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AND THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE – Part Two of a Pastoral Day

de (27-6-2010)
1 ecou

Palace of Cheese

Always with a Smile

The cheese is made from both the sheep’s milk and a bit of goat’s milk, to which he attributes its unique flavor.  The wildflowers and grasses on the mountain which the sheep and goats daily consume, along with the air and water, produce a unique infusion for the milk which comes to fruition to make a product hinting somewhat at the taste and texture of a Pecorino Romano, but truly ideal and set apart by way of its encasement in fir tree bark, its processing here which has never changed over time.  Sheep and goat’s milk are most akin to mother’s milk and having more protein and enzymes than cow’s milk, the cheeses made from them are intense, flavorful and filled with healthy benefits.  It is a pity that there are so few of these artisans still left in the world and that some will never taste the “good as gold” taste sensations that are made here.  The cheese product that comes from this country is superb and because of how it is made, not in a factory, or a large commercial operation, but singularly by one dedicated man among other dedicated men in the countryside far up on these mountains, it is a thing to be praised.

While he worked, he answered my questions and we talked about life there. We laughed repeatedly together, we watched with eyes wide open, we looked on with wonder, and we took it all in, carefully, respectfully, gratefully, moment by moment—through the never-ending tasty and satisfying rustic meal, the boiling of the raw milk, the waiting for several hours for the further separating of the curds, the multiple rinsing stages, and then the pressing in the cheesecloth by hand and the difficult twisting and wringing in the large, white cloths to make it more firm and dry, and then the large wood press which resembled a flat-headed shovel taken out to press, and press, and press some more the cheese into the form needed to make the first new products of the day.  As a bonus, the leftovers yielded the fizzy after-product used to make the base for the borș (soup-base) that which is so popular and ubiquitous here in the countryside as this is another staple food served at most every meal.  The animals, in turn, would have the remnants of what the batch yielded in at the end of the process.  All in all, five different products came from this day’s work.  All were amazingly palatable, superbly fresh, delightfully offered, and generously given.  We each even  received the gift of one slab of the simple caș, a bottle of fresh milk, and a big, beautifully encased in natural packaging, chunk of the coajă de brad as a generous and highly appreciated “thank you” for the our visit.

Giving up the goods and....a "gluma"

Working for a Living

After the table was cleared away, and we were filled with food, happiness at our interactions and the wealth of immeasurable information, it was then time again for the milking of the sheep.  While we waited on a hailstorm (believe it or not) to pass, the men talked and methodically, but with energetic enthusiasm, garnered the milk of each of the animals by hand.  One by one, in tandem, as there were two men milking and two doors for the sheep to move through, the entire flock came through, leaving with rhythmic help their share of the afternoon’s return (which at each milking would be only about 16 oz. per animal), and then jumping over the end of the open doorway sprightly back into the field from whence they came.  Instinctively, the dogs looked on to be sure that no one of us were a threat to their precious flock. Occasionally, one of the men milking would have to rustle a sheep or goat by the tail as they attempted to bolt outdoors before giving up their milk.  Because it had been storming, each of them were soaking wet and would shake off their watered down coats like dogs after a bath in the ocean.  There was a long time during the rainstorm to speak with them all about their experiences up on the mountain, and to ask about family pastimes, thoughts on the different life that they lead, and the importance of the lasting traditions there.

Natural residents

With no electricity, the family had a full routine and although they don’t regularly receive visitors like us, they seemed to be seasoned professionals at making us feel like one of the regulars.  I certainly didn’t want to leave at all as there was a comfort there that transcended the feel of my wet clothes, muddy boots, and the sweltering heat that lingered on.  They never watched television or listened to the radio up there, and there was always something to do, including taking care of each of the animals, making their meals with few resources, having no amenities whatsoever, very little privacy, if any at all, and only on occasion a few local visitors who usually came to help with work and not to make a social call.  Certainly, we were the first U.S. citizens that they had ever met. They cared for their granddaughter over the summer, who in the sixth grade now, had been my student for the past year in English class, and as her grandparents, they would show her the way to learn the ropes there to work with them when she was old enough.  Both the shepherd and his wife, over sixty years old, were strong from years of constant hard living, but they were energetic and happy people, and they literally glowed from the inside out.  They were people that I wished that others could meet and know far away from here.  We spoke only in Romanian, and after one year with only four English speakers here in the village, my language is decidedly better than average, but still not perfect and so because I did not wish to have a translator hamper our dialogue by interjecting a beat in this special encounter, I knew that there might yet be a few tiny details omitted in the conversation, but in truth and for the most part the essence was that we understood each other well, through the glances, the sharing of food, the gestures, and it became an exchange of importance for us all in the spirit of cultural exchange during what I will remember as a glorious day.

Run for cover! Hailstorm!

Come Rain or Come Shine

Then, after having been there for over seven hours, the later afternoon came and since the rain was continuing to trickle down, but had subsided a bit, we made the decision to leave and go down the mountain while we could do so before dark.  There were long hugs, repeated thanks on both our parts, and heartfelt goodbyes with promises to come back soon.  Laden with the wonderfully aromatic and prized possessions gifted to us, and the photos which would now last a lifetime, we then said “so long”.  The lady of the house walked us to the part of the pasture where outside of her dogs’ concern we could finally travel alone, and we thanked her again for the day that we had had together.  The long way down the mountainside we all had time to think about what we had been shown there and through the rain, with heavily wet clothes, slipping down on mud-filled non-existent throughways, there was plenty of time to begin to decompress from this other-world experience which we had just encountered.

Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

A Diamond in the Rough

As I think about what I learned from the shepherd and from everyone who worked with him there, I go back to the initial taste of the first soft clump of fresh warm cheese which this very nice, distinguished, and open man offered to me with his outstretched hand having just been pulled from the large pot of newly formed cheese curds made from the “liquid gold” that all four hundred or so animals in this amazing place had provided.  His grand smile which in so many ways said so much about his respect for the land, his duty to others and love for the animals, his family pride, his remaining faithful to traditions of his craft despite the years of progress or change in other areas of the world, said to me “embrace it, enjoy it, relish it, own it, and cherish it” as he spoke to me in words that I never before new.  On that mountain, there is a place where great things are made in humble fashion.  I humbly bow to the shepherd and his flock, and will cherish as always the many lessons that I learned there.  “All in due course” he had seemed to say, over and over again, and as far as I’m concerned, for the future, for all time, and rightly so, as a diamond among the rough transformed into a fabulous gem before our eyes that day, the experience and the unique cheese product that comes from this region by way of the strength and the commitment of its craftsmen shepherds “stands alone.”

Experience Recorded on June 13, 2010

With special thanks to Domnul Gheorghe and all his family and friends, and Mr. Ion Zamfir who led us up the mountain to be introduced to the pastoral world still hidden within Romania.

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  • John: (12-7-2010 la 04:47)

    Nice memories, Natalie…

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