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June 1, 2012

Centuries of traditional cheese making

Oscypek is a smoked cheese made of salted sheep’s milk, made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The first mention of cheese production in the Tatra Mountains dates back to the 15th century - in a document from 1416. The flavor of the cheese depends very much on herbs, grass (eaten by the sheep) and the time of year the cheese is made. Some people claim that it tastes best in the spring, because the milk is full of fat. Everything is made by hand by The Gorale (literally, highlanders), a group of indigenous people found along the southern Poland region of Podhale, in the Tatra Mountains. There is also a significant population of Gorale in Chicago, Illinois. The Gorals spend weeks outside their home, living in a small wooden house, while looking after their herd. It is akin to a nomadic life from May to September, and a difficult life as well. They start early in the morning and milk the sheep three times a day. A friend introduced photographer Michal Korta to Baca (the sheep’s master) Wojciech (chief of the working group of Gorals). He spent 3 days documenting the process of producing the traditional Oscypek. -- Paula Nelson (28 photos total)

The sheep are gathered in the early morning by the shepherd. (Michal Korta)

Shepherd Stanislav walks the herd to a new pasture. #

Shepherd Stanislav during a break, tells stories about hard life, living in the mountains. #

A middle-sized herd consists of about 300 to 400 sheep, but can be up to 1200 animals. #

A shepherd's helper looks after a sheep's hoof - cutting off an old portion. #

Dogs are invaluable helpers, keeping the herd together, watching them and protecting them against wolves during the night. Wolves killed 7 sheep over the summer. #

An older male sheep waits for the females. #

The men take a break from their work. #

Baca Wojciech watches for tourists, to sell them cheese. #

A mother sheep and her lamb wait to get treated with medicine. #

A helper gathers lambs in order to treat them with medicine. #

A young male sheep after shearing. #

The sheep are individually brought to treat them with medicine and for shearing. #

Stanislav carries a large sheep to be sheared. #

Stanislav carefully trims an adult sheep by hand. #

Old shears hang as a decoration on the wall of the shepherds' shelter. #

In the early morning hours, Jozef and Stanislav milk the sheep. Gorals often start to work at 4 a.m. #

One hundred percent of the work is done by hand. #

Sheep's milk is mixed with cow's milk in special proportions and then heated. #

Unpasteurized, salted sheep's milk is first turned into cottage cheese, which is then repeatedly rinsed with boiling salt water and squeezed by hand. #

One group of cheese makers consists of 3-6 Gorals. #

The mass is pressed into wooden, spindle-shaped forms in decorative shapes - a finely mastered handmade product. #

The cheese forms can vary depending of the region. #

The forms are then placed in a brine-filled barrel for a night or two. #

The cheese is then placed close to the roof in a special wooden hut and cured in hot smoke for up to 14 days. #

This cheese is molded in the traditional spindle-shaped form. #

Cabin decorations consist of a male sheep skull and antlers. #

The herd gathers in the evening on a hill near Jaworki village. #