Fewer than 150 people are qualified to help produce the Polish highland cheese called oscypek (“os-TSEH-peck”). Traditional shepherds, known as bacas, make these decorative spindles of golden, smoked cheese with milk from sheep that graze in the Tatra mountain range that divides Southern Poland from Northern Slovakia.
The Vlachs, a Balkan tribe, brought shepherding and cheesemaking to these mountain meadows nearly 1,000 years ago. Modern bacas continue to operate in ancient fashion. They work in small huts, use only wooden tools, and often retain their traditional dialect and dress. The shepherds make fresh cheese, then place it into beautifully carved wooden molds that form ovals, barrels, or spindles. Some cheesemakers even sell oscypek in animal and heart shapes. (However, only the spindle-shaped variety has earned protected status from the European Union.)
After selecting a mold, bacas soak the cheese in saltwater, hang it from a beam, and smoke it using pine or spruce wood. This gives the exterior a golden hue, but preserves the creamy, white interior. Tasters describe the finished product as briny, smoky, and sharp, with notes of toasted chestnut.
Historically, oscypek’s wooden molds depicted imagery related to the cheese’s function, which ranged from currency to a gift for the king’s court. Though bacas still design these molds by hand, the patterns no longer indicate the cheese’s intended purpose. Today, Polish diners typically pair thin slices with beer, wine, or vodka, or serve grilled versions with fruit preserves. Decorative patterns aside, it won’t take long for anyone who comes across a spindle of oscypek to decide that its ultimate purpose is to go in their mouth.
Need to Know
You can buy oscypeck straight from the source: Shepherds sell their products from the small mountain huts where they work. In July, the resort town of Zakopane holds a festival where bacas come to sell their goods and educate attendees on cheesemaking and highland culture.