about my age recently asked me if coming to Slovakia was like "stepping back a hundred years." I told him that no, it wasn't. Our campsite has fast wi-fi, people watched the NBA finals, radios play a mix of Katy Perry and "Born This Way," Japanese-fusion cuisine is available.
Really, I should have agreed with him a little more. Sheep cheese stands don't exist like this in America. Perhaps they exist, but they aren't normalized. Men don't step out of their trucks to visit with a local shepherd and buy a package of fresh bryndza. The past feels closer at ovčí syr shops because they are a continuation of an unbroken tradition. Even if there are big plastic signs now, beckoning people in from motorways, and even if the cheese is refrigerated and sealed in plastic, there are still shepherds in these mountains that make a living selling their cheese on roadsides.

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