What is Oscypek?

Angie Bates

Oscypek is a type of smoked Polish cheese that is traditionally made only in the Tatra mountains. Hand made from unpasteurized mountain sheep milk on small local farms, the tradition of making this cheese has remained mostly the same since the 14th century. Sold seasonally without packaging or label, oscypek is found almost exclusively in local markets.

Non-traditional oscypek is made from cow's milk.
Non-traditional oscypek is made from cow's milk.

As of 2004, there were only 102 farms which produced 224 tons of this cheese. The cheese is made in huts, called basutzka, which have permanently burning fires and are kept exceptionally clean. All stages of the cheese-making process, from processing the milk to smoking the finished cheeses, occur in these huts.

In Poland, oscypek is usually made from sheep's milk.
In Poland, oscypek is usually made from sheep's milk.

The sheep are kept outside from May through September. In colder months, they are kept in shelters. The mountain area in which they live is relatively free from pollution and uses no chemical fertilizers. The ewes are milked two or three times a day.

To removed the whey, cheese makers hand-knead all the cheeses. Oscypek is kneaded into spindle shapes, and each spindle requires about an hour of kneading. Once the kneading is complete, the maker will press a wooden ring into the thick part of the cheese, creating a distinctive pattern that serves as the maker's mark. After the cheese is marked, it is put into a brine solution and salted for 24 hours. Finally, it is hung from the rafters in the hut to smoke.

Finished cheeses weight between 21–28 ounces (600–800 grams) and are about 3–3.5 inches (8–9 cm) around. They are shades of yellow to orange, their coloring dependent upon the type of wood used to smoke them. Oscypek has a smoked chestnut taste. It is often grilled and served with beer, wine, or sometimes vodka.

Because of the popularity of this cheese, a non-traditional oscypek, sometimes referred to as fake oscypek, was created. This cheese is made from cow's milk and sold year round. The non-traditional cheese may also be available in areas the true cheese is not. Since in traditional cheese making the sheep's milk is not pasteurized, there are restrictions where true oscypek can be sold, and many official stores cannot sell the traditionally made cheese.

In 2008, oscypek was the first Polish product to obtain a European Union Protected Designation of Origin status, which is designed to prohibit producers from using the name "oscypek" for any cheeses not made in the Tatra mountains using this hand made process. The status does not prohibit the use of cow's milk in the process, however, so an organization called the Presidium was set up to help ensure local farmers produce traditional oscypek cheeses.

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