Ondrej the Good Shepherd
One of the more romantic Slovak peasant lifestyles is that of a shepherd and while I can find no evidence that anyone in my family actually ever was one, about 100 years ago my family knew one well. Ondrej Klucik and his wife, Katja, were the grandparents of Julka (Julia), who I met with recently in Canada; the Klucik family have been friends and distant relatives of the Shuster family for hundreds of years. (Julka and her family immigrated to Canada with my Shuster family in the late 1930’s).
Ondrej was born in 1880 in Pivnice, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was a shepherd most of his life. Every spring, Ondrej would make the long trek across the Pannonian Plains and take his 200 animals into the cool mountains to graze all summer, returning to live again in Pivnice six months later, by October. This shepherd lifestyle, called “transhumant”, was a common way of life for rural Slovaks, dating back many centuries.
Ondrej bred goats and lambs; he did not keep sheep – they were not as fun and interesting, according to Julka. Twice a week during the summer Ondrej would descend from the mountain and take his cart pulled by a donkey back into town, full of sour milk and tasty cheese. Ondrej was famous in Pivnice for his delicious goat cheese; during each quick trip, he would sell all of his dairy products to the villagers.
Usually the young sons of the shepherd would accompany the goats, lambs, sheep and their dad into the mountains, and the job of the shepherd would be taught to the younger generation; it wasn’t unusual for a teenager to take on the full time responsibility of shepherding his own flock. Together they would sleep on a bed of straw in a tiny wooden shack in the woods, and spend most of their days outdoors.
The shepherd would take his flujara, a flute, along to herd the animals. A long bassoon-like tube of wood over a meter long, the flujara would make a deep, rich sound that could be heard over a mile away. The shepherd would also take a valaška, a shepherd’s axe, to help cut through the underbrush in the mountains, and to help in the gathering of firewood. Both the flujara and the valaška are symbols of Slovakia today.
During much of the reign of the Austro-Hungarian kings and queens, the shepherd would encounter all sorts of shady characters who were hiding out in the mountains. The shepherds would earn extra money by helping the bandits, highway robbers and brigands, acting as mountain guides, cooks and look-outs for these outlaws; they were usually paid with stolen merchandise.
The thieves and the shepherds often shared meals of sour milk, cheese and goulash together. The shepherd would keep buckets of cheese buried in the dirt in the woods, milk the sheep and goats every morning for their thick sour cream-like milk, and would make tasty goulash soup in a large metal cauldron over an open fire.
The process reminds me of a slow cooker: the meat is browned, paprika (the essential ingredient) and other herbs are added, and then water and vegetables are tossed in – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and onions. The whole thing was slowly cooked over the fire all day as the shepherds tended their flocks, and at the end of the day, they would enjoy the thick, rich broth of the goulash and the tender meat. My Aunt Lily was treated to goulash served from a cauldron by a shepherd in the 1960’s when she visited our family in the lower Tatra Mountains of Slovakia; she reports that it was indeed delicious.
In the spring of 1919, while the lambs were being herded over a bridge, one small lamb fell through the wooden slats into the river below. Ondrej jumped down, waded into the tall weeds to find the lamb, and bent over into the water to try to locate him. According to his sons, Ondrej never came up again. He was 39 years old.
A few months earlier, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed and the province of Vojvodina (which included the village of Pivnice) was carved out and handed to the newly formed country of Yugoslavia. Within a year of Ondrej’s death, the newly formed Yugoslavian government had redistributed the wealth in the country, breaking up farms like that of Julka’s grandparents, which went from over 80 hectares to parcels of 17 acre tracts of land that were given away to others, without compensation. The land was no longer big enough to farm and and make a living on, and many people in the country who were unskilled in other areas sank into extreme poverty after that. The centuries old tradition of Klucik shepherding sadly came to an end.
Today in parts of Slovakia you can still see shepherds tending their sheep in the mountain sides, and they will still live in the mountains during the hot summer months. But roads, modern transportation, refrigeration, electricity and housing have forever changed the transhumant way of living. On the way to Dolny Kubin recently I did find a shepherd sitting far up on the hillside with several sheep, and his granddaughter down at the roadside selling delicious Slovak cheese made from their sheep. I am still longing for a cauldron of hearty goulash soup served up in the mountains, though.
You can see more pictures of Slovak cheeses, and cheeses from Vienna and Prague, on Pauline’s Cookbook fan page on Facebook. You do not need to belong to Facebook to see them.