A gourmand’s journey never ends. And, there is enough variety of food to be found, if you are looking for it. But, authenticity and indigeneity is of utmost importance unless convenience is your prerequisite. Cheese, of all things, is worth walking an extra mile for, and nothing beats that mile through postcard villages of Poland
“You should grill it and have it with cranberry preserve. It is stringy and just awesome,” he exclaimed, while kissing his fingertips and joyfully tossing them in the air. Just the thought of oscypek had brought a twinkle in our cab driver Thomas Fasola’s eyes. We called him Mr Bean impishly, the English versionof the Polish Fasola.
I was in Poland and the oscypek primacy; a gustatory delight didn’t miss my eye. I had registered for a culinary workshop when in Warsaw and the chef, Michal Piosik had also given his two pence on this delicacy. With much prominence given to this smoky cheese, I was keen to bite into the decadent.I walked into a medieval cellar restaurant based in the subterranean kingdom of Krakow and ordered a traditional grilled Polish ewe’s milk cheese, served on butter toast with cranberry comfiture and lettuce salad. Subsequently, the memories of the warm, tender, slightly salted cheese sandwiched between the toasts dunked in the puce jam got me resolute. I was keen to visit the provenance of the oscypek and taste it at its home and not be content with the charades at its outposts. It was the sine qua non of the trip.
And, so I headed to Zakopane, a picturesque village nestled in the foothills of Tatra Mountains to the southern end of Podhale, the Polish highlands. A hot destination for ski lovers, it also provides ample natural beauty – one being the famed MorsieOko (eye of the ocean) emerald lake. The region is peppered with timber houses in line with the characteristic Zakopane architecture. Steep pitched timber roofs, stone basement, eye-catching carvings on doors and windows that look like they are straight out of a fairy tale. Emilia Kubik,my local host, accompanied me on my oscypek quest through the wonderland. We crossed numerous stalls selling oscypek in different shapes and sizes. Soon, we left the crowded streets behind and walked along the Bystra River flowing through the village lined with dense spruce and fir vegetation. As we ambled further down the valley, we noticed the ubiquitous Polish red cows grazing in the open grasslands. Very close was a small mountain hut with huge metallic milk cans and pails drying outside in the sun. On the other side were sheep huddled in an enclosure. I knew I was very close in my quest to find the bona fide oscypek. I hurried through the countryside trail and peeked inside the hut. A withdrawn old man sat on a low stool having his meal from the confines of the dark interiors when suddenly out walked a shepherd with blue eyes and a sheepish grin plastered on his face. He wore a grey sweater over a white shirt and the traditional parzenica pin. A black Goral felt hat lined with shells donned his head.
A gold mine
It was Andrzej Staszel Furtek, a baca or head shepherd, who spoke in the local dialect which Emilia helped me decipher. He was joined by his apprentice who helped him in his day-to-day affairs. After a brief conversation with Emilia, Andrzej walked inside the hut to get a spindle of oscypek. He then diced them into pieces and offered it to us. We bit into the fresh cheese that had been marginally smoked; it was perfect with a dash of salinity, sourness and piquancy. The oscypek have been awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) geographical indication. This artisanal cheese is made from ewe’s milk and sometimes small amount of Polish red cow milk is also added to it. The animals are milked thrice-a-day and once curdled whey is separated from it, the remnant is put into spindle-shaped wooden moulds and then dipped in brine. It is then finally smoked by placing under the roof of the hut. This seasonal cheese is produced from May to September every year.
I was keen to check out Andrzej’s work place and so, with his permission, walked into his hut. Wooden pails called črpák, used to drink żentyca the fermented drink made from the sheep milk’s whey, hung on the timber walls. Through the smoky interiors I noticed a coal fire pit glowing as a kettle over it spewed steam. Small golden mounds of cheese sat precariously below the roof absorbing the smoke from the fire pit and getting cured. “Whoever has sheep has whatever he wants,” goes a common saying in Podhale. I held the golden spindle in my hand; I had no sheep but my quest for gold had indeed been fulfilled.
How to reach
From Krakow, rent a car and go on a scenic drive for one hour and forty minutes (105 km) through the countryside to reach Zakopane. The other option is to make the three hour train journey.
Where to stay
There are plenty of options in Zakopane from budget to five star properties to put your feet up. The Aries hotel in the heart of Zakopane overlooking the Tatra with rustic interiors in line with the local architecture and Dr Irena Eris beauty partner spa is a good option if you are on the lookout for a true local experience. Do try the local dishes served at the highlander restaurant Bąkowo Zohylina Wyźnioon Piłsudskiego Street, with live local music and peppy local dance.
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