12 Days of Travel: Istrian Cheesemaking
My good friend Andrew Villone enjoys food more than almost anyone I know. It's not just filling the food hole for him, it's a passionate hobby to discover unusual and local foods, and to try everything.I asked him if he'd contribute to this blogging marathon, and wouldn't you know it, of course he wrote about food.Today he's got a great story of local cheesemaking in Croatia, and I dinner I can't wait to eat.Elusive DIY spirit alive in Istria (or at Kumparicka)Many of my guests know that I moved here to Slovenia from Seattle, it’s been nearly 4 years now, and it seems like I get asked these 3 questions a lot. How often do I go back? (Never). What do I miss most about Seattle? (having great and plentiful Asian food).And what’s the biggest difference in mindsets between Americans and Europeans? For sure that’s our DIY spirit - the belief that the idea and experience an individual has trumps their formal education. I’m quite proud of the fact, that unlike the majority of my colleagues in travel here, I never spent a day studying tourism. Not even a hotel management class. Before I decided to go all-in, take the plunge and move here to do my tours full time I spent 20+ years in Seattle working in law firms and Amazon’s tax department. It’s a familiar story as Sarah went from architect to one of Rick Steve’s longest tenured guides without formal experience as a tour guide.But that’s not a familiar narrative on the other side of pond. There are not many Europeans that rely more on their ideas and experiences over their education. So that means not a whole lot of changing careers in midstream. Which brings me to my friend Ales, who went from working as real estate agent in Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana to making the top goat cheese in all of Croatia in a tiny village that barely registers on GPS. 15 years of a real estate career was changed the day he found a great buy on a plot of land down in Croatia’s Istria region.Other than a farm that was originally built in the 14th century (and has since been completely restored), most of the land was in a ruinous state, covered in bush and shrubs.Alex figured the best way to clear it out was with goats. So he went out and bought 30 of them and off they went clearing things out (and ended up re-discovering some ancient Roman-era roads in the process). Now they had goats, and goats need to be milked so they thought of producing just goat milk. But one thing lead to another and after viewing a few Youtube videos on how to make goat cheese (hey, you can’t be more DIY than that), Kumparicka goat cheese had arrived.The name itself comes from the historic name of the family village that was here 600 years ago and sort of translates into ‘when something shows up’. And a wonderful certain something did show up.Fast forward about eight years and Ales and his friends now have 250 Alpine goats on pastures that stretch over nearly 500 acres near the eastern coast of Istria. All of Kumparicka’s products are made from fresh non-pasteurized goat milk, whether it’s cottage cheese, fresh lactic cheese or semi-hard cheeses.Some of their semi-hard cheeses are aged up to 30 months. Since this region is known for its bio diversity, the goats feast on the farm’s more than 80 types of herbs, medicinal plants and other vegetation all grown on ecologically clean pastures. This gives all their products a special, very local taste which is also helped by the sea breezes coming in from the Adriatic, which is just a mere 3 miles away.Since Kumparicka breeds and milks the goats themselves, they have full control and can guarantee the quality of milk and tasty cheeses that come from it. No surprise they’ve won numerous gold medals at the Croatian national competition. Their cheese can only be found at the top hotels and restaurants in Istria. Unless you come directly to their farm…Five years ago I found Ales’s business card at one of the pensions I stay at. Seeing how I had no goat cheese in Istia to offer (or any cheese tastings for that matter), I immediately put it on my next tour. I decided to bring my guests here sight unseen and cheeses untasted. A jumble of tiny country roads took us there, though it didn’t show up on my map or GPS. This was about as off the grid as one can hope for, which is something I strive for on these tours.Safe to say, we would have been more than happy with just devoring the dozen or so cheeses with the delicious fresh-out-of-the-oven bread and a couple of bottles of the local red wine.Kumparicka’s main product is really only the tip of the iceberg here as we soon had to find room for a cauldron of goat stew, minestrone soup and the local specialty, Istrian kobosice sausages. At the conclusion of that two week long food and wine tour, guests voted unanimously that the foodie extravaganza here at Kumparcika was the best overall food experience! On my tours, it difinitely pays to be the guinea pig!Now I find myself here with groups as often as I can manage. I never tire of the food because there’s no set menu, just their home made cheeses and bread plus a slew of an ever-changing main dishes, with all ingredients sourced local from the market in nearby Pula.Here are just some of the dishes they’ve put out: roast lamb cooked in a metal dish that’s covered with hot embers, baked kid with suculent carrots and potatoes, to-die-for BBQ pork ribs served with local hot peppers, baked beans in earthenware and fresh calamari cooked in just garlic and Istria’s extra virgin olive oil.After nearly a dozen visit I still can’t seem to find any particular strategy on what to concentrate on or in what order to try things. One time I even went completely vegetarian as there were so many interesting small dishes to try I didn’t want to get bogged down on the heavy stuff.The vibe of the place is completely serene. Partly due to its remote location and partly because everyone is too busy sampling everything laid out on the large wooden tables here.The silence is broken only by the muffled sounds of happy diners and the off-beat discussions and laughter that spontaneously combust when hanging out with the colorful Ales.Farewell dinner on our Taste of Adriatic Tour is right here at Kumparicka!You know you want some! Join Andrew and I next October for Taste of the Adriatic!