In Search Of Oscypek

02 Sep 2009

As Cheese 2009 (September 18-21) approaches, find out more about one of the very first non-Italian cheeses to win Slow Food presidium status

Cracow comes as a surprise. There you are expecting it to be a serious, austere northern city, but instead what you find is a place that’s full of life—a beautiful townscape crowded with young people, restaurants and culture. It’s here that Kantor started up his theater workshops, where the Nobel Prize Winners for Literature Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz live, where Jagellonica University, one of the oldest in Europe, draws thousands of students from all over the country and beyond.

The old town center, perfectly defined by a ring of gardens, dazzles visitors with its glorious architecture. Up above, the castle surveys an impressive country landscape and down below, old timers play chess by the River Vistula.

The Tatra Mountains are about 100 kilometers to the south. It’s up there—a national park since 1954— that lives one of the oldest traditional shepherd communities of Europe. The road is the one that leads to the famous ski resort of Zakopane. But from the signs on the houses—‘homemade sheepskin jackets for sale’—you realize you’re in sheep farming country.
Poland has a long-standing tradition in the sector.

Records dating back to the thirteenth century document a local sheep breed that provided wool, and in the fourteenth century the country was exporting woolen clothes to Persia, Turkey and even China. A census of Polish agriculture carried out in 1870 recorded 12 and a half million sheep, but competition from cheap wool from Australia and New Zealand caused the number of animals to rapidly decline. Only a government order demanding that domestic companies use local wool saved local sheep from extinction. There are now about two million animals providing both meat and wool.

Poland has no tradition of milking sheep to make cheese. The exception to the rule is in the Tatra Mountains, where the ancient sheep breed still survives. These animals descend from the Zackel, a breed that originated in the Carpathians and were brought to these pastures by nomadic Wallachian shepherds. Here they adapted perfectly to the conditions and allowed a unique shepherd culture to develop. This is the culture of the batza, the head shepherds who, in May, collect sheep from the local farmers (not more than 10-12 per farm) and take them up to the pastures at an altitude of 800-1,500 meters, where they stay until October.

It’s a batza who welcomes us into the traditional wooden hut where he spends the whole summer. Calm and polite with a big smile on his face, he ceremoniously kisses the ladies’ hands and bows to the men before leading us inside. The basutzka, as the hut is called, is somewhat spartan, but clean and tidy. Once inside, your eyes water and no way can you remain standing. If you crouch by the chimney in the middle of the room, where the fire burns day and night, the smoke is less of a nuisance.

Fire is essential: for the cheesemaking, for the cooking, and for the smoking of the cheese in the loft. It is the batza who decides what is to be done and when. At his command, he has a deputy batza, three or four shepherds, a few young apprentices and magnificent white dogs, which herd the sheep with eager efficiency.

The flocks are large—400, 500, even up to 700 animals—and roam in the natural state in the summer, though they have to be rounded up two or three times a day for milking. The quantity of milk obtained is not very high but the quality is excellent.
Oscypek is only made in the summer, from May to October; at other times of year, bundz, a sort of curd, is produced and eaten fresh.

Producing Oscypek is a complicated business. The cheesemaking process is long and tiring; it takes an hour to make just two forms, without counting all the other preparatory work involved (milking, tending the animals and so on).

“About 300,000 forms are made in the whole region,” the batza tells us. “Yet, in spite of the work involved and the fact that Oscypek is the only existing traditional cheese in Poland, the price is very low. If you think that a kilo of wool costs the same price as a beer and that it’s hard to sell lambs, you tell me how we’re supposed to survive.”

The night before leaving, we eat some succulent lamb from animals fed only on milk and pasture grass and drink vodka. While we chat, a small glass circulates from hand to hand. We take turns to fill it up and down the contents in one gulp. As long as there’s vodka on the table, the glass is continually passed round.

When we take our leave, the head batza solemnly bids us farewell. “Thank you for coming here and learning about the hard life of the batza.”

Piero Sardo is president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

Adaptation from the Italian by Ronnie Richards

First printed in SlowArk 38

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