Goats, Milk, Mountain: Taste of the Macedonian Meadow
Last year I drove south from Kosovo into the northern part of North Macedonia.
We were on our way to meet David Nedelkovski, a goat farmer and cheesemaker living just outside Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city. David is a small-scale producer operating under the name Kozi Mleko Planina or ‘Goats, Milk, Mountain.’
“I was a city boy with pink hands.” he laughs – David is brotherly – full of good conversation and a lot of laughter. Twelve years ago, at 22, he was an Archeology student living and working in Skopje with his parents Zoran and Snezhana. “Something was missing. I hadn’t found myself, working for someone else.”
Archaeology saw him absorbed in pre-history, the ‘roots of humanity,’ anthropology – and before long the draw of exploring those influences was greater than trying to make sense of city life. A family vote saw David and his parents pack up in Skopje and return to his grandparents’ village of Rashtak, to try and make something of a small plot of land there. “Where the farm is now, there was a tiny house where my grandfather Vladimir was keeping a donkey and two goats.”
Preoccupied with the Neolithic period and the process of domestication, after dogs, “goats are the first domesticated animal that give you something” David tells us. In other words, milk. So, they bought a milking machine, and ten goats. From there they learnt in motion, with a bit of help from the internet. Their choice wasn’t immediately met with encouragement – “people were laughing at me for leaving the city, having goats and working on that.”
The Macedonian goat sector has revived since 1989 when a ban on goat breeding across the Republic was lifted. The ban, put in place in 1947, was enforced with the slaughter of 500,000 goats, with only a few remaining in very remote rural areas. It had a huge impact on breeding and genetic resourcing, as well as the culture of traditional farming and cheesemaking. “After 10-12 years this world has changed, the profession has much more respect now.”
Emailing me recently, he discovered that one of the oldest coins minted on Macedonian soil shows a Capricorn on the obverse. It’s honouring this millennia-old alliance between goat and goat farmer, that allows Kozi Mleko Planina to take shape. Leaning into his ancient Macedonian roots through the practice of goat herding and cheesemaking, there’s a feeling that all paths would have eventually led to Kozi Mleko Planina.
In crisp November, the cheesemaking season was over, milk production was low and we were waiting for birthing season come January. “During that period, I’ll probably run away from home, and go and stay in the stable with the goats.” That time is precious he says, describing the quiet of lying in the stable – “it’s like a symphony, you hear everything – branches breaking, every creak in the roof.”
Kozi Mleko Planina works strictly seasonally, with a small heard of around 40. They graze on the meadow foothills of the Skopska Crna Gora Mountain range, which spills into Kosovo and Serbia. Each has a name, a personality and role in what he refers to as the ‘syndicate.’
“Our idea isn’t to have 1000 goats. We like to have a number of goats which we can do the best with, and bring productivity to a high level. When you have less, you can give them more of your time.” We walked with the heard into the meadows above the farm to enjoy some of the last of the season’s offerings. Cheesemaking was unknown to David and his parents 12 years ago. “With the cheese we’re eating now, it’s been a process of trying for 4-5 years.”
Kalesh Mara is a pale and delicate hard cheese made from raw milk – this one aged for 4 months. Another nod to historic influences, it shares its name with a cultural site on the mountain, where the story goes that in 1389 a local woman, Kalesh Mara, was slain by an Ottoman Sultan on his way to battle with the Serbs. Clean and mild, Kalesh Mara is not farmyardy at all, but more like a hard and crumbling salted ricotta.
Five years ago, things didn’t flow as they are now. David was searching for support to make it work. “We didn’t know what to do, we were looking at government programmes, but we couldn’t find ourselves in those conditions.”
“Our lives changed when we met Slow Food Macedonia.” Slow Food Macedonia is a key player in the Balkan Slow Food Movement engaging with the state in policy-influencing and developing regulations in support of small-scale producers. But limitations on the trade of raw milk products globally, still prioritises industrially pasteurised cheeses.
In 2019, David travelled to Bra with Slow Food. “When I first brought my cheese to Italy people were like ‘What?! This is from Macedonia? You only have white cheese in a can!”
Dedicated to experimentation in the realms of tradition, Slow Food provided a global test kitchen. David works traditionally to produce cheeses of his own invention, not quite like any of those listed on the Ark of Taste for Macedonia. Last year, he experimented producing a prehistoric style cheese using herb-based rennet.
“Before Slow Food we were nervous to produce with raw milk,” but, connected with producers from all over the world – “it changed everything to me, the whole point of view. I thought, I have privilege to be involved in every part of the process, from the making of the milk in the meadow, to the celebration of the labor. That moment was our waking up, that was the critical moment.”
In the stable, lined with record sleeves of The Doors, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, we ask a favour of one of the herd, trying some of her milk.
“You can taste it’s clean. It has something from the mountain. The biodiversity. Some sweetness.”
Rashtak is only about 20 minutes outside Skopje, a busy industrial city, with the mountain pastures beginning just above the family farm. And it’s the mountain that knits this whole thing together. “I’m curious on the mountain, the nature, the plants around me, the animals – even the wolves. The human activity on these fields.”
The meadows are sloping fields of oak, wild cherries, mushrooms – a pocket of biodiversity.
“Every object is important. It’s important to get the milk rich, and it’s different during the seasons. In the spring we have a softer taste than the summer.”
All the vibrancy of the mountain is there in the terroir of his cheese – and this place-making power of food is something that David wants to harness further. He seems to have a constant stream of visitors – collaborators and the curious. David often runs open days on the farm, educational visits for schoolchildren and local students.
But he’s working on another programme in collaboration with small family wineries in the area, to offer what he calls ‘ultra eco gastronomy.’ A walk with the goats, to a viewpoint in their mountain home, enjoying the fruits of their labour with them, absorbing each piece of mosaic that played a part.
Sitting on a blanket atop of Rashtak, accompanied by gentle score of grazing bells, birds and goat bleats – among it all – the simplicity of the name Kozi Mleko Planina properly lands, like the punchline of a well-regaled story.
David will be at Bra Cheese festival from 15-18 of September with Slow Food Macedonia, but you can follow his work @kozimlekoplanina on Instagram and facebook
If you’ll also be there: For a taste of Macedonia’s unique culinary heritage and placemaking through food, book onto the Taste Workshop “Transhumance in North Macedonia.’
Emma Taylor is a writer on cultural heritage, food and the environment. She is also Ark of Taste Coordinator for England. Get in touch with her at email@example.com. You can follow her own food project exploring food culture @kuku.bristol