Q: What type of sheep cheese is it? Is there a substitute?
Traditional bryndza is sharp, salty, grayish, grated and pin-rolled, crumbly, semi-spreadable 100% sheep cheese. There is no close equivalent in taste and texture among sheep, cow, or goat cheeses. Most modern commercially available bryndza is milder, bleached creamy white, and two of its three varieties can legally contain up to 49% cow cheese. The European Commission registered the latter as Slovenská bryndza on its food list of Protected Geographical Indications on 16 July 2008.
Although the European Protected Geographical Indications treat it and the bryndza of the Polish Podhale region adjacent to northern Slovakia as separate products, the traditional variety differs little. It stems from the Wallachian shepherding culture that gradually spread counter-clockwise from the south-east along the main ridge of the Carpathians and had reached their western ranges in the Slovak majority counties by the 15th century.
Slovak and Polish definitions
The modern products registered by the European Commission differ more. Slovak bryndza (Slovenská bryndza) must contain more than 50% sheep cheese and can be produced year-round. Podhale bryndza (Bryndza Podhalańska) must contain no less than 60% sheep cheese and can be produced only from May through September.
The product labeled Slovak bryndza can come from most of Slovakia (turquoise shading), Podhale bryndza can come only from two counties north of the Slovak border and several neighboring villages (blue shading).
U.S. ethnic markets
The European mandates do not apply in the U.S. With meager import, most of the bryndza offered at ethnic markets is US-produced mash of cow cheese and feta, seasoned to resemble the Slovak and Polish product. The FDA does not regulate the composition of products labeled bryndza, nor is there a law against calling it "Slovak bryndza."
Words related to bryndza are used for other kinds of cheese in other countries, namely in Romania, which objected to Slovakia's use of the word to label its exported bryndza before and as Slovakia applied to have it entered on the Protected Geographical Indications list. The failed goal was to reserve the Romanian word brânză (historically, brînză, the source of the Slovak word that arrived with the Wallachian shepherds) as a Europe-wide designation of Romanian cheese.
Among the Slovak counsels' successful counterarguments before the European Commission was that the Romanian word meant merely "(any salty) cheese," not a specific product.
The earliest known record of the word is brençe described as "Wallachian cheese" in a 1370 document from the Mediterranean port of Dubrovnik. It is quite likely that the Wallachian shepherds would have made it from sheep milk, but the document did not specify what type of sheep cheese it was.
Bryndza was first recorded in the Slovak counties in 1470 and in the adjacent Polish Podhale in 1527. Ethnologists estimate that the specific sheep cheese product (as opposed to the word) known as traditional bryndza today developed only in the Western Carpathians and had become common by the 17th century.
Commercial processing of bryndza in plants rather than mountain sheepfolds began in Slovakia in the 1780s. The most famous region of origin became Liptov County, north-central Slovakia, mainly through the marketing efforts of the Makovický merchant and banker family in Ružomberok in the 19th century.
Bryndza was sold as Liptauer Käse (the German for "Liptov cheese") in Vienna in the 19th century, the source of its English name Liptauer cheese. The English phrase often refers to bryndza mixed with paprika and other ingredients, which is colloquially called šmirkas in Slovak (from the German Schmierkäse, "spread cheese"), and more formally bryndzová nátierka, "bryndza spread."
Slovakia produces about 3,300 US tons of bryndza each year. Igor Pap, a modern Liptov bryndza maker, parked here below Gerlach, still expects his dog to watch more sheep than the flock painted on his pickup.