How cheesemaking has changed over time

Cheesemaking tradition in the Poljanska dolina valley.

The history of cheesemaking and dairy production in the Škofja Loka area is preserved in the ledgers of bishops who ruled the area for 800 years.

The data from the 12th and 13th centuries indicate that farmers around Škofja Loka made their cheese from cow’s and sheep’s milk. At the beginning of the 14th century, there were no less than 60 cheese-making farms (sirnice, as a historian Pavle Blaznik named them in Slovene) in the area. For them, homemade cheese was also a means of paying taxes, which were paid in goods and crops.

What was the cheese, made centuries ago, actually like?

The first simple wheels were most likely made from soured milk. Milk was left at warm temperatures in order to become sour and later heated so that it started curdling. After they had drained the curdled milk, the farmers got cottage cheese, which is still the most widespread dairy product in Slovenian cuisine. If the cottage cheese was not used up immediately, the farmers salted it, drained it a bit more, moulded it into small wheels or loaves and left it to dry. Cheeses that resemble these ancient dairy products can still be found in certain parts of Slovenia. Such an example are beautifully shaped and richly decorated trniči at Velika Planina, which later acquired ceremonial significance, as well as sirnek, which, seasoned with caraway, is still served at Carinthian farms as a delicious snack, and prekmurski sireki, found throughout Pannonian Slovenia.

Cheesemaking remained an important activity even when farmers started paying their taxes in money. In the summer months, the cattle was grazing at sunny pastures – as their nutrition was abundant, they produced plenty of milk. The situation was different in winter, when there was barely enough food to survive. Thus, it was essential to store the excess of milk the animals produced in summer for cruel winter days and the beginning of spring, when winter supplies had already been depleted.

For a long time, cheese was the only seasoning, and was replaced by lard only in the 16th century. People used it to enrich the taste of grain and vegetable dishes and, doing so, started a long and varied story of cheeses in cookery.

The story of cheesemaking in the Poljanska dolina valley has continued to this day, when sirnice – cheese dairies at farms both in the valley and in the surrounding hills – are sprouting up again. There at least ten of them located nearby, and there will certainly be even more in the future.

Old knowledge and skills are being revived and offer us what we already had in the past.