We all know how much wisdom and knowledge did our grannies had. They nurtured their experiences and provided us with the finest things imaginable. Seldom can we find a person who doesn’t recall the scents and aromas of grandma’s home. In the village of Orbanići, near Žminj, it is milk that is a flavour of old times. Today, the dairy Latus is a proud example of tradition and quality in milk and cheese making. Since 2002 they have been building on a family tradition, learning step-by-step, and finally became a recognisable brand of Istrian gastronomy.
The dairy has a milk and cheese tasting room which shows that Orbanić family is very serious about anything they do. It has become an unavoidable point of interest for many roaming tourists in this part of Istria, and they all can enjoy Istrian products made from the Istrian milk. It comes from cows enjoying the Istrian pasture and precise mix of herbs and grass growing in the Žminj area. The same cows we saw while arriving at the estate, and greeted them on our departure. They seem happy, as far as cows go. Still, we are being told how important it is to stick to the local pastureland, as it gives a specific aroma to the milk, of which Latus dairy is so proud of. The milk contains more fat, and it is only pasteurised milk available here. Incredibly, because of the differences in the pasture, milk might be of different taste in winter and in summer!
We are listening carefully to our guide while she pours a delicious milk yoghurt into glasses. She talks about traditions and takes us through the tastings just as she would do with any other guest. In Latus, women are very strong and important, as we see immediately. They care for the cheese and traditionally do everything manually. Taken that some 140 tons of cheese come out from dairy annually, it is a lot of handworks! Most of the cheeses are done according to a recipe left by grandma Šantina, which contains original tastes and some half-forgotten traditions and tales.
One such tale is about the cheese in wheat (sir u šenici), which talks about wits of Istrian peasants. The traditional Istrian cheese was always small, as it comes from the Istrian cow (boškarin). It was always considered as a working animal and she gave a small amount of milk. Sometimes, from the leftover milk, a cheese was made. According to the rules of Istrian hospitality, the cheese was kept for guests and workers, and this rule still applies today. It is an embarrassment if guests come in a house where there is no cheese or prosciutto.
However, children often stole cheese and ate it. Witty grandmas had to find a way to hide it away from children and they used to put the cheese in wheat sacks. In that way, they unintentionally preserved the cheese and made something very unique in Istria. The cheese released the dump, the wheat released the aromas and cheese had enough air to dry. That is how a completely new product came to life. As a punishment, grandmas gave their grandchildren whey to drink, but that again proved to be an excellent thing to do, as this is a product that keeps people healthy year-round. When they warmed it, a curd was formed. And this is a true tale from the past times that can easily shape our worldview even today.
But, enough of that. We came to Latus to try these cheeses and indeed a cheese plate emerged in front of us. From right to left, we were presented with best cheeses from Latus and indeed among the best ones we have tried lately. First, we have tried young cheese škripavac, served when it is 5-10 days old, with olive oil. It is a very important cheese, always an ingredient to fill ravioli, and excellent for food blending. We were reminded, cheese is eaten by hand and warm! Only then can you really savour the true essence of cheese. Older Istrian cheese blends great with the Istrian prosciutto. It is 2-3 months old, with a buttery flavour and very mild. As such it is a great companion to cured meat, as it doesn’t make strong flavours and keeps prosciutto and wine going. Well.. why didn’t they told us that before?!
The real treat was to taste champion cheese and the best Croatian cheese in 2017, Veli Jože. It is cow cheese one-year-old, with a specific taste. The story of this cheese is special, like everything else in Latus. The chef’s grandpa was Jože, and he was tall (veli). At the same time, Veli Jože is a good giant from the Istrian legends, so both have been remembered in this beautiful cheese. It has a specific spicy aroma and a lasting taste and blends well with Muscatel, or fresh fruit. A word of warning from Latus – you might become addicted to this cheese, as it wakes Istrian spirit in you!
The only mixed cheese Latus has is Mišadur, half cow, and half sheep cheese, four months old, and with a typical Istrian background. The tradition of mixed cheeses comes from the fact that Istrian sheep has no particular amount of milk, so cow’s milk is used too. Another Istrian favourite is cheese with truffles, unavoidable segment of the Istrian table today. With its intensive flavour, it is the same story as with truffles itself; you either like it immediately or not at all. But really a special treat, not always available, was VJ2+ or, if you haven’t recognised it, Veli Jože two years old. It is a very special cheese with a myriad of flavours, from brandy and chocolate to pure cheese and dessert. And when speaking of desserts, we tried something very classic and yet so pure and tasty – curd with fig jam!
For a small family business in the heart of Istria, Latus has done a great job and returned a tradition of homemade dairies that once existed all over Croatia. It is our strongest suggestion not to omit Latus when you visit Žminj. Specifically, come here on Wednesdays, as it is the Open Day in Latus when tastings of cheese are held every hour! And don’t forget to eat it with your hands!