A few days ago, FrieslandCampina, majority shareholder of Napolact (a large Romanian dairy producer) has announced closing down its factory in the village of Țaga, 60km from Cluj-Napoca in the heart of Transylvania, where the Năsal cheese has been made for over half a century.
The Năsal is a soft cheese with an intense smell (yes… feet…) and a particularly strong and fantastic taste (honestly, one of the best cheeses I’ve ever tasted, and as a Swiss foodie I dare say I have a solid background to judge cheese). Being emotionally attached to that cheese (as its wikipedia page is the first wiki page I ever wrote) as I had the chance to visit the factory back in 2001 (and smuggled a dozen of those jewels back home), hearing such news is sad and quite a big deal. Not only because closing the factory will leave its dozen employees jobless (and good luck to find another job in such a rural area), but because Năsal has become a flagship Romanian product. And we’re going to let it die. Just like that.
Like all things Transylvanian, a little tale recounts the story of this cheese:
The legend has it that the land around Țaga in Romania was entirely owned by a rich and tyrannic count, while the villagers had nothing and were starving. Some day, they decided to steal some of cheese from the count and hid it in a cave nearby so they wouldn’t get caught. Upon returning to the cave a few weeks later, they thought the cheese rot because its crust turned red-orange and became very stinky. In spite of the smell, the cheese turned out to have an excellent taste! The count later found out about this story, and decided to keep himself his cheese in the cave after punishing the villagers, that is.
The original cave was only 20 meters deep and only one person could enter at a time. In 1954, industrialised production of the cheese began in a little house near the entrance. In 1971, the cave has been enlarged and modernised, however, in spite of all efforts to augment production, the magic red mushroom would not live beyond the first 120 meters of the grotto. Scientists all around the world tried to come up with methods to produce the same cheese in other locations by reproducing the same physico-chemical conditions, but nothing worked. It lived only in those 120 meters of cave and nobody knows why, period. Moreover, the bacteria would naturally cover the cheese without any intervention or being mixed with the milk as would be done with other cheese making methods.
This poses a hard limit of annual production of Năsal which is way below the global demand for it. The only way they could produce more cheese was to reduce the maturation period from three months to two, which has had a clear impact on quality I could personally experience over the last couple of years. Such compromises are unacceptable, but become common practice in the hands of corporations.
The excuse for closing the factory is that, in spite of large investments in this factory, is that the interest of Romanian consumers in specialty cheeses has been decreasing in the last years. Lame! Maybe this “lack of interest” might be correlated with the fact that the price of the cheese has tripled over the last couple of years, to justify the investments made to increase production and who cares about quality? Shameful.
Such unique and traditional products are national treasures and should be treated as such!
It is unacceptable that the survival of such unique products are at the mercy of a bunch of executives who very likely never tasted the product and who work thousands of miles away from where the actual work gets done. It should be a government’s duty to ensure such products are protected and promoted, but nothing has been done in this case. Italy has been a leader in this field, they have done an exceptional job protecting and promoting their national traditional specialties thanks to geographical indications, but what about Romania? What about the rest of Eastern Europe? How many more of those unique products do we need to let disappear into history before we understand how important they are, not only economically, but especially culturally?
This is a sad day. I hope as consumers we can learn how not to make compromise about authentic crafted products, because this is what happens when we do it…