There are golden, studded cylinders on tables all over Krakow’s Stary Kleparz market. Are they bread? Treasure chests? Ornate jewelry? The handwritten signs say oscypek, a type of cheese made by only about 150 people in the Tatra mountains, which form the natural border between Poland and Slovakia.
Oscypek is a sheep’s milk cheese similar in texture to a firm mozzarella but with a tangier, more salt-forward flavor. The colors, ranging from amber to bronze on a single piece, are the result of smoking the cheese with pine or spruce. Shepherds hang the cheese from the rafters of traditional wooden cheesemaking huts following a 24-hour brine.
But it’s the designs that make this cheese so memorable. Crafted from sycamore molds called oscypiorka, it’s as if your grandmother’s collection of Polish pottery was transformed into a spindle-,barrel-, or sandal-shaped piece of delicious dairy. Geometric studs are most common, but you’re likely to see designs such as flowers and hearts printed on the cheese’s perimeters.
However, the cheese you purchase in the market may actually be serkie goralskie, or Highland cheese. That’s because rules to qualify as oscypek are stricter than those for Champagne. True oscypek can only be produced between April and October and must be at least 60 percent sheep’s milk. Even size can make or break a piece of otherwise perfect cheese; a slab must weigh between 600 to 800 grams to make the cut and should measure between 17 and 23 centimeters. To get the real thing, it’s best to buy direct from the cheesemaker, known as a baca.
But don’t worry too much about getting a by-the-book sample—it’s most important to go for taste: a saline bite with a hint of acid and a bouncy texture. Outside of Poland, your best bet for finding oscypek is a Polish or Eastern European market.
How to Enjoy
The most popular way you’ll see oscypek prepared in both homes and on restaurant menus is pan-fried. Simply melt butter in a pan over medium heat, then brown slices of the cheese (about two minutes for each side). You could stop there, but why would you?
For extra oomph, wrap each slice in a piece of bacon. (The cheese’s smokiness means it pairs well with meat.) Return to pan and cook until bacon has reached desired crispness. Serve with homemade cranberry sauce or lingonberry jam, if you can find it.