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The Unkindest Cut: Shepherds, Mud, Dogs that Bite, and Cheesy Polenta

Stepping out of our car into the mist, Karel and I begin to organize our filming gear. Our guide, Teo, has driven us up a twisty road high into the Budeşti Mountains of Maramureş, in Romania. He's brought us here to visit a very traditional shepherd settlement, where people still make rustic cheese as they have for centuries. It should make for great TV.

Gathering up the heavy tripod and the industrial-strength golf umbrella, I hear a pack of mangy, mud-stained, mismatched dogs bark furiously as they gallop across the soggy fields to greet us. They are very protective of their settlement — even though, to our eyes, there's little worth protecting. "Don't worry," Teo says, with his wry smile. "Their bark is worse than their bite." Over the chorus of yelps and growls, the shepherd yells something to Teo in Romanian. A flash of concern crosses his face. Translating, Teo points to one of the dogs. "Careful," he says. "That one bites."

We trudge through the muddy settlement, scouting what we're about to film. Near the road is a paddock. A hundred yards uphill is a little roofed shed, a small hut, and a picnic table under a tarp. Everything is soaking wet. And everywhere we step, our feet squish.

Teo introduces us to the settlement's owners, a Mutt and Jeff duo: one built like an aging linebacker, the other an emaciated beanpole. These shepherds live up here through the summer, tending their flock of goats and sheep, milking them three times a day, and making cheese. This is a far cry from the log-cabin-cutesy, government-subsidized cheesemaking huts high in the Swiss Alps — with flower boxes, antique cowbells hanging from the eaves, and lederhosen-clad, apple-cheeked farmhands straight out of Central Casting. No, this is a much more authentic scene: a patch of mud with just enough pasture to graze a flock, and buildings so basic they barely qualify as "buildings." Nevertheless, the shepherds take pride in their work, and do it with precision.

It's time to milk. The motley mix of goats and sheep huddle up at a rickety wooden turnstile separating the two halves of the paddock. Another stout shepherd — more linebacker than beanpole — plants herself in the middle of the paddock, gently prodding the livestock toward three shepherds who hunch on little stools, evenly spaced under a plastic tarp.

They grab each animal as it passes through, and milk it into a stainless-steel bucket. Teo explains that every goat and sheep is different, so the shepherds gradually figure out the preferred technique for each one.

Karel gets to work, detaching his camera from the tripod for a shoulder-held shot. A few minutes later, Teo and I watch helplessly, in slow motion, as a curious goat sniffs the tripod until it tips over. Its delicately machined head lands with a damp thump in a goat patty. I spend the next ten minutes fruitlessly trying to polish it with a few tattered tissues I find in my pocket.

Meanwhile, Karel is lost in his viewfinder, squatting a few inches above the muck. A nosy goat waddles up and tickles Karel's ear with his goatee. But Karel holds the camera steady...he knows he's shooting gold.

The chorus of barks crescendos again, and we look up to see another shepherd coming over the horizon. He brings his own ragtag herd of sheepdogs, who quickly engage the local pack in a delicate do-si-do for dominance. It's a commotion of fur and teeth, barking and growling and posturing — until, finally, one of the guest dogs goes too far and starts biting. The shepherds exchange angry words until the neighbor retreats to his own settlement with his pack — all of their tails tucked between their legs.

After about 45 minutes, the entire flock has been milked, and we follow the shepherds as they lug the buckets up to their little house. Pulling back the curtain at the door of their dirt-floor cabin, they reveal an impossibly spartan lifestyle: a cot covered with heavy blankets, a simple basin on a shelf, and a little potbellied stove. Standing in the doorway, they pour all the milk into a wooden bucket, then sprinkle in a powdered enzyme.

After 15 minutes, the shepherds dip in a cheesecloth to skim out the curds. Then the skinny one carefully hand-shapes them in a slow, rhythmic, squeezing motion, resulting in a tight little clump of cheese. Karel stands in the doorway, filming, while I hold the golf umbrella to keep his gear dry. Feeling the several inches of liquid mud and dung finally crest the cuffs of my shoes, I don't even mind.

Having wrung out as much moisture from his newly formed clump as possible, the spindly shepherd pulls out a spindly ladder and climbs up to place the new cheese in the little attic above their supply shack. It seems that this is the only dry place in the entire compound: Its sharply angled roof protects food, jackets, towels, and damp laundry. On the roof rest tools that look like the spoils of a folklore museum heist.

Finally, it's time for a break. We retreat to a heavy wooden picnic table under a jerry-rigged tarp, and break bread over the plastic paisley tablecloth. With gratitude, we nibble on little samples of their very young, semi-flavorless cheese.

Then they bring out a red plastic bowl with a special treat: polenta mixed with cheese. One of the shepherds pulls out a wicked pocketknife, wipes it on his sleeve, carves off a little chunk, and hands it to me. Popping it into my mouth, I bite into a decadent, creamy texture — halfway between cheese and polenta — and taste the pungent kick of goat cheese. Fantastic.

In our travels around Romania, we've learned time and again about the importance of polenta. It's such an important staple here that, in this part of Europe, Romanians are nicknamed "polenta-eaters."

To finish the meal — and cut through the chilling wind — the shepherds pull out bottles of homemade firewater, along with a fascinating concoction: a dense, sweet syrup made of pine needles. Taking a sip, it's sweet, but not too sweet, and mildly piney...unexpectedly delicious.

We bid farewell and head back to Teo's car, where he winds us back down the mountain to the dry, warm comfort of our hotel. Karel and I are well aware that our Romania show will be too long. But we don't yet know that the cheesemaking segment we just filmed will wind up on the cutting-room floor.

Trimming an overstuffed show to fit its 30-minute window requires some difficult calls, and — in the context of the entire show — this was the right call. But thinking back on the magic we captured, it feels like a particularly unkind cut. Maybe someday, somehow that footage will see the light of day. But even if it never does, my rainy afternoon on a Maramureş mountaintop was well worth it: I came away with a vivid travel memory.

© 2020 by Cameron Hewitt