Oscypek (os-TSEH-peck) is a decorative traditional spindle shaped smoked sheep's cheese from the Podhale region. The best way to savour it is sliced or fried over a hearth with a dash of cranberry marmalade.
How it is made?
Since 2008 the cheese is a protected trade name under the EU's Protected Designation of Origin geographical indication. What does that change for the consumer? For one, when purchasing oscypek we are guaranteed that it is authentic. Two things are needed to create the regional speciality: a special breed of sheep called Polish Mountain Sheep, a shepherd, a small mountain hut with a hearth, a shepherd’s apprentice and a pastureland. For centuries, the tradition of making oscypek by hand has been passed down from generation to generation. This seasonal cheese is produced from May to September during sheep milking season (sometimes small amounts of milk from a special breed of cow - the Polish Red Cow is added).
The sheep of the Podhale region feed on a variety of vegetation. What they eat can be tasted in their milk and therefore the cheese. The shepherd apprentices, who look after the sheep the entire season and rarely leave the mountains in that period, have a demanding job. The animals require milking three times per day. And sheep herds have a couple hundred specimens. The milk is poured through a linen cloth into a wooden bucket, then dried rennet is added. The curdled substance is squeezed from the whey and shaped like a spindle. The decorative elements are made by putting the cheese in a wooden mould. The 17 to 23 cm long oscypek is then dipped in brine and placed under the roof of the mountain hut. It is smoked in cold smoke coming from a small fire inside the hut. The cheese matures for a period between a few to a dozen or so days. It becomes flavoured and golden.
The history of oscypek
The oscypek arrived in the Podhale region with the Vlachs, a Latin people from the modern-day area of Romania. The first mentions of the cheese, found in the documentation of a small village called Ochotnica are from the beginning of the 15th century. The first recorded recipe is from 1748. It remains unchanged since then. Polish painter and photographer Walery Eljasz, an enthousiast of the Tatra mountains and Zakopane, wrote about the cheese in 1886, : “There is but sheep's cheese here, the highlanders know little about cow cheese. They call the formed sheep cheese that they sell here in the Tatra Mountain oszczypek […] . Sheep’s milk whey drunk by the guests in Zakopane is brought from nearby pasturelands - Kondratowa, Miętusia, Upłaz. It always tastes different, sometimes thick, sometimes thin […] .”
Since 2008 when the product earned Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status from the European Union, only a limited number of producers from the Lesser Poland and Silesia regions are authorised to produce the cheese. The first Polish shepherd who received the EU certificate was Kazimierz Furczoń from Leśnicy in the Podhale region. Today several dozen shepherds are licensed oscypek manufacturers. Certified oscypek is hard to get even during the season when it is made.
Other mountain cheese varieties
Oscypek is not the only cheese made in the region. There is the redykołka - a small sheep's cheese in the shape of an animal, a bird or spindle-formed ideal for grilling. Bryndza podhalańska - a soft sheep's cheese nice on bread or in pierogi es (recipes for pierogies with bryndza were discovered in old cookbooks from the Lesser Poland region) or with salad. Both these cheeses are PDO approved. Mountain huts also sell bundz, a seasonal sheep's cheese that tastes best in Spring. It goes well with salads and on sandwiches. And those with a strong stomach should try sheep's milk whey (a by-product of the manufacture of cheese).
Much easier to find outside the mountain regions is the cylindrical smoked cow milk cheese called gołki.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, translator: Marta Jazowska 08/08/2014