“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” ~~G.K. Chesterton
Djurdja admits that she is at least 80 years old, but I believe that she is somewhat conservative. She complains constantly of her back pains, leg pains, head pains. She wobbles when she walks, but when no one is looking she straightens up and runs up a path, nesting her walking stick underneath her armpit for safe keeping. She gave birth to ten children, two of whom died as toddlers. The rest she dispersed all over the world, choosing to stay with her youngest son Danilo, his wife Sanja, and their three teenage children.
She was born in Metohija, the land of undulating hills, vineyards and sunshine, where old Serbian kings of the Middle Ages built their castles and churches, choosing to conduct wine through the pipes under ground rather than water. She married young and lived a hard life, the youngest wife in the commune, the inevitable target of the older women who tried to exert their power in any way possible in the cruel and patriarchal world dominated by men.
In 1999 her world collapsed as NATO war planes bombed her village and the universe seemed to point an accusatory finger at every Serb living in the area. When it became obvious that the life of yesteryear could not continue, she abandoned her husband’s grave, gave away their meager possessions to the neighbors, parted with her flock of sheep, and took off for the scraggy and dry hills of coastal Montenegro, never once looking back at all those years she spent in Peć.
I met her son Danilo, a former engineer turned high school maintenance man, when he came to help my Uncle make salami. We were born in the same year, we have college degrees and we both have three children; that’s where the similarities stop. His two boys walk three miles to their high school. The oldest daughter takes the bus to the college in the near-by city of Kotor. All three of them have to help the family; the boys accompany their father when he goes out to fix things; the daughter wakes up at dawn to take the goats out to graze. When I was there, I did not hear them whine, complain, or talk back. They just did it, understanding that they contributed to the family. And they maintained an A average.
I woke up early one morning and walked to their still unfinished two-story brick house with an old RV camped in the front yard and a dilapidated, green awning casting shade onto the patio. Djurdja was watering the plants, complaining of the merciless heat that was killing her tomatoes. Together we crossed the road to the meadow where her daughter-in-law, Sanja, stood surrounded by two dozen goats as she poured water into the trough. Sanja called the goats by their names, almost singing, and they trotted to her, stopping on the way to munch on some dry leaves. She had already milked them before I arrived and they were bleating happily as they played, crossing their horns in make-believe combat.
Her son arrived to relieve her and took the goats further into the thicket. The relentless Montenegrin summer was at its peak and greenery was scarce. The milk, Sanja told me, would be stronger and less fatty. They sell the milk to the tourists, and make cheese with the rest. She refused my offer to help her carry the buckets filled with frothy, white milk, and continued on across the road and behind the house where she started to turn milk into cheese. She brought a shallow, heavy enameled pot from the house and strained the milk into it through the cheesecloth. Then she stirred a few tablespoons of liquid rennet, covered the pot, and placed it on top of a Smederevac, an ancient wood-burning stove.
Djurdja was cracking jokes all the time and lamenting over her life, while she watched every step Sanja made like a hawk, ready to pounce and scold her for the smallest error. But everything worked as planned and the three gallons of milk were slowly simmering, heated by gnarley dry wood. We moved to the patio and had shots of strong, sweet home-made cherry brandy that accompanied even stronger cups of Turkish coffee.
I did not have the time to observe the process in its entirety. I only wish I thought of visiting this family at the beginning of our stay. Milk had to cool off for several hours covered with a clean, starched linen kitchen towel before it would be sliced in cubes, allowing the whey to separate. The solids would be strained into a cheesecloth-lined wire strainer and left to drain for a few hours. After that, the disc (still wrapped in cheesecloth) would be placed onto a wooden board and pressed with a heavy rock. It usually ended up in the fridge for about a week to dry and age, without getting sour in the summer heat.
I discovered a slightly yellow disc in my Aunt’s and Uncle’s fridge and I knew it was Sanja’s goats’ cheese. I unwrapped it and cut a few thin slices, not knowing if I would like the taste. It was still a bit milky, but dry, without being crumbly and too salty. There were small holes in it and the crust just started to form. It went perfectly well with a glass or two of Vranac, a famous heady Montenegrin red wine, made strong and stout by the endless sunny days.
We left the next day, but on our way I stopped by their house to say goodbye to Djurdja, Sanja, and Danilo. I felt honored that I met this hard-working family that offered me hours filled with smiles as they toiled under the scorching sun. I know their kids will become wonderful adults and I wish them at least a few days free of worry. But as they plan to keep those goats, my wish might be in vain.