Traditional Polish cheese from the Highlands

Oscypek: Traditional Handmade Cheese From the Mountains of Poland

Most of us are familiar with French, Italian, English, Dutch and even American cheeses, but have you ever heard of a traditional Polish cheese?

Let me introduce you to an artisanal and rare type of cheese called Oscypek (pronounced: os-tseh-pehk). It is a local type of semi-firm, salty and smoked cheese made of sheep milk in the Podhale region of Poland. This region is located in the absolute southern part of the country and it is more commonly referred to as the Polish highlands as it is situated just below the Tatra Mountains, a part of the Carpathian mountain ranges. These mountains create a natural boundary between Poland and Slovakia and are home to the Polish highland sheep as well as the master cheesemakers called Baca (pronounced: ba-tsa).

Zakopane, a town in the Podhale region, is a preferred tourist destination, especially in the winter. As a result, this town is sometimes even called the winter capital of Poland. The reason I mention Zakopane is that oscypek, the cheese, is widely available for sale in the markets of Zakopane. Moreover, that is where I first tried this delicious cheese and instantly fell in love with both the cheese and the destination.

Mountain lake at the Tatra mountain range accessible from Zakopane
Mountain lake at the Tatra mountain range accessible from Zakopane. Image by Gabriel Gach from Pixabay. 

History of Oscypek

 The history of the cheese goes back to the 15th century as that was when the procedure of manufacturing it was first documented.

Semi-nomadic people from the Wallachian/ Vlach tribe, from modern-day Romania, were once wandering around the Carpathian area with their sheep, the Wallachian Zackels. They soon started settling down in the Podhale region. They quickly blended in with the native population by sharing their customs, beliefs and even language. Their sheep, too, adapted well to those altitudes and unique climatic conditions thanks to their dense woollen coat which would protect them from harsh conditions. The settling down of this tribe is estimated to have happened between the 12th and 15th centuries. Since then, the sheep have played an integral role in securing their livelihood due to their utility. Some were useful as meat, while some for articles of clothing such as mattresses, pillows, rugs, blankets, etc. and some for dairy products such as local cheese. Their utility and value have thus, shaped not only their economy but highland cultural heritage too. It is interesting to note that oscypek was initially not only a great way to preserve high protein foods for the winters, but it was also used as a form of currency. Tenants of the land had to pay a mandatory fee to their landowners for a specific number of cheeses. The number of cheeses to pay would depend on the size of the herd owned by the shepherds.

Manufacturing and tradition

The method of manufacturing oscypek has not changed since its inception. It still uses just two main ingredients: milk and rennet. Traditionally, this cheese is made only with sheep milk extracted from sheep in the Podhale region. However, over the years, it has become acceptable to mix a small amount of cow milk weaned only from the Polish red cow. However, as per oscypek guidelines, the percentage of sheep milk cannot be lower than 60%.

To make the cheese, shepherds wait for ewes to enter their lactation period, which lasts for approximately 150 days between May to September. Therefore, this type of cheese is so rare.

On average, the sheep will produce 60-70 litres of milk per day. They are usually milked only in the mornings, but at peak periods, they are milked in the evenings too. This milk is extracted for the purpose of processing it into cheese. The temperature of the climate and feed available to the sheep highly influence the yield, quality, and flavour of the milk. As such, shepherds take extra care of their diet and well-being.

Polish Highland Sheep
Densely coated Polish highland sheep. Photo by Iga Palacz on Unsplash.

After extraction, the milk is brought to a wooden hut called bacówkas (pronounced: baa-tsoov-kah) to be heated over a wood fire in a large pot, often made of copper. Bacówkas are huts dedicated to making oscypek. This is where the bacas spend their time during the summers. Although the huts look shabby from the outside, they are hygienic and clean on the inside, making it a clean place to handle edible products.

Next, rennet is added to the heated milk. This rennet is normally extracted from the stomach of a calf and it coagulates the milk solids to form curds to make the cheese. The curds are then mixed with a wooden tool to separate them from the whey. This mixture is strained using a cheesecloth and the curds are squeezed together. Then, the block of curd is kneaded by hand in hot water till it is flexible to work with. The excess whey is squeezed off by hand before shaping the cheese. Subsequently, a traditional wooden mould imprinted with classic diamond-shaped patterns is used to shape the cheese. To make the traditional spindle shaped cheese, firstly, a cylindrical shape is formed by hand, then the mould is attached to the middle of the cylinder, enclosing it, while the sides are shaped into cones. The end result is a spindle-like shape with patterns in the middle.

The shaped cheeses are then cooled in cold water, then they are soaked in saltwater for approximately 24 hours. The next process is to let the air dry outside the hut and, once tried, they are placed just below the roof of the hut to smoke. The smoke created from the woodfire in the hut, adds the final touch to the cheese. The final product is a semi-firm cheese with an evenly pale golden/ golden-brown exterior with a heavenly scent.

The procedure to manufacture this special cheese is ancient and has been passed on for generations. From one generation of bacas to the next. Traditionally, secret techniques are usually passed on to the male members of the family. However, women, too, have gradually started learning and mastering the art of preparing the cheese due to the limited population of bacas and moreover, due to the limited number of males willing to carry on this tradition. In this era, the demand for traditional products is finite. Therefore, it is easy for such arts to lose their relevance. However, being a part of the cultural identity of the region, it is crucial to preserve it. Thus, steps such as participation from women in cheesemaking and the preservation of bacówkas for rural tourism are steps to conserving the local culture of the highlands.

Cultural and Economic importance

When discussing oscypek, it is impossible to neglect the sheep that provided the resources to produce it. So really, the sheep are the heroes here. Although sheep dairy products are most important in the mountain regions, sheep meat from the Podhale region is in demand both domestically and internationally, as is the wool and hide for apparel.

Culturally, sheep grazing is part of the local folklore which appreciates and values the bond between animals and humans. Once a year, pastoralism is celebrated wherein the shepherds perform rituals and formalities related to breeding sheep.

As for oscypek themselves, they are served as appetizers in local social gatherings such as get-togethers, weddings and more. Medium to thick slices of cheese are cut and are eaten as-is with a serving of either beer or vodka. Additionally, the patterns on oscypek have even influenced architects to use them in their designs. All suggest that it is indeed integrated into the local culture.


The shepherds and other vendors of the locality come down to larger towns to sell their products. This is where Zakopane becomes relevant. Various local products are sold in the local street markets, such as the one in Krupowki Street in Zakopane. These stalls are set up displaying a diverse range of bright, colourful, and edible products. Right from garments such as traditional dresses, coats, sweaters, boots, socks, sweaters, slippers, blankets, etc. to a variety of local highland cheeses. There is an array of cheeses differing in size, shape, colour, patterns, smokiness, cheeses made of cattle milk or a mixture of cattle and sheep milk, etc.

Do note that oscypek is not the only type of highland cheese available in the region. However, it is the only cheese in the region whose taste is pleasing to the general palate.

Here we are able to purchase products made with so much patience and hard work. We can either buy them whole or sample smaller portions of the cheese on the spot.

Oscypek sold at the local markets
Display of traditional cheeses at the local markets. Image by ivabalk from Pixabay

Cheese Sampling

While trying oscypek in the street market stalls, you will most probably be served it grilled and warm with cranberry jam on the side with a wooden toothpick or skewer to eat on the go on small paper trays. They are usually cut into medium-thick slices or a smaller flat oval version of the cheese is served.

The aromas excite your senses, the smokiness is indescribable. Once you bite into it, you realize that the outside is still firm, but the inside is gooey and delicious. The savoury flavour lingers on the tongue while the smokiness urges you to continue eating. Though gooey on the inside, its spongy and springy texture makes it possible to chew it. It can almost be compared to rubber, though not in a negative sense. It is this unique texture that makes it such a special product. There is just nothing quite like it.

The acidic jam balances out the greasiness of the cheese, whereas the combination of salt and smoke enhances the rich flavour of the milk. It has been over 8 years since I tried it and I can still remember its taste every time I think about it.

Though it is usually served warm, it does not need to be served that way. Cold oscypek is, however, firmer, and rubberier but still delicious. I personally prefer warm oscypek with jam. They are truly a match made in heaven. Some sources say that this combination is not traditional, it is definitely delicious enough to be a popular choice.

In conclusion, starting from the sheep to the cultural traditions to the breath-taking landscape to selling traditional and locally manufactured handmade artisan products combine their values to attract tourists who eventually help the region economically. This generates revenue for local vendors, farmers, shepherds, and innkeepers.

Oscypek today

Due to the characteristics, texture, and flavours of the cheese, it is not added to any known dishes. Besides, the richness and fat content make it an incredibly difficult food item to digest. It would make any dish very heavy. Due to difficulty in digesting it, children are advised not to consume it.  As such, it is not yet known to be used as an ingredient in local cuisines.

In 2008, Oscypek earned a PDO (protected designation of origin) certificate. This recognizes a product from a specific region to protect its origin and identity related to the culture there. It legally protects the name and method of manufacturing of the product from falsification, mass production and pirating the product. As such, the certification only recognizes oscypek as it is if it is made by hand, if it used at least 60% Polish highland sheep milk, often the other 40%, if at all, mixed must be milk from the Polish red cow, processed without the use of modern machinery or any type of modern technology and most importantly only if it is made in the Podhale region.


As the Tatras mountains are shared between Poland and Slovakia and since the highland sheep belong to that region, I was wondering whether the Slovaks had similar cheeses or not. As expected, they do! They too have various types of mountain cheese. However, the Slovenský Oštiepok looks strikingly similar to the Polish Oscypek. The Slovak counterpart is made of sheep and/or cattle milk from that region and they even have similar patterns and shapes as the Polish ones. After a little bit of reflection, I realized even their names sound similar to Oscypek (os-tseh-pehk) and Oštiepok (osh-tchyeh-pok).

In summary, the oscypek cheese is a treasured product of Poland and Zakopane, and even the entire Podhale region is worth exploring. I highly recommend you to visit these slightly outside of the mainstream destinations, if possible. Lastly, I would like to end by encouraging all readers to embrace their adventurous side, especially in terms of food. It is understandably difficult to get out of the comfort zone and taste foreign flavours even while travelling. However, with this limitation, you may miss out on so much, perhaps even an experience of a lifetime. It is important to understand that tasting new foods is not only about taste and flavour but also the willingness to dig deep into the culture and learn about the local community. It is an important anthropological element that provides details on the geography and landscape, narrates history, and teaches customs and formalities. So next time, be brave and go to a local restaurant or eatery serving local cuisine.


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