Cheese and Culture in Poland’s Tatra Mountains
In the highlands of Southern Poland, an indigenous people known as górale maintain a unique culture that has survived centuries of modernisation and industrialisation. Strongly tied to the mountains, their dialect, dress and way of life all contribute to an extremely rich creative output. From day to day work tools to musical instruments, everything is turned into a work of art through intricate hand carvings. Each góral has his own trademark pattern that helps identify his hand in its production. Days revolve around sheep farming; nights around live music and folk dancing.
Visitors from around the world flock to the region for its bounty of outdoor activities. In the summer, 275 km of hiking trails take people through dense spruce forests, to pine tree peaks, along flowing rivers and up steep gradients to the emerald-green depths of Morskie Oko Lake. These views have inspired numerous artists, writers and musicians over the centuries.
In the winter, the Tatra Mountains are transformed into a winter wonderland under a blanket of snow. 28 ski resorts provide visitors with a variety of options, with the highest slopes across the border in Slovakia.
Zakopane is the region’s touristic centre, a cute town of wooden houses decorated with intricate hand carvings. Those wanting to escape the crowds would do well to head a quarter of an hour’s drive away to sleepy Murzasichle, where a fairytale chalet awaits.
Windows protrude from underneath triangular roofs and spindly towers. Every detail is hand carved with simple ornamentation providing subtle accents to the wooden façade. A barbecue pit sits at the back of the front garden, kids’ toys strewn all over the lawn. Inside the apartments are tastefully decorated with folk elements of a rustic chic style. Nature is celebrated inside and out. A tree trunk is sculpted into a coffee table, a stump is turned into a reading lamp, and the bathroom is livened up with pine cones. And most importantly: guests are greeted with a bottle of homemade lemon vodka to warm up with on cold nights.
The property is looked after by Leszek Lassota and his wife Ewa. As a góral born and bred in the region, he offers hiking tours, skiing lessons and priceless local knowledge such as where to find the best oscypek. This mountain cheese is protected under EU regulation and by law can only be produced in this region. A centuries old tradition, it is still prepared in little wooden mountain cabins by generations of sheep farmers. Using raw sheep’s milk, the curds are separated from the whey and pressed into a wooden mould traditionally shaped like a spindle and decorated with hand carvings that identify the producer. After steaming well, the moulds are removed, the liquid is squeezed out and the cheese is covered in salt for 24 hours. It then spends a few days in the smokehouse, balanced on beams near the roof of the little wooden cabins.
The elaborate nature of the process demands the utmost care and attention to detail, and clearly also a deep love and passion for the product and tradition from its producers. With sheep being able to only produce so much milk, difficult access into the mountains and a labour intensive process, it’s not exactly a lucrative business. But these restrictions have been the cheese’s saving grace, protecting it from mass-production and shortcuts that lead to inferior quality.
To taste this local delicacy, Leszek recommends paying a visit to Baca Józef Słodyczka, whose cabin is nestled in the beautiful Kościeliska Valley. He has sheep farming in his blood and has kept 150 sheep in this area for the last 10 years, having inherited equipment from his grandparents – some of the tools he uses today are over 100 years old. Visitors can peek into his cabin to see oscypek in the making – you might spot his wife inside patiently watching over the cheese, enveloped in smoke. She might also sell you some, if you ask nicely. Its rubbery skin is stamped with Józef’s signature design; bite through it to get to the soft, salty, smoky core. Enjoy with a view of the surrounding mountainous scenery, although according to Józef oscypek is best enjoyed with a chunk of bread and a stiff drink. Luckily that bottle of homemade lemon vodka is waiting for you back at the ranch.
Bajkowa Chata is available to book through Booking.com.
Leszek Lassota can be contacted through the property.