The tasty cheeses oscypek, bundz and bryndza are prepared in a wooden hut called a bacowka in the mountain meadows of south Poland.
A shepherd called a ?baca? and his companions, each of whom is known as a ?juhas,? spend the summer grazing sheep and making cheese from ewe?s milk naturally, the way their ancestors did 500 years ago.
One of the cheese-making places is in the village of Dursztyn. The hut is away from other structures among hills and forests in the magnificent Spisz region near Podhale.
The highlanders in the area are the ones who produce the best tasting oscypek and bryndza. They sell it in local markets. Farmers hire baca Andrzej Zubek to take care of their sheep in summer. ?Altogether we have 1,000 sheep this season,? he said.
At the end of summer, farmers get their sheep back. ?We also get one ton of cheese,? said farmer Jan Chowaniec of Jurgow.
Making a great mountain cheese is a long process because of the extended grazing period. Grazing begins on St. Albert?s Day, April 23, and ends on the Day of the Archangel Michael, September 29.
A tradition that a shepherd invokes for successful pasturing is to start a holy fire in a separate area of the hut. Next he puts a fir branch on the ground outside the hut. The flock is herded around it three times ? a ritual that it is hoped will keep the sheep together. The baca and his companions top the ceremony off with a special prayer.
The grazing-opening rite is supposed to protect the sheep from wolves and from being separated from the flock.
After the end of the ritual the flock is herded into a ?koszar,? or corral for sheep. Made of wooden planks, it can be dissasembled and moved when needed. The herdsmen put them in the corral during bad weather or at night to protect them from wolves.
Another ritual-based practice is that the herdsmen count sheep by pointing a stick at them, not a finger. Using a finger, it is believed, would lead to a sheep hurting its leg.
When the shepherd wants to attract the sheep, he puts salt out ? or he has his helpers whistle to them. A special breed of dog known as a podhalanski sheepdog keeps the flock where the shepherd wants them.
?They are always close to the flock, protecting it, taking care of each and every sheep,? Zubek said. If one walks away from the circle, it could mean he is lost to pasturing for the summer.
The baca and his juhases are bachelors, dedicated to their work. They don?t mind not having wives except in winter, when ?there?s no one to hug to get warm,? said Zubek, who is about 50 and has been herding 30 years.
Born in the mountains, he has always loved the traditions of Spisz and Podhale and being close to nature.
Highlanders are said to be strong, tough and stubborn. They also are supposed to have big hearts and open minds. While strong, they can also be shy, which Zubek proved when he refused to be photographed, saying, ?No, no, not me — maybe the juhases.?
?Our ancestors migrated from Romania, maybe even bringing the recipe for Polish bryndza podhalanska,? Zubek said.
The Spisz area where Dursztyn is located has an interesting history. The Celts populated it first and then the Slovaks. At one time or another, it has been part of Poland, Hungary and Austria. These shifting demographic patterns have given it a rich culture.
Today, Slovakia owns a larger chunk of the area than Poland. The Slovakian imprint on the Polish side can be seen among the old people who speak Polish mixed with Slovakian and Slovakian-language masses that are held in some Polish churches. Although the Spisz and Podhale areas are part of Poland, they have another master as well ? at least when it comes to food trademarking.
The EU has given the area?s bryndza a ?trademark by origin? designation. In other words, no other place can claim to produce bryndza except the south Poland area where it is made.
Bryndza is the first Polish food product to receive the designation, although applications have been submitted for a number of other products to receive it as well.
Some had feared that the use of unpasteurized milk in the cheese-making process would prevent bryndza from receiving the trademark, but that turned out not to be the case. The process complies with EU health regulations that cover traditional methods of food production.
The EU certification system is designed to protect the names of high-quality European foods made according to traditional methods in a defined geographic region. To qualify, the product must have a long tradition and strong ties with its area of origin.
The first written account about bryndza-making dates to 1625. Accounts about oscypek-making go back even further, to the 15th Century. Bryndza is a byproduct of bundz, or soft cheese.
More salty than bundz, it is crumpled by hand or run through a machine similar to a meat grinder. ?If you want to make it at home, put some soft cheese through a meat grinder, add some salt and close it in the jar for couple of months,? Chowaniec said.
Today?s producers still make the cheese in the wood and copper bowls that were used centuries ago.
?Here we have a bowl made by a gypsy maybe 300 years ago,? said a juhas, Janek, who declined to give his last name.
The EU gives the sheep owners a small subsidy each year, as it does many farmers and livestock producers. However, it?s ?not much,? Zubek said.
Residents of the Slovakian highlands have applied for a trademark for their oscypiok ? the name they use for the oscypek made on the Polish side of the border.
Because Polish oscypek makers applied for a trademark first, the Slovakians fear their cheese won?t get one.
Zubek has no doubt that oscypek will get a designation ? ?it?s too famous to be rejected,? he said.
And those familiar with the trademark process believe both countries? products will get trademarks.
Oscypek is different from bryndza because it?s smoked on a shelf near the ceiling of a shepherd?s hut. That?s what gives it its rich golden color.
?It?s simple. No technology is needed,? Zubek said. In fact, technology ?could destroy the special taste of this wonder,? he said.