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Poland: Oscypek – a cheese and a culture

Poland: Oscypek – a cheese and a culture

Éric Boucher - 2008-05-05

In 2003, one of the stars of the Turin Salone del Gusto (Taste Show), organised by Slow Food, was a Polish cheese unknown to western Europeans, which arrived in Italy almost illegally: Oscypek (pronounced “ossaypec”).

Hence the discovery of a smoked cheese quite close to Italian Provolone Affumicato in taste, if not appearance, since it is usually presented in the shape of a spindle and is made from ewe’s milk rather than buffalo milk.
 
Although in Poland Oscypek is a source of national pride from the Tatra Mountains – the most northern and western part of the Carpathians in the south of the country – it is, however, almost unknown beyond its borders, and for a very good reason… Production is small-scale and limited (around 300,000 units) and sale theoretically forbidden until recently, because traditional Oscypek is made with unpasteurised milk and in conditions of hygiene that do not meet the drastic criteria of the European Community.
 
In actual fact, traditional Oscypek is sold on every street corner in the region that it comes from, at the markets of Zakopane(Poland’s most upmarket ski resort), Nowy Targ and Zywiec. On the other hand, exporting it was impossible, other than clandestinely, as was the case when a few Polish shepherds brought it to light at the Slow Food show.
 
The ancient cheese of the Batza
More than a cheese, Oscypek is part of the national heritage, since production is said to date back to the 14th century at least. In Poland, there is no culture of breeding ewes for milk and cheese outside the Tatra Mountains region, where one finds a very old breed of sheep probably deriving from the Zackel, a Romanian sheep thought to have been introduced by nomadic farmers originally from Walachia.
 
A very complicated history lost in the mists of time, but bearing witness to the undying traditions of one of Europe’s oldest shepherd communities: the Batza.
 
 
A mountain pasture cheese
The Batza are mountain dwellers who produce a cheese from summering in mountain pastures. In May, with the arrival of fine days, the Polish shepherds climb up to the mountain pastures at an altitude of between 800 and 1,500 metres with their sheep and stay there until September.
 
The milk collected is transformed on the spot in traditional wooden huts called batzowka. Here a fire burns night and day for the production and smoking of Oscypek. An extremely lengthy job that results in an exceptional cheese – judge for yourself! The morning’s or previous day’s milk is left to ripen at room temperature for 5 to 10 hours, then heated to reach the temperature of the milk from the latest milking, with which it is mixed. The milk is then filtered and poured into a large wooden vat for warm ripening; then rennet is added to make it curdle.
 
The bulk of the work remains to be done: the cheese is pressed by hand, rested and rinsed in hot water several times. To make just one cheese – most often in the shape of a spindle, but also a cylinder or knob – the shepherd manipulates it with his expert hands for at least an hour.
 
It is then engraved with traditional patterns using a wooden needle – a real artist’s job! Lastly it is salted and hung from beams for smoking.
 
 
Desperately seeking a quality label
When ripe, Oscypek is a spindle weighing 600 to 800 grams and sports a beautiful amber colour. Inside, the cheese is compact and straw-coloured. The taste is dominated by the smoky flavour, more so than Provolone, especially if it is drier, but one can also detect subtle mineral and chestnut notes. To be sampled in thin slices with a glass of vodka, wine or beer, or grilled.
 
A sophisticated product, symbolic of the region and sought after by tourists that was, however, difficult to get hold of outside its production area.
You can, of course, buy pale imitations in Polish supermarkets, made with pasteurised milk and artificially smoked, but this is the very danger that the rare producers from the Tatra Mountains wish to guard against.
Hygiene regulations weren’t much help given the method of production of this cheese, but that’s exactly what gives it such a distinctive flavour: unpasteurised milk, spring water, un-refrigerated hut, wooden vat and tools…
 
With the help of the Polish branch of Slow Food and its president Jacek Szklarek, traditional unpasteurised Oscypek was recently recognised as a “regional product” by the European Community, and as such is now freely available. A big step, but Jacek Sklarek wants to go further, to standardise the exact methods of production and obtain a veritable “traditional Oscypek label”… Maybe then people will be able to sample real Oscypek PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses in the restaurants of Berlin, Paris and London…
 

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