Stop by the shepherd’s for an oscypek! Multigenerational traditions in the mountain areas

Sheep in the pasture by the setting sun and the logo: the inscription Małopolska in a natural way.
They stand alone, aloof from human settlements. In the valleys and high up on the mountain pastures. Among the grasses and at the edge of the forest. Although very simple, they always fit perfectly into the mountain landscape. A dozen solid logs, a steep plank roof – that’s the whole of it: the shepherd’s hut. It is here that the best cheeses of the region are made in somewhat Spartan conditions, albeit with respect for hygiene. These are the wonderfully fragrant treasures of the Małopolska region.

A shepherd’s hut is like a tiny little workshop. Culinary works of art are made here from sheep’s milk. Delicious sharp cheese, mild korbacz, but also excellent bundz and fresh żentyca.

Not only oscypek, bundz and żentyca

The shepherd’s hut is the most characteristic and ancient element of the mountain cultural landscape. In this micro-world, a distinctive way of life, centuries-old traditions, magnificent nature, but also extraordinary surroundings interact in a perfect way. Because a shepherd’s hut is also a small… settlement. So, there is the shepherd called a baca, there are his helpers called juhasi, the sheep and the dogs guarding them, but also the simple kosor, i.e., enclosure in the pasture. Living in the shadow of the mountains, or on sunny green meadows, is conducive to cultivating traditions handed down from great-grandparents and for keeping recipe secrets.

When was this world born? Several centuries ago, when pastoral peoples arrived in the south of the present-day Poland. The Vlachs, as they are referred to, arrived here from the Balkans and wandered along the arc of the Carpathian Mountains. Settling in secluded places, they simultaneously passed on pastoral secrets to the locals.

Culinary delicacies are born in twilight

The best cheeses are always born in the twilight of a shepherd’s hut! The secrets of their manufacture are passed down from generation to generation, to the next shepherd in the lineage. Being a baca is a great responsibility, but also a mission.There are dozens of shepherd’s huts on the map of the Małopolska region. They stand in various places in our beautiful mountains. Some can be found along popular hiking trails, others are hidden in secluded mountain retreats. Each of the shepherd’s huts makes oscypeks according to local traditions. Despite the Protected Designation of Origin and the specific shape and composition, each has something unique and inimitable in its products, which is a closely guarded secret.

Baca and the sheep from Podhale, and chatkowy from the Low Beskids

In the Low Beskids, a mountain range located in the east of the Małopolska region, there is only one shepherd’s hut, located in the village of Czarne, and it is run by Józef Klimowski originating from... Podhale.
He started running his shepherd’s hut independently as early as the 1980s, when he moved here from Podhale. Since the shepherd is from Podhale, the sheep are also from Podhale. They arrive to the Czarne village by special transport, and after the season they trod unhurriedly along for 5 days – with a shepherd, baca, and his helpers, juhasi – back to their homeland.
While tasting the unusual delicacies, it is also worth learning a bit of history... The Czarne village is a place strongly marked by fate. Local people were uprooted and driven out during Operation Vistula, and a sign commemorating them today is called the Symbolic Door to the Former Village of Czarne. All that is left of the former settlement is the Orthodox church and cemetery, while the wooden Greek-Catholic Church of St Dmitri was moved to the open-air museum in Nowy Sącz. Many more such Lemko villages can be seen in the area, the remnants of which are reduced to abandoned cemeteries, overgrown former fields and crumbling foundations of buildings.
From the village of Czarne, you can hike south along the Wisłoka River valley, passing through the long-deserted village of Radocyna to reach the border with Slovakia. On the Pass under the Dębi Wierch you can turn west and conquer the Beskid (692 metres amsl). From the village of Konieczna it is possible to return to Radocyna: follow the yellow trail or the black trail and climb the Mały Beskid (631 metres amsl) on the way. The scenic tour should take around five hours. For those who enjoy camping, it’s quite useful to know that there is a campsite at the beginning of the village of Radocyna.
Another interesting attraction is to spend time at the Chatka cottage in Nieznajowa. You can get a roof over your head there in exchange for small jobs: chopping wood or fetching water from a well. After a cold bath, by candlelight, the host, called a chatkowy – or if your host is a gentlewoman, a chatkowa – will tell an interesting story about the place. The Magura National Park, which protects the natural transition zone between the Western and Eastern Carpathians and is a breeding areas for birds of prey, is also not far away.

Sheep tastes of Beskid Sądecki

There are several shepherd’s huts in the Beskid Sądecki and in the Poprad Foothills. Let us take a look at one of them. Stanisław Żywczak is working as a shepherd by the Poprad River. It’s to him that we owe not only tasty cheeses, but also the maintenance of habitats for rare species of flowering plants, as ferns are slowly repopulating the meadows.

It is quite difficult to find your way to the shepherd’s hut, but it is not hard for those who truly want it! You just have to turn off the blue trail leading from Łomnica-Zdrój to Łabowska Hala. The trail leads through the picturesque Łomniczanka Valley, so you can gaze in delight at the natural waterfall. In the lower course of the stream there is another waterfall, a man-made one called Czercz. While on the mountain, you can visit the PTTK Shelter Hala Łabowska  and... return to Łomnica-Zdrój along the yellow trail through the Wargulszańskie Mountains (1,035 metres amsl) or along the same route. Łomnica-Zdrój and the nearby Piwniczna-Zdrój are also famous for their healthy mineral waters. While in Łomnica-Zdrój, you can also try a local delicacy, namely the Łomnica dumplings with potato and bryndza cheese stuffing.

Little Beskids means few shepherd’s huts

The peaks of the Little Beskids, although they do not reach 1000 metres amsl, rise steeply above the valleys. There are only two shepherd’s huts here. One of these is unusual, as it is located not at a pasture, but in the village of Skawica, near the Skawica River. Milk delicacies are made there by a shepherd from Poronin, Krzysztof Bachleda Curuś.

This baca, as he stresses, has never been a juhas. The secrets of an unusual profession were passed on to him by... a neighbour from Poronin. Connoisseurs of sheep’s cheese enjoy his products a lot. He was also awarded with First Prize in the Best Oscypek Competition in 2014.

While in Skawica, one can go, for example, to Magurka (871 metres amsl), hiking through Zawoja Dolna and following the black trail. It is a route mostly following roads through residential areas. Unmarked trails lead to Magurka, and the viewing tower ‘Beskidzki Raj’ is not far away. If you fancy a more challenging walk, we recommend climbing Kocia Łapa (1,182 metres amsl), or the slightly more distant Polica (1,369 metres amsl). At Kocia Łapa, you can rest for a while at the Shelter on Hala Krupowa and then continue hiking to Skawica or Polica. The first route is shorter, but both require a minimum of six hours for the ascent and the descent.

Gorce... brusek ochotnicki

There are quite a few shepherds and shepherd’s huts in the Gorce Mountains. The proximity of the Gorce National Park makes the fresh products go straight to the tourists.

We can already enjoy the wonderful aroma of sheep cheeses by the time we’re in the immediate vicinity of Turbacz. These are the extraordinary works of the lone shepherd Krzysztof Gach. The harsh conditions in this part of the mountains mean that Krzysztof has no competition and leads a life in harmony with nature and the sheep. He sells his products to tourists and it is with them that he most often speaks. His love of shepherding did not come from a family tradition, but from his passion for shepherding in the mountain pastures.

Jarosław Buczek’s shepherd’s hut is in Ochotnica Górna, where there are non-traditional rules of shepherding. This is because there are two hosts here – baca Jarosław and bacowa Małgorzata. Their energy, openness and professionalism make them very popular with tourists hungry for cheese with an unusual flavour. The sheep belonging to them graze in the valley of the Jaszcze, Jamne, and Forędówka streams. The shepherd and shepherdess are unique also because they have one local product that is not available anywhere else: brusek ochotnicki, a long-ripened Gorce cheese. It is worth noting that it can only be tasted here! While in the area, it is worthwhile to take an approximately 3-hour walk from the valley of the Jaszcze stream, following the green path. Along the way, you can see the memorial at the crash site of the B-24 Liberator, an American four-engine heavy bomber that was shot down in 1944, and climb the wooden observation tower on the summit of Magurka (1,108 metres amsl) to admire the magnificent panorama of the Gorce and Tatra Mountains.

On the north-western side of the Gorce Mountains – in Koniny – Jan Lupa is busy in his shepherd’s hut. Shepherding and making sheep’s milk cheese is his passion, for which he is well-known throughout the area. His shepherd’s hut is located in a place ideally suited as a ‘base’ for excursions along the Gorce mountain trails. The black and yellow trails will take you to Kudłoń (1,274 metres amsl) and Gorc Troszacki (1,235 metres amsl); the black, red and yellow trails take you to Czoło Turbacza (1,259 metres amsl) and Turbacz (1,310 metres amsl). It is also possible to conquer slightly lower peaks: Wierch Spalone (1,091 metres amsl), or Turbaczyk (1,078 metres amsl).

Pieniny and Spisz full of cheese

The Pieniny highlanders graze sheep, too, and they also make sheep’s cheese. A large herd of Pieniny highlanders’ sheep  can be found just outside the entrance to the Pieniny National Park; near the blue trail leading to Trzy Korony from Czorsztyn. On Hala Majerz, several hundred sheep graze placidly, without a care in the world. Some of them belong to the shepherd Wojciech Komperda and others to friends and neighbours. Baca continues the family tradition, as his father and grandfather were also involved in this profession. At the shepherd’s hut, tourists can buy not only cheese, but also fresh żentyca. In the eastern part of the Pieniny within the Homole Gorge and Biała Woda Reserve, you will come across several shepherd’s huts that offer cheese and żentyca... It is worth trying these specialities before setting out on the trails.

From Jaworki, you can take the green marked path through the picturesque Homole Gorge to the Glade in the Foot of Wysoka and then the blue trail to Wysoka (1,050 metres amsl). If we want to take a slightly longer walk to Wysoka, we should probably choose the yellow trail through the Biała Woda Reserve with its Lemko cultural landscape and interesting rock formations. While on the Rozdziela Pass, it’s worth turning around and taking a look behind you, as there are very few places with such a view of the Pieniny Mountains and Babia Góra. Then, following the blue trail, we will reach Szczob (920 metres amsl) or Wysoka (1,050 m metres amsl); afterwards, we will only have to descend – via the Homole Gorge – to Jaworki.

Shepherd’s huts also mark their presence in the Spiš landscape. It is here, according to some, that the most beautiful sheep grazing pastures in the Tatras are to be found. One such shepherd’s hut can be found in Kacwin, where it is run by Jan Wilczek. He lives in harmony with nature and likes to be surrounded by animals, which is why his flock is guarded by many dogs and his milk is transported by a horse-drawn carriage. There are also many attractions close to the shepherd’s hut.

There are two waterfalls on the Kacwinianka: Pod Młynarzówką and Pod Upłazem. Another waterfall (Frankovský vodopád) can be found just across the Slovakian border. Another unusual attraction is the Indian Village in Kacwin – here you can learn archery, play instruments and learn about North American Indian culture. It is a unique place, and the view of the wigwams against the backdrop of the Pieniny and Tatra Mountains is something unique. Not far from Kacwin, the waters of Lake Czorsztyn glisten. There, you can stay active by renting a pedal boat or by bicycling around the lake.

Podhale – the kingdom of oscypek

It is here that the most numerous flocks of sheep graze. Numerous mountain huts are located in tourist spots, e.g., on Rusinowa Polana, in the Kościeliska Valley or in Murzasichle. Shepherd’s huts can also be found in smaller, less well-known villages. Although most shepherds had previously worked as juhasi in other places, such as the Bieszczady or Beskids, they returned to their home areas to take over the tradition from their father or grandfather.
Working from April to October does not allow for much rest, but now that superstition no longer blocks women from entering the world of shepherd’s huts, shepherds can be assisted by their wives and family. In shepherd’s huts on trails frequented by hikers, it is not uncommon for women and family members to also produce gołka or redykołka cheeses.

One of the most interesting shepherd’s huts is the one on the western side of Cyrla, by the Białka River. It is here that the first female baca is running her business. Janina Rzepka and her husband Andrzej make cheese together. The bacyna still finds time to knit sheep’s wool socks and look after the flowers growing near the shepherd’s hut. This one-of-a-kind shepherd’s hut is located near the Shelter at Głodówka, offering a breathtaking view of the Tatra crags and glens. The place is also an excellent base for excursions into the Polish and Slovakian Tatras. You can stay overnight at ‘Na Głodówce’ and hike the Tatra trails during the day.

In the Tatra National Park, Stanisław Rychtarczyk runs his shepherd’s hut at Rusinowa Polana. He still remembers grazing sheep by the Morskie Oko pond. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, the authorities expelled his family from those pastures, so they moved to Rusinowa Polana. Baca breeds the ‘cakle’ sheep, which give much more milk than Polish sheep. Frequent encounters with tourists and the many stories he has heard make Stanisław as good a storyteller as he is a baca. His shepherd’s hut tends to sell his redykołka cheese hot off the grill, as the tourists like this hot redykołka the most.

At the foot of Babia Góra, also charmingly called Kapryśnica, the family business is run by the Miętus family from Zubrzyca Górna. In this region, the production of oscypek is not as popular as it is in Podhale and the Tatras, but there plenty of enthusiasts to buy them: not only tourists but also neighbours come for the wonderfully tasty cheeses. After a bite of cheese or a drink of żentyca, you can set off boldly from Hala Śmietanowa to the peak of the Queen of Beskids. In Zubrzyca Górna, you can also visit the Orava Ethnographic Park and learn a bit about highlanders’ customs, as well as admire the traditional Orava wooden buildings, which are slowly disappearing. One of them is the wooden church moved from Tokarnia, a unique historic monument.

Description of the Oscypek Museum

It was created in the heart of Zakopane. Here you can trace not only the manufacturing process of the legendary cheese, but also find out what types of cheese there are. Each step in the making of the cheese is discussed by the highlanders, who also explain the specific names of the processes and vessels needed to make the cheese. Shows are held twice a day. Under the watchful eye of experts, everyone can make their own cheese and give it their favourite shape. In the Oscypek Museum, you can also buy certified oscypek and other cheeses from the local shepherd’s hut, as well as handicrafts and regional souvenirs.

Sheep’s milk cheeses are mainly a tourist product, but they are also a distinctive and perhaps even obligatory delicacy to try during trips to Podhale, Orava and Spiš, as well as the Pieniny and Gorce mountains. Highlanders maintain the traditional grazing of sheep and the taste of their products with recipes passed down through the generations. In the mountainous areas of the Małopolska region, you can chat with the shepherd and, if you get up early, even watch him make his famous cheeses.

We invite you to the Małopolska pastures. You will not find more beautiful views, with sheep in the background!


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