From spring until the beginning of autumn the fire always keeps burning on Carpathian meadows as the old hutsul legend warns that the fire that went out is a bad sign. In the days of the artificial intelligence and smartphones here in the highest region of the Carpathians, Rakhiv Raion, hutsuls still hallow this belief, shepherd and produce cheese under the traditional recipe taught by their grandfathers and great grandfathers. They call this product “bryndzia” and you should not mix it with the famous brynza: hutsul cheese has a special technology of production. In the high mountain regions of the Ukrainian Carpathians the tradition of producing bryndzia goes back to the XIV century and is transferred from the shepherd to shepherd from generation to generation.
However, today bryndzia is under risk. Workforce emigration abroad and lack of the state support make shepherds refuse from bryndzia production. As a result, the sheep stock reduces annually. Some entrepreneurs decided to unite to save the cultural heritage. In August 2018 the Association of Producers of Traditional Carpathian Highland Cheese was established. The EU project “Support of the Development of the Geographical Indications System in Ukraine” confirmed the special status of the product and helps protecting it.
A geographical indication (GI) means a special status for bryndzia. It defines this cheese as a traditional high quality and special product of the Carpathian Oblast that can be produced only here and only according to the specific technology. Hutsul sheep bryndzia is the first of some Ukrainian products qualified for GI registration. Among others there are Kherson watermelons, Carpathian honey, Melitopil black cherries, wine “Yalpug” and some other.
Three stories explaining why hutsul shepherds are trying to protect the tradition of bryndzia production from extinction.
Anatolii Pavliuk, the Chairman of the Association of Producers of Traditional Carpathian Highland Cheeses
Hutsul sheep bryndzia is unique because it is produced high in the mountains from the milk of a special breed of sheep, Carpathian mountain sheep. This type of sheep has been prevailing only in our region. It is very difficult to work with it: Carpathian sheep are unprofitable and give only 300-500 ml of milk per one milking. For comparison, a usual sheep can give up to one litre of milk. Some sheep in Germany can give up to four litres of milk. Our authentic sheep is the only breed that can survive in the tough mountain conditions. We imported other cattle to the meadows, but it starts having problems with legs as these animals are not able to walk on the rocks and snow during severe winters.
The peculiarity of the cheese is due to the complexity of production. The milk of mountain sheep is of the highest quality, has high fatness and a specific taste of mountain herbs. The technology also plays a key role here. Bryndzia is made manually. All instruments are made of wood only and are also produced manually.
At first milk is filtered through fir needles and then shepherds use the natural culture for its fermentation. It is obtained in the same way as hundreds of years ago. Young calves are fed with milk, cut, salted and then their stomach is smoked. The calf rennet is made of it and added to the warm milk which starts to ferment.
The cheese received is mixed with salt. It is very important to add the right amount of salt to bryndzia. If there is too much salt, it will get bitter and if too little – it will get spoiled. Then the product matures in wood. There is no fixed term for this process. The buyers have different tastes: some of them like “young” soft bryndzia, some – “elder” with a stronger taste and flavour. Bryndzia must mature for at least two weeks. The cheese has no end-user date. Once I was asked about it and I answered that it would be kept until eaten (laughing).
Bryndzia is produced only during half a year as the sheep can be milked only during grazing. The peak of the working season is at the end of spring – beginning of summer when the largest amount of milk is collected. Then the cheese is closed in barrels where it matures until autumn. In September the sales start.
However, bryndzia production is at a very poor level now. Each year the sheep stock is going down and there is no support from the state. Mountain sheep breeding requires special support as it is always at the edge of losses. The sheep gaze during half a year only and the remaining time it must be fed and taken care of.
There is also an acute problem with the staff. In Rakhiv Raion almost all senior shepherds are over forty years old. Young people do not want to deal with it. At first, the work of the shepherd is very difficult, especially during the high season. The shepherd works from dusk to dawn, wakes up at night and goes to bed at night, sleeps only for several hours. After such a “rest” he needs to walk for 15-20 kilometres daily to gaze the sheep stock. The sheep must be milked three times a day: two hours in the morning, at lunch time and in the evening. In addition, it is like a donkey work. There is even no such profession as a senior shepherd in our legislation. There is a profession of a cattleman, but there is no profession of a senior shepherd. It is the same work for the community as the work of a head of the rural council, but such an employee is not entitled for any working experience. I know many people who worked all their life as shepherds and get no retirement allowance now.
Therefore, young people do not want to do this work and goes to work somewhere else. As a result, the sheep stock reduces. In the times of USSR one farm in Yasynia village had 20 000 sheep, while now, most probably, the whole Rakhiv Raion has less.
It is very important to save traditional bryndzia. No pain, no gain. Therefore, in 2018 the Association of Producers of Traditional Carpathian Highland Cheeses was established. It was not easy to unite the producers as they took any activity without enthusiasm. During the high season it was not possible to gather them at all. The shepherd will not leave the flock to visit some meeting, but in winter things became easier. During one year of our activities we managed to recruit 23 producers in the Association, including shepherds, restaurateurs, travel agents and individual guides.
In the first week of September 2019 we will hold cheese festival “Hutsul Bryndzia” in Rakhiv. It is held annually starting from 2000. At the festival people can taste not only cheese but also meat products of sheep breading made under traditional Carpathian recipes, buy other interesting souvenirs, for instance hutsul lyzhnyk (a blanket made of sheep wool), carpets, etc. About 100 thousand tourists visit this festival each year. Travel agencies bring guests from all regions of Ukraine. Foreigners also come often, especially Hungarians. They believe that a real Hungarian cannot die without visiting the source of Tysa river, on the banks of which Rakhiv stands. Due to tourism development bryndzia producers feel positive trends already now, though we have not got geographic indication yet. We are happy that the things are moving, and the rest depends only on us.
Hanna Antoniuk, an expert on geographic indications of EU project “Support of Development of Geographic Indications System in Ukraine”
Geographic indication is one of the intellectual property right objects that protects traditional food and drinks. These products have qualities and characteristics that depend on the area of their origin. It means that Ukrainian producers cannot use the names of the traditional products that are registered as geographic indications in other countries, for instance parmesan or Champagne. They can produce cheese under the analogue technology, but call it differently, because their products are not original. There are about 3.5 thousand geographic indications in EU as of today and this list is constantly growing. A significant number of GI comes from Italy (about 800) and France (500). Wine and cheese are the most widespread product categories.
On the other hand, Ukraine has an opportunity to register own GI that will be protected by the European Union.
A product that wants to apply for the geographic indication sign, must meet certain criteria. The first requirement is that it must be a traditional product with the production history of at least 30 years. It must be proved documentarily: references to the books, local registers, etc. Under the second criteria, the product must have a good reputation. In other words, the locals must recognize the product. At the end there should be collective dynamics among the producers. It means that one producer with one product can not apply for the geographic indication, but only several entrepreneurs from a certain geographical area. Only in Lviv Oblast 82 traditional products meeting the above three criteria were found, while in other regions the potential products for GI registration are still subject to evaluation.
The registration of the geographic indication will give bryndzia several advances. First of all, we protect the traditional technology through documents and product specification that must describe in details the specificity of production. If to look at the European experience, we can see that geographic indication often saved those traditional products that were about to disappear, for instance cheese Laguiole, Beaufort, Tome des Bauges, Banon, Brousse du Rove and many others.
After obtaining all the documents the product gains more trust among owners of stores offering craft and hand-made products. Thus, the potential sales market expands. The geographic indication will also let create a label like a quality sign that will help differentiate real cheese from the faked one. The Association is already planning to sell the cheese in craft stores in Lviv and Kyiv. In future we also consider exporting it once we get all licenses, though currently it is not a mass production and mainly designed for tourists.
At the end of the day a special product will attract more tourists to the region that will come not just to see the mountains but to taste the cheese. Bryndzia is mentioned more often, as most probably it will be the first of other traditional Ukrainian products that will get the geographic indication. The popularity and reputation of the product will have a positive effect on pricing and producers will be able to increase the cost of the cheese as many people will want to buy and taste it.
The EU project works in Ukraine since April 2018 and supports all directions: from search for traditional products in the regions to preparing the documents for registration of the geographic indication, supporting producers in promoting and selling the products. We gathered bryndzia producers to meet the owners of craft stores. We discussed the prices, requirements to packaging, number of shipments. We can disclose one of the sales points already now. This store with traditional hutsul products, such as cheese, honey, mushrooms, berries, will work near the geographical centre of Europe in Rakhiv Raion. By the end of June we also plan to complete the development of the special marking and labels. Our most ambitious goal is to engage young people to the production of traditional meadow cheese; therefore we are going to organize training for them and transfer the traditions of production of hutsul bryndzia.
Tobias Aizenring, expert on geographic indications of EU Project “Support of Geographic Indication System in Ukraine”
Swiss citizens started registering geographic indications in 2001, among which there were many types of cheese. It was a complicated process as they had to organize the producers of cheese and milk. As of today, there are about thirty registered products, among which such famous cheese as gruyere and emmental, as well as various meat products, fruits and vegetables, for instance Geneva violet artichoke. They are protected by the Swiss Ministry of Agriculture and recognized by the European Union (in other words there is control over production of the goods according to the specific technology and only in the region of the traditional production – Editor’s comment). About three hundred cheese dairies produce gruyere and emmental. These enterprises are especially important for the rural areas as they create working places.
One of the cheese geographical indications called Tete de Moine, what means a monk’s head, is located about 50 kilometres from Basel (a city in the north-west of Switzerland, a capital of German-speaking half-canton Basel-Stadt – Editor’s comment) and represents an important product of the region. The production of this cheese started eight hundred years ago and nowadays about ten cheese factories produce it. Tete de Moine is cut in a special way that allows delivering its aroma and taste.
Ukraine has a huge potential, including in geographic indications, as you have an incredible cultural heritage. If to go to the Carpathians, hutsul sheep bryndzia is produced there. It has extremely old tradition and at the same time it is a know-how. I would recommend Ukraine, especially people who deal with the registration of geographic indications, to approach producers and ask how they would describe their product. Once the product is defined, a strong government and system are needed to protect the geographic indications. It is a special but very important way to protect the Ukrainian identity -through food. It is also a peaceful way.
By Samira Abbasova