Aleš Winkler began his life as one of Ljubljana’s leading real estate lawyers, living the high life. But around age 40, he decided against having a mid-life crisis and instead opted for a mid-life change. He and his doctor wife sold their Ljubljana apartment and moved, with their kids, to a tiny village in Istria, Croatia. Originally purchased as a weekend getaway, they decided to live there full-time.
They bought goats to function as lawnmowers, chomping away the macchie scrubs of their extensive property. At first, there were 30 goats, then 100. A local goat farmer mentioned that they should be milked, but that was a lot of milk, and locals were not interested in just drinking it. What to do? He decided to turn it into cheese but knew nothing about the process. By his own account, the first year’s cheese was “bad. Really bad. Well, not bad… Yeah, it was bad.” So he turned to the internet and ordered every book he could find on Amazon about making goat cheese.
The following year, he was the champion of Croatia. That was just a few years ago. And in 2017, he was invited to Piedmont, to Slow Food International, to teach the world a thing or two about how to make goat cheese. That’s quite a success story. And Winkler’s loving every minute of his newly-adopted lifestyle.
We’d been driving for hours, and while technically we were only twenty minutes from Pula, the largest city in the Istrian peninsula, it sure felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Where better to find what is considered one of the best goat cheese producers in the world?
It was adventure enough to follow unhelpful but optimistic signs for Kumparicka, the name of the farm. There were signs dotted around the nearest town, depicting a smiling goat and the name of the farm but without directions or even an arrow to aim us appropriately. The mission was to visit Winkler, one of twenty farmers and producers of what superstar chef Janez Bratovž considers the best in Slovenia. He considers Winkler to be the world’s best goat cheese producer—no small compliment from a man ranked the 10th best chef in Europe.
Winkler is clearly having fun with this whole farming thing. For instance, he uses drones to keep track of his goats, as they munch their way across his 250 hectares of scrub. It makes shepherding more like a video game, as he sits with his beer at home and follows the herd by remote control, and locate a stray, but it’s even more effective. “The goats are afraid of the drones,” he says, “so you can even herd them in the right direction by flying the drones around. But mostly it’s fun.”
Winkler shows his cheese cave, impeccable and the only part of the farm that is off-limits to his anti-coyote army of dogs. It's light-controlled, viewable through the glass from a mezzanine balcony, wooden planks stacked into the sky, bearing his award-winning discs of goaty goodness.
Goat cheese and tomatoes
The rough wooden table in his open-air kitchen/lounge/dining room bears a bowl of what looks like tropical fruit. Turns out its tomatoes, but not as I know them. There’s not a shape or color that is familiar to me from the supermarket. The sizes range from teardrop to fist, a wash of yellow and purple and green and mauve. All from his garden. They taste more like plums, kiwis, cucumbers, mangos than tomatoes. This is a whole new ballgame. But aren’t we here for the cheese? This would be a destination just for the tomatoes.
And out they come. Three levels of aging for the firm cheeses, but I’m most intrigued by the soft ones. I grew up enjoying a rather industrial, but still tasty, version of goat cheese in peppercorns or herbs, from the local supermarket. This is at another level of succulence, intensity, goat-i-ness.
Slovenia is a land unbothered by raw dairy. Pasteurization is not necessary. The rawness of milk or cheese means that the taste is so much fuller, more natural, bearing the essence of the vessel (in this case, happy lady goats) which carried its ingredient, and even a trace of whatever that vessel ate (in this case, the wild grasses of the Istrian macchie. Winkler’s most-awarded cheese is a soft one imbued with saffron.
Sliced open, the inside is a custard-yellow, beautiful to behold. But I’m most intrigued by the hairy one. Cheese, one would think, is not meant to be hairy. I’ve heard tell that the hairy “silken tofu,” a specialty in some parts of China, is a very much acquired taste, and would not be my thing. Now Winkler proudly serves us a column of goat cheese that appears to be sheathed in gray felt. It looks alarmingly like a pair of winter slippers I have back at the house. Slicing into it, there’s a surprise, as well—a thin orange layer just beneath the gray felt exterior and soft white insides. This is the one, the big gun. I can’t get enough of it.
A special konoba
Just last year, Winkler opened a konoba, Croatian for an informal restaurant, like the Italian osteria, but he does it his way. It’s clear from the sign at the entrance, which reads konoba primitive, which means just what you’d think it does. A chalkboard lists the “rules:” 1) Animal welfare (presumably up until the moment said animal is transformed from noble beast into dinner), 2) Self-service is good for you, 3) Smile and talk, and 4) Left blank, for you to fill in from the basket of chalk hanging beside the chalkboard.
The konoba opens at 7 pm. If you’re not there then, tough noogies. They serve you whatever they made that day. And it’s killer good. Winkler and his son do the serving. No plates, just rustic wooden cutting boards spread with ridiculously delicious, fresh things (Croatian/Slovenian tapas, lots of small servings of vegetables, spreads, cheeses, sausages), to be eaten by spoon or by hand or spread with the inevitable Bowie-sized knife that is stuck upright in the cutting board. Instead of plates, flatbreads, studded with rosemary, roasted garlic, and tomatoes, the span and shape of flying saucers, are thumped onto the table. The beer is cold, the cheese is goaty, vocal jazz spins out of a speaker that hangs from a rafter, fairy lights string above the few communal tables. Life is good.
Come at 8pm, the service ends. You can stay as long as you like, grab that guitar or the accordion from the pile next to the beer cooler, but Winkler and his family have better things to do than cater to you. It’s a good life. One might even say, with a measure of objectivity, that it’s a better quality of life than being a high-rolling real estate lawyer in the big city. Winkler certainly seems better for it. So grab another beer, roll a cigarette, then roll a roll of Europe’s best goat cheese in a bowl of pulverized black peppercorns. Uproot the Bowie knife from its wooden board, hack off a wedge of flatbread, and go to town. But only metaphorically. You’re already in the best place on earth.