Cheese Smuggling

At Slow Food’s international fair in Turin last year, organic delicacies included Irish wild salmon and moon-like rounds of Somerset cheddar made to a 13th century recipe. But the star of the show was a cheese brought over illegally by shepherds from Poland’s Tatra Mountains. Hilary Davies reports

Ever since Romanian farmers brought dairy farming to southern Poland in the 14th century, shepherds in the Tatra Mountains have been making Oscypek. In their wooden huts they steam unpasteurised milk in wooden pails, mould the curds by hand and hang them up to smoke in the rafters above the fire.
Yet, because it is made of unpasteurised milk, it has been illegal to sell the cheese in Poland since the 1950s. You can only find it on the black market, at little makeshift stalls set up on street corners or in local markets. For 50 years, shepherds have been forced to sell their Oscypek while sitting on canvas fishing stools, with their cheeses spread out in front of them on collapsible plastic tables and up-turned boxes.
Increasingly though, even this uncertain trade is becoming difficult to sustain. As Poland’s once empty shops have filled up with global alternatives, fewer and fewer people want the goods the shepherds produce – leather slippers, sheepskin rugs and homely woolly jumpers. Worse still, imports from New Zealand are squeezing Polish lamb out of the domestic meat market. As for their cheese, horror of horrors, Polish shops now sell imitation cheese with the same name. The mass-produced, vacuum-packed substitutes are often made of cows’ milk, pasteurised and chemically smoked. They’re about as similar to the real thing, as strawberry-flavoured chewing gum is to strawberries. But still – there they are, conveniently available off the shelf in every supermarket. After all, who has time to go out into the streets and find a cheese-selling shepherd?

Cheese hero
Meet Jacek Szklarek, president of Poland’s branch of the Slow Food movement. As its name suggests, Slow Food was set up to counterbalance the increasing preponderance of fast-food culture. It emerged from protests against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza d’Espagna.
Jacek himself lives in Poland’s artistic and gourmet capital Krakow. Although Jacek knew from its outset that he wanted to take the Slow Food movement into Poland, he wasn’t immediately sure quite where to start. That was until he discovered Oscypek. From then on his mission was clear.

Together with two Slow Food partners, Jacek hiked around the Tatra Mountains, tasting all the available samples of the cheese. Having selected the five best, the trio then had to check that all the ingredients were natural, establish the proper methods for making the cheese, and finally test the local soil and water for purity. But at last, the authentic Oscypek could finally be included among Slow Food’s ‘presidia’ – the list of products identified by the movement as worthy of protection and promotion.

Then there was the European Community to deal with. Most milk products in the European Community have to be made out of pasteurised milk in stainless steel containers. But thanks in part to Slow Food activists exceptions are now made for registered ‘regional products’. Together with a local museum, Jacek gathered the necessary historical evidence for Oscypek to be registered. By EU law, Polish shepherds are now free to make and sell their cheeses.
But nothing in bureaucratic Poland is quite that simple. Despite the EU’s go-ahead, Polish regulations are still confusing. A law passed in October means that unpasteurised milk can at last be sold in Poland again. But an endless dispute over what is and what isn’t ‘running water’, together with bureaucratic bickering over whether it’s sanitarily acceptable for Oscypek to be made in smoky wooden huts rather than tiled rooms, mean the livelihood of many shepherds still hangs in the balance.

The situation is ‘completely absurd,’ says Jacek. ‘The cheese-makers are forward-looking, practical and prepared to take any steps necessary to bring Oscypek into the market.’ If only the authorities would make up their minds. Under the guidance of supportive local expert Henryk Stanik, the cheese-makers have even built wells and tapped local springs to comply with Polish legislation on running water. Yet still the officials argue. And the frustrated shepherds can do nothing but wait.

Cheese luggage

Last September the shepherds applied to the Polish authorities for the right to transport their cheeses as commercial samples; they wanted to exhibit them at Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto the following month. When the application was blocked by the jealousy of one of Stanik’s professional rivals, the shepherds had simply had enough. Determined to get to the food fair by hook or by crook, they hid their cheeses in their bags and, since they couldn’t afford to fly, set out on the two-day bus ride to Turin. It was worth it; in Italy the cheeses were a huge success.
‘We sold most of them on the first day,’ Jacek remembers, ‘and at 10 euros.’ This was already a triumph for the shepherds, whose cheeses barely fetch the equivalent of four euros on the Polish streets. But it got even better. ‘When we saw how quickly they were going,’ Jacek explains, ‘we raised the price. And it was a good thing, because on the second day of the two-day fair there were queues for our stall before we’d even opened. The cheese was all snapped up, and even after it was gone the customers just refused to believe it. People were sure we must have more hidden somewhere, and they kept offering us bribes.’
It turned out that by denying the shepherds an export permit the spiteful official back in Poland had actually done the expedition a favour. Slow Food members have campaigned for years (and with a lot of success) for a more flexible approach towards food production in the EU. So they reacted enthusiastically to the shepherds’ outwitting of obstructive authorities. The Italians were delighted to hear that Poles had brought the cheeses illegally; the press seized on the story, and Jacek, not to miss any chance of promotion, pumped it for all it was worth.
Only the shepherds themselves, wary about getting in trouble, were unsure about all this publicity. But when they saw the positive reactions of even Polish journalists at the food fair they relaxed and joined in the fun. Asked by the Polish press if it was really true that they had brought the cheeses packed under their bus seats, they smiled and confided: ‘Well, actually in the baggage hatch.’

The shepherds celebrated their success with Jacek’s home-made – and also illegal – moonshine cherry vodka. And since their return home – perhaps because of their storm of success abroad – there have been no negative repercussions.

When I met Jacek in Warsaw recently, he and the five shepherds involved with Slow Food’s presidia were planning to form a company to distribute the cheese, and defend its reputation from the competition of cheap and nasty imitations by fighting for the exclusive rights to the label Oscypek. While officials continue to squabble over regulations, Jacek and co are busy concentrating on ‘promotion, promotion, promotion’.

Hilary Davies is a freelance journalist based in Poland

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2003