When the milk company stopped coming to the village, Berde Szilar went into the cheese business to provide jobs for his neighbors

The Cheesemaker

/ June 4, 2017

In 2010, when Berde Szilard opened up the cheese shop in Alunișu, he proved to be a real pastor of the village.

Reverend Berde Szilard (40) was born in St. Gheorghe and came to Alunișu in 2002 to serve in the Reformed Church that was built in 1273. When he arrived in the village he didn’t know much about cheese.

But that changed when Napolact, the large milk and dairy business, stopped buying milk from the village. Like most villages, the population of Alunișu declined as young people left to work outside of Romania. Napolact said Alunișu’s daily milk production did not justify the gasoline cost to drive there.

The park in front of Alunișu’s Reformed Church

Berde could not find any other customers for the villagers’ milk, so he decided to go into the cheese business. He wanted to create a product that was similar to the famous Năsal Cașcaval, which is made in another region of Romania. But he also studied the production techniques of the famous Tomme de Savoie from the French Alps.

He wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing when he first made two blocks of cheese in the basement of the parish house. After a month, he tasted the aged prototype and was overwhelmed by the result – “My mouth was watering!”

Soon he had a business selling his cheese around the region. More important, the people of Alunișu had a means of financial sustenance and well-being. Berde became the enzyme that curdled a small community to overcome a financial crisis.

Maria stacking straw

Life in Alunișu

The village of Alunișu is located 9 kilometers southwest of Huedin in Cluj County. There are about 100 residents of whom 60 are part of the Reformed Christian Church and 40 are Orthodox Christians.

There are four women in the village for every man. The ratio of women to men is reflected in the village’s nickname – Little Lady. Life in Alunișu consists of working in the fields, maintaining the home and tending to the little geraniums decorating the windowsills.

Maria is 80 years old. During the dog-days of summer, we find her making straw piles in front of the Orthodox Church.

“I want to keep everything nice and tidy, for it to be clean and beautiful. It goes well with the Lord in this village.”

At age 72, Iren Peter is working in her garden, weeding in between rows of onions.

“There was some rain and the weeds extended their roots so deep that you could only cut them with a kitchen knife.

But if we work this land, we get real miracles. A tomato has the taste of a tomato, it’s heavenly. I bet you don’t know the real taste of a tomato because you come from the city.”

Iren was her parents’ only child and this kept her tied down to the house and the land. She would have liked to have attended university, but her parents needed her at home. She is proud of her niece for graduating from university at the top of her class. “Her parents never even gave her a 50 cent piece, but she always got first place in everything.”

Iren Peter working in the garden

Iren Peter got married in Alunișu, where she and her husband built their own home. Her two children have moved to Oradea. In the evening, she watches television with her husband to “discover the world and its problems.”

She is grateful to live far away from these problems. “What you see on TV seems to be a sad dream. I stay here, around the house, where there’s always peace and quiet.”

Ileana in front of her house

A few houses down, Ileana (65), hangs some clothes on the line. In the morning, she was in the fields where she discovered that wild boars had gotten into her potato patch and ruined it. She used to go to the hairdresser, collect hair and stick it on a pole in the middle of the potato field to scare away the boars. Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work anymore.

“They would smell the hair and wouldn’t come any closer, but now they come right into the village. Almost all of our hard work goes down the drain. We work hard but can’t reap the fruits of our labor in the fall. I’m miserable.”

The Future

Alunișu is an enchanting place. Residents from Cluj and beyond are coming to Alunișu to purchase and restore some of the old homes. The carpenters and bricklayers have work all year round, hired by the newcomers who have fallen in love with this Transylvanian village.

Alinișu is even attracting tourists. It sits at the foot of the Vlădeasa Massif – a horseshoe shaped mountain peak in the Apuseni. The area has skiing in the winter and great summer trekking. A Dutch family has recently moved into the village.

Berde in front of the church

Berde Szilard can’t see his life in any other place.

“There is so much spiritual wealth in rural living! There are few people, but they are hard-working and gifted homemakers”.

Berde has about 50 sheep and was able to obtain an official license as a cheese producer. He dedicates about half of his day to overseeing the process of transforming milk into great cheese. He continues to perfect the process and read up on everything he can find about producing cheese. Today, he is convinced that the foundation of a good cheese is the food you feed to the animals.

“I have met people who told me that they’ve eaten this cheese in France, this exact one. But this is pure Romanian.”

His clients are from all over the country. A group of English people who set up an organization to support rural lifestyles in Romania help him deliver his cheese to people in Cluj.

He hopes some of the new settlers will restore the traditions of cattle grazing, the number of livestock has declined to just 20.

The villagers really appreciate Berde and his commitment to the traditions and values of the community.

It’s difficult to convince Berde Szilard to speak about his contribution to the villagers’ lives.

“My mission is not to be the subject of a newspaper article. There is nothing sensational going on here. We care for our homes, grow healthy food and care for each other.”

Compared to what we see on the television, Alunișu might be sensational after all.

“I have met people who told me that they’ve eaten this cheese in France, this exact one. But this is pure Romanian.”