It’s not difficult to find a place to rustle up a plate of bryndzové halušky anywhere in Slovakia, or a really good plate of it for that matter. But when an opportunity comes to sample some halušky from the restaurant featured in the sheep cheese section of the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook (yes, there is a sheep cheese section), you must not pass it up. At least, that’s my philosophy.
Salaš Krajinka, a rustic, traditional Slovak restaurant, is two kilometers outside of Ružomberok in the Liptov region. I assumed in a country with an extensive public transportation system, getting from the town to its famous restaurant would be no problem. But when I called for instructions the man on the other end of the line informed me few buses run there from Ružomberok, making life difficult for the car-less, such as myself and my traveling cohort. Chris and I resolved to bite the bullet and call a cab, as the restaurant visit was supposed to be the main event of our Saturday. But before I could hang up to make the call the mysterious man on the phone offered to pick us up in town, an offer too good to refuse.
Twenty minutes later we were in the backseat of a Volvo, zooming between the rolling Low Tatra Mountains with our new friend Joe, discussing all of the nitty gritty details of Slovak cheese business. Joe, whose family has been producing cheese for generations, appeared to be in his mid-30’s and was dressed casually with a frayed red and yellow Yankees hat atop his head. He seemed to be the face and unofficial (or maybe official) public relations man for Salaš Krajinka, and a good one at that. He had travelled extensively and proved to be an excellent conversationalist with his easygoing manner and perfect, accent-less English.
As we moved along the winding main road leading to the restaurant, I explained that we were extremely interested in behind-the-scenes information about our newfound love of bryndza, and its link to Slovak culture. We really lucked out as Joe proved to be a walking encyclopedia on all things sheep and cheese, and being a very big advocate of understanding what you’re eating and how it was made, he was eager to share all he knows.
“Kids today think that cows are lavender and white because that’s what they see on the chocolate bar wrappers,” Joe said, referring to the popular Milka chocolate bars sold throughout Europe. “They have no idea where what they’re eating really comes from.”
The truth is if more of today’s generation did understand how their national food was produced, they would realize it is a process that pays respect to generations of Slovak sheep farmers and mountain culture, and therefore one to be preserved. Joe’s family and many other farmers throughout the country pride themselves on keeping up the tradition and quality of both sheep and cow cheese production, which has been a part of Slovakia’s culture since it became a staple in the 17th century. “How we make it is the way it always has been made and the way it always will be made,” Joe said.
Before we knew it, we were pulling into the restaurant’s driveway. As we ascended the hill that the Salaš sits upon, we passed one hut selling the homemade cheese and another selling tea and freshly baked pastries. The space between the huts and the parking lot is spattered with quirky wood sculptures and a few strutting chickens. The restaurant itself is a sprawling one-story building, reminiscent of the traditional Slovak log houses seen throughout the countryside. It was here that Joe apologetically left us for a work engagement, but promised to return in a little while to give us a tour of the in-house cheese production.
Since we had some time to kill, Chris and I thoroughly explored the property. This included taking cheesy posed pictures with the sculptures, failed attempts to capture some of the resident rabbits, successful attempts to communicate with local goats, sampling some scrumptious blueberry-filled pastries, and finally heading to the restaurant for our main event.
The inside of the restaurant is as charming as the outside with wooden beams and a huge clay stove. Of course the real selling point is the back wall, which is made entirely of windows looking out onto the fluffy sheep that produce the diner’s cheese. The snappy service must be necessary to handle the constant flow of people coming through the double doors. Even at 3:30 p.m. in the “off-season” Chris and I ended up sharing our table with another couple, a practice which is much more readily accepted in Slovakia than I imagine it would be in America. We ordered the legendary bryndzové halušky with extra smoked sheep cheese on top rather than the traditional fried bacon fat. (We figured if there was ever a good place to double up on cheese, this was it.) Even though our dishes came surprisingly quickly, the plates of potato dumplings smothered in gooey sheep cheese were nothing short of perfection.
After we finished scarfing down our dishes and admiring the sheep who were responsible for our over-full stomachs a bit longer, we still hadn’t heard from or seen Joe yet. We felt too guilty to hold up our table any longer as it was clearly in high demand. Though we really wanted to see the cheese production facility, we figured he had gotten held up and agreed he had already been overwhelmingly generous picking us up from town. We resolved we would call a cab to take us back and consider the day very full and enlightening just as it was. But as we were about to leave, we received a call. Joe had been held up with his work responsibilities, but would be back shortly to give us a tour. A few moments later the Volvo was speeding up the driveway and we were walking though the back gate into the cheese factory.
I should use the word factory loosely because that would imply mass production. Behind the restaurant are a few small rooms where all of the cheese that is used there and sold in the stand is made. Joe explained they only sell their cheese on site, because that is the only place they have total control of the quality, which they take quite seriously. He explained to us that all of their cheese is produced with traditional hand methods and without any preservatives. The Salaš isn’t alone in shunning preservatives. In fact, the right to not pasteurize bryndza became a point of contention in Slovakia’s admittance to the European Union. “Sure, the pasteurization process kills all of the bad stuff,” Joe admitted. “But it also kills a lot of the good stuff.” He explained to us that if the animals aren’t given antibiotics or fed food they wouldn’t eat when they are grazing, pasteurization is not at all necessary. Since it was never necessary in the past, it shouldn’t be necessary now. Fortunately, after extensive testing in German and French labs, EU officials agreed with Joe’s point of view and Slovaks were allowed to continue production as it always had been done.
Another reason there is no need for pasteurization is that all of the milking for the cheese here is done completely by hand. Joe explained that each shepherd is responsible for personally milking 200 sheep twice a day. Because the milking is done by hand, and by the same hands everyday, the shepherd is able to monitor any irregularities in the sheep, and therefore in the milk, ensuring its quality. Also each sheep’s milk can be tested individually when it is given individual attention. When machines take over this process, the quality simply can’t be monitored in the same way. Also, all of the cheese that is sold and used at Salaš Krajinka is extremely fresh. In fact all of the bryndza that is sold here is guaranteed to be less than three hours old. Any that is not used at this time can be made further aged to make a different kind of sheep cheese.
Joe knew the building and the process like the back of his hand. He showed us the different vats and molds used for the cheese and the special smoking chamber. He explained the different processes for each of the types of cheese Salaš Krajinka produces. After our tour Joe took us out to the cheese stand and made us a platter fit for a king and queen with heaps of each of the types they offer. If we hadn’t eaten so much halušky just an hour ago, we may have been able to make more of a dent in the pile of cheese. Fortunately, they bagged up the rest for us to take with us, and it made a great and fulfilling snack on our hike the next day. As though he hadn’t already shown us an absurd amount of kindness, Joe then offered to drive us home, explaining he was already taking a couple of his employees back into town anyways. We expressed our gratitude and tried to give him some sort of compensation for the huge platter he had so generously given us, and of course the free transportation, but he adamantly refused.
On the way home, we asked Joe a bit about his past, wondering how someone from the Slovakian countryside became so worldly. It seems that after traveling, studying and spending several years in the fast-paced business world in Australia, he came to the realization that the quiet, beautiful Slovakian wilderness from his childhood gave him much more satisfaction that the urban grind could ever offer. He returned to push a small restaurant into a highlight in traditional Slovakian dining. He said he believes life should be simple and he applies this philosophy to his business. If you work hard, offer something worth having and treat people fairly, that’s all you really need to do. After dropping off his employees, he took Chris and me to the train station to say our farewells, but he did not leave until he took the time to help us plan out the logistics of the hike we wanted to take the next day. After all was settled he departed with well wishes and an invitation to return soon.
Yet again, I am left puzzled and awed by the generosity and hospitality of strangers we have met in Slovakia. Joe’s packed restaurant and busy cheese stands clearly weren’t hurting for our business, yet he took the time to patiently share his life’s work with us with no thought of repayment. The only thing I can tribute this to is genuine kindness and enough passion and belief in what you do to want to share it with others. Perhaps these were small gestures in his mind, but things like this have given me such a positive experience in Slovakia and with its people. I hope to remember days like this as time goes on and pay this kind of hospitality and generosity forward at any chance I get.