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Simon Kerr: A Manchester Lad and Paški Sir

We have heard of Manchester, and it’s no surprise that there are lads from that fine city living in Croatia, but who is Paški Sir? It’s not a man but rather a hard-textured, distinctive sheep milk cheese from the Croatian island of Pag, and it’s the most celebrated of their artisanal cheeses. The unique flavour is achieved by rubbing the cheese olive oil during the 6 months of aging.

interview The Island of Pag boasts the longest coastline of all Adriatic landfalls. Its eastern skyline is dominated by the Velebit mountain range, and Pag’s low-lying rocky terrain is situated in such a geographical position as to create a unique micro-climate.

This island has a long tradition of cheese-making but Pag is also the biggest salt producer in Croatia. This ancient industry has existed for almost a thousand years and the prosperity of the town of Pag is due to the so-called ‘Valle de Pago’, a natural shallow cove where salt production thrives.  That essential salt has made the region tempting to invaders. First came the Romans who introduced cheese-making to the island, and more recently there has been a much smaller and friendlier invasion by the aforementioned British Northerner. I asked Simon Kerr about his life in Manchester and his background.

“I grew up in and around my parents restaurant which was called 'The Olive Branch' in Manchester's Craft Centre. It started off as a small coffee shop with two seats, but ended up as a full-menu restaurant with 40 seats and quite a reputation. Most of my childhood was spent either hanging around or helping in the kitchen, but they eventually sold it as it was taking every hour of every day to run. We were all sad about it but we had better quality family life after that.”

His parents’ work introduced him to catering, but did he enjoy food in general? Would he describe himself as a “foodie”?

“Yes without a doubt, I love to cook with ingredients from all over the world and I was lucky enough to grow up around my parents’ restaurant and also in an area where there was a high cultural diversity. I could smell foods from Nepal, Africa, West Indies, India, Turkey and more, it was impossible not to become a foodie.”

What persuaded Simon to take a leap from a multicultural city to the rural idyll of the island of Pag?

“I took a short trip to Rijeka to see the carnival and some new cultures. It was here I met my beautiful wife-to-be and it was love at first sight. I moved over here in the summer of 2009 and we were married in the October.”

So how did Simon graduate from food lover to food producer?

“I moved to the island last year as my wife and I were expecting a child and we wanted my wife to finish University.” (Simon’s wife is a very talented artist and in her last year of a master’s degree.) “We lived with her kind parents and I got employment here, with my only qualification being that I love cheese.”

Simon works for Sirana Gligora (Gligora Dairy- www.sirena.hr/en). I asked him about the company.

interview “The company was founded by the current director Ivan Gligora in 1995. He became the first qualified dairy technologist from all the islands of Croatia and had 20 years experience as well as generations of cheese making in his family before starting Sirana Gligora. After working in war-torn Zadar during the Yugoslav war where he helped supply the city with fresh dairy products, he and his family moved back to his native Island of Pag to start their own company.

“Ivan was able to use all the artisan techniques passed on from generation to generation, together with the very latest modern technology to produce a consistently high-quality product which has won numerous awards. The International Taste and Quality Institute awarded Sirana Gligora’s Paški Sir the coveted 3 Star Superior Taste Award in 2008, 2009 and 2010. This is something akin to a Michelin Star for food. He has won gold medals in Italy, Croatia and Serbia as well as a Silver medal at this year’s Nantwich International Cheese Awards. In January this year, Gligora opened a new and modern dairy with funds from the EU, which is equipped with the very latest technology. Our next competition will be the World Food Awards in Birmingham in November.

“After a year spent learning cheese-making skills, the managing director, Šime Gligora, moved me into the office to market and sell Paški Sir around the world. I've no marketing experience as such but in Manchester I worked on various projects aimed at supporting and promoting disadvantaged young people: many of the skills were transferable.”

How would Simon best describe the qualities of the cheese? Does it have a European competitor, and does he think it will be a welcome addition into the cheese cabinets of British supermarkets?

“Paški Sir is a wonderfully tasty sheep milk cheese that brings full and complex flavour to the palate and melts nicely in the mouth. Authentic and unique, Paški Sir is a pure delight and displays quality in the making, leaving a long and pleasant aftertaste to savour. A yellowish creamy colour with farmhouse aromas, Paški Sir has well-balanced texture, taste and finish.

“The plant life here on the island permeates the cheese and contributes to its taste. A strong winter wind called Bura brings sea salt onto the rocky pastures where the native breed of sheep graze on the salted wild herbs, the most prominent being a strain of Dalmatian Sage which is considered to be the 'gourmet sage' par excellence.

“Together with the artisan methods of cheese-making on the island, which are rooted in Roman times, Paški Sir is unlike anything else. The closest comparison would be the Spanish Manchego or Italian Pecorino but really there is no cheese quite the same. Paški Sir is a totally unique cheese, a ‘bonne bouche’ for the educated British cheese-loving public.”

How many workers does your company employ?

“25 people work here at the moment, which is more than 6% of the village, a huge local employer. Paški Sir is a limited product, it can only be made from the milk of the local breed of sheep on the Island of Pag, so for that reason the production is quite small. We make around 50 tonnes of Paški Sir and 150 tonnes of other cheese products.”

Does the company have a vision of where they might be in 5 years time?

“Well, with the new factory established and the Gligora name recognised across Croatia for producing quality Paški Sir, the emphasis is resolutely on raising the profile across Europe and America. To be known by every serious cheese lover across the globe would be nice.”

Where is it available at the moment?

“The Cheese Hamlet in Manchester became the first to sell Paški Sir in the UK. We met John Axon (a real cheese lover through and through) after the Nantwich Awards at his shop in Didsbury. After tasting a sample he didn't have to think long before making a decision. It's doing really well there and they are close to selling out of their first order.

The Cheese Society in Lincoln was the second; they have a great monthly subscription service, with cheese delivered direct to the customer’s door. They plan to include Paški Sir.

The Yellow Edge Deli in Twickenham have placed an order and will be stocking very soon, they are very excited about Paški Sir, along with the International Cheese Centre in London and Lairds Larder in Carlisle.”

This remarkable cheese is growing in popularity, with one of the most internationally celebrated British chefs, Alan Coxon, devising several recipes to showcase the qualities of the cheese. Alan is famed for his food archaeology and is inspired by high-quality traditional products. He offers a dip into the 70s with a recipe for a:

Paški Sir Cheese Fondue

250g (9oz) Paški Sir Cheese finely grated (Mature is perfect for grating and cooking)
30g (1oz) plain flour
2 tsp mustard powder
250ml (9 fl oz) dry white wine
2 tbsp full fat fromage frais
Fresh ground black pepper
Pinch of Smoked Paprika

Method
Combine the cheese, flour and mustard powder.
Heat the white wine with the cheese, stirring continuously until melted.
Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring all the time then reduce the heat.
Stir in the fromage frais, black pepper and smoked paprika.

Note: Serve with chunks of crusty bread, cherry tomatoes, cocktail sausages and vegetable crudités to dunk.

Recipe courtesy of Alan Coxon, www.alancoxon.com


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