An afternoon in Ohrid

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sheepbreeders, part 2

In the summer, the sheep are moved to higher pastures in the mountains. The land is owned by the government and each farmer rents and is assigned to a pasture according to the size of his flock. I always thought that the pastures were close by, but today I found out that some are very far indeed. Some farmers in Tetovo, which is in the NW corner of Macedonia, take theirs to pastures in Shtip, in the eastern central region, farmers from Gostivar to Veles, in the center, and farmers from Debar, which is on the border with Albania, to Bitola, south on the border with Greece. These locations are hundreds of miles apart, and traditionally, farmers drove the sheep over the mountains to these distant pastures. The trip from Tetovo to Shtip took 21 days, with the farmers carrying their tents and food on horses and their dogs helping to drive the sheep. The drives started in middle to late May, depending on when the snow cleared from the higher mountains, and were on traditional paths across the country. Just recently, farmers from Tetovo and Gostivar started using the train to transport the sheep, but the farmers from Debar, having no access to trains, still drive their sheep in the time-honored fashion. Luli's eyes light up when he talks about it - he'd love to go on a drive with a filmmaker and do a documentary about this old way of life which soon will die, but the timing is bad for him and he's never been able to go.

All along the trail, and during their time in the high pastures, the ewes need to be milked twice a day. There are milking sheds in the pastures, but no refrigeration, no milk pick-up, nothing. So what do they do? They make cheese, and at the end of their stay arrange for transport to pick up all of the summer cheese. The cheese is very salty and high in acid, which is what preserves it. Disease control is not the best here and some animals may have brucellosis and/or TB, and there is no pasteurization. Non-pasteurized milk makes the best tasting cheese, but those diseases can be spread through raw milk. However, after three months of being cured, the cheese is safe to eat - no bacteria can survive. Would it pass FDA standards in the States? That is a vigorous debate that's going on now - FDA requires pasteurization, but many boutique cheesemakers are fighting that so they can make higher quality, better tasting cheeses.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Working with the Sheepbreeders part 1

Hopefully this will work - I just see a bunch of computer stuff where pictures should be! Anyway, just finished my favorite breakfast, scrambled eggs made with yogurt, cirenje - a salty, soft white cheese - and hot peppers - yum. I've written about the adventures I've had, but not work, so I'll tell you a little about work.
I work with the Sheepbreeders Association of Western Macedonia - Shoqata e Kultivuesve te dhenves ne Maqedonist Perandimore - but it's a bit of a misnomer. Besides promoting the products of the local sheepherders, my counterpart (and the only person actually running the association) also does work in rural development. As I've mentioned before, Macedonia is a candidate country to join the EU, and to do that it has to change its entire agricultural sector.
Macedonians have farmed the same way for centuries - small family farms. The land has been in families for generations and there is a strong tie, but that way of life is dying. For me, it's great, food is plentiful, fresh, and cheap, but it's getting increasingly impossible for farmers to make a living and the farms don't meet EU standards for hygiene or environmental protection, and the processing infrastructure is weak. The average age of farmers is rising as young people are leaving the farms for the larger cities and towns. Whole villages are dying. I was in Lipcove the other day, a municipality up north on the border with Kosovo (and incidentally one that saw a lot of the fighting during the hostilities here 10 years ago) and got a copy of the strategic plan. Several of small mountain villages had population decreases anywhere from 90 to 100 per cent - from a village of 750 to 6, for example. So things have to change, but as with every change, much will be lost with the changes. Part of the task is to figure out how to balance this change preserving a way of life that many love and that provides all of us who are localvores with fresh, healthy food.

One sector that has had some success is organic farming, but that so far is small and still faces some of the challenges that traditional farming faces. Another sector that everyone wants to do is mountain/rural tourism, but there is much infrastructure work that needs to be done. Given that Macedonia is 70-80% mountains, there is lots of opportunity for mountain activities that can be combined with visiting rural villages and towns and to give people a taste of traditional life and handicrafts. A third area is the wine road. Macedonia is a big wine producer. Up until very recently, it mostly produced bulk wines that it sold to Germany to mix in with their wines, but Macedonia is now developing its own brands with regional grapes. The Pupova Kula winery I visited by Negotino is an example - that trip really was research! My idea is to package a wine and cheese tour. Tours would come into Skopje, travel around and visit some of the mountain villages around Gostivar, Mavrovo/Rostushe area for the cheese, farm traditions and mountain beauty, spend a day or two in Ohrid (another research trip I've had to take) then swing over to Negotino and up to visit the wineries. For anyone who visits I'll try to set that up for you! Anyway, so far I've met with people from the tourism board and Luli and I have written a grant for a traditional agricultural museum as part of that. We'd love to get a living museum a la Hovander park going.

So a lot of what I've done so far is meet with committees from some of the Municipalities while they're working of their strategic plans with Luli, educate myself about some of the issues and challenges, and meet people. You can see how spif I look in traditional dress above. You can also see how much farming is done. While some farmers have tractors, much is still done by hand or with horses. On the street by my apartment there are always farmers with their horses and wagons waiting to be hired for the day to help move things. You see the farmers coming down the street competing for space with cars, buses and trucks, standing upright on their wagons as they guide their horses. The attachment to the land will also be a challenge - how could you sell land that's been in the family for centuries so that there can be bigger farms that can afford the modern equipment and methods?

Luli and I will be working on several things this spring and summer. One will be to reconfigure the mission and board of the Sheepbreeders Association to make it broader in scope, but the fun things will be arranging festivals for tourists to publicize sheep products. Luli is one of the main organizers of the wine and cheese festival that happens in Ohrid sometime in early August, and in Sept. we're going to do a 10K race that starts in one of the villages and ends in Gostivar where we'll be having a sheep festival - booths with sheep cheeses and dried meat, village handcrafts, especially made with wool, shearing and milking contests, etc. The race will coincide with the farmers bringing the sheep down from the high pastures. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I hope that at least gives you an idea of the challenges Macedonia faces in the agricultural sector and my very small part in it. Mostly I've been learning, learning, learning. It's a real privilege to be doing this, and I often have to pinch myself to remind myself that it's real. I feel like I'm getting to experience Macedonia as it's been for centuries, and very soon that way of life will be irrevocably changed. How lucky can I be?

Thursday, April 1, 2010


After our magical 24 hours in Cappadocia, we boarded the plane for Izmeer and Kushadasi. We were taken to the wrong part of the airport when we landed in Izmeer, and by the time we made it back to the domestic side and our bags, we'd almost missed our driver. But thank heavens that the travel agent who coordinated our Kushadasi stay told him to wait - it was a 75 km drive from the airport to our hotel. The countryside was beautiful and lush and as different from Cappadocia as could be. Kushadasi is a resort town on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and to get there we drove through a valley, a coastal range, and along the sea. It was gray, cloudy and cool - where was our vacation weather? The driver pulled up to a huge resort hotel overlooking a small private cove - gorgeous, but it was definitely off season. Two busloads of Germans were staying there that night along with us. In season it must be something - something we wouldn't be able to afford as well - with 6 different swimming pools, a private beach, boats to rent, a hammam, volleyball, tennis, whatever your heart desired. Only the indoor swimming pool was open for us. But that was fine - the room was spacious and comfortable, breakfast and dinner were provided, and we didn't want to spend our time in the hotel anyway. The travel agent was there to welcome us - she was very sweet and suggested that while there were really no tours happening we might want to take the ferry over to Samos one day and the public bus up to Selchuk, the taxi to Ephesus, and the the bus again up to the small mountain village of Sirince where there were 3 wineries. We got up early the next day tried to find our way to the ferry. Unfortunately, it didn't start running until April 1, so we went to plan B. We found the bus station and caught the combi - a large van that holds maybe 16 people - to Selchuk. It stopped at Ephesus, ruins of a very important city in Greek and Roman times. It was here that St. Peter brought Mary after Jesus entrusted her care to him, and it was here she lived out her life. St. Paul wrote his famous letters here - it was the Asian capital of the Empire. We met a taxi driver who took us to the top of the mountain where it is believed that Mary lived, and we left messages for her intercession for all of you. The driver then took us back to Ephesus to meander through the uncovered ruins. One of the 7 wonders of the world is here - the library of Celsius, pictured above. It was amazing and I could have wandered through the city forever, imagining what it was like to live there centuries ago. It was a modern city - the Romans had central heating and plumbing. But we had other adventures ahead.

The driver met us at the end and took us up to Selchuk where we had the most amazing meal - it's pictured above. The food in Turkey is fabulous. We then found the bus station by walking around the city and asking "Autobus, Sirence?" The last person we asked took us to a man and told him to walk us to the bus - which he did. The people were so wonderful and helpful, and seemed delighted to have a couple of crazy tourists taking the local transportation. Macedonia has prepared us well. We went up a narrow mountain road to Sirence. The views were breathtaking and the mountain sides were covered with olive trees. Sirence has definitely figured out mountain tourism. The entire town has been transformed into a bazaar, and with the wineries there you walk along the street and everyone is offering you free tastes of wine. A lot of the wines are fruit wines, sweet and not to my taste, but it was a ball. I bought some gloves and socks from the old woman above. It was great fun walking through the town talking to the locals up to the old Church being restored by the American Friends of Ephesus at the top of the town. We caught the last combi back to Selchuk, and then the next one to Kushadasi, which dropped us off right at our hotel. It was a wonderful day!

Our last day in Turkey was gorgeous - warm, blue sky, beautiful. The sea was a deep, sparkling blue with lots of little fishing boats out. Kushadasi is a cruise boat stop, so there is an area that has been built just for cruise tourism. We stopped there and had coffee outside on the dock at a Starbucks and explored Kushadasi. We had lunch by the sea at a fish restaurant, walked to Pigeon Island, took a combi out to Ladies Beach, and walked around town. It was a low key day, and a nice end to our fabulous trip, and trip that had just the right balance of adventure, excitement, relaxation, and beauty. I have a whole new appreciation of the country, the people, and traveling!