Florian Šavrtka, a shepherd by trade, was born, raised and will die in the Revúca Valley of Slovakia's Veľká Fatra. At 61 years of age, he resembles a character from the film Grumpy Old Men. But he'd never fit the part, with his jovial personality and eagerness to tell a good story.
Šavrtka's grandparents left Slovakia for the US in 1910 because they couldn't find work. They wound up "somewhere in America," where his grandfather worked in a coal mine. They returned to Revúca after the Second World War. Šavrtka quit school at age 10 to work fulltime at sheep herding with his dad.
Even these days, the life of a Slovak shepherd (bača) is no picnic. The day begins at 4am with the first milking session. They herd the 346 sheep (and two goats) into a pen with a row of four stalls on one side. Šavrtka, Gustav and Juraj (his two assistants), and Pavel (the shepherd) take one stall each and call the sheep in individually for milking. This goes on for a good hour and a half, and the process is repeated at noon and again at sundown. The rest of the day they chop wood, stoke the fire, make cheese and žinčica (sour milk), feed the pigs, and entertain hikers who blunder by.
I met Šavrtka as he was sitting on the stoop of the cheese shed of his sheep dairy farm (salaš). I asked him for a drink, and he nodded aimiably, disappearing into the dark interior. A moment later he re-emerged, handing me a wooden cup of milk with a squirrel figure carved into the handle. Fine bits of curd floated in the milk and stuck to the edge of the cup. Milk was the last drink I craved on this hot August day, but I raised it to my lips, hoping it wouldn't be too warm.
The milk was surprisingly light, with a slight tartness and a subtly smokey flavor. This was žinčica.
Just inside the door of the shack an open fire smoldered from a pit in the floor. One man transferred some milk from one large pail to a large cast-iron pot, suspended from a chain over the fire. The smoke permeates everything - cheese, milk, clothing, wooden cups, hair, even your skin. It's part of the special flavor. Žinčica making is something of an art. First, they take pure sweet sheep cheese, from which the famous bryndza is made, with sheep milk. Then they cook it in the cast-iron pot over the open fire until it froths and congeals across the top. Eventually, the skin cracks and pulls apart. When the milk bubbles up through the cracks, the žinčica is ready. They scoop off the curds, let it cool and serve.
This salaš is one of five in the Revúca Valley operating as a state-run collective. The žinčica, sweet cheese and smoked cheese made here, as well as the revenue from sales made at the salaš, are all collected by the state.
It's not an easy life, and Šavrtka says he scarcely has enough time to play his flute while the žinčica cooks. But he also says he wouldn't trade places with anyone.