I asked my Eat Polska guide, Halina Jasonek, to give me a briefing on Polish cheese, and she took me to a restaurant where I could try some. “The idea of a cheese platter is pretty new in Poland, although traditionally you would see it as part of a wedding spread with cold meats, salad, and fish” she told me, “but now there is more interest, it’s become a bit more fashionable.” So I wasn’t surprised to see that the cheeseboard, when it came, included also some szynka (ham), boczek (pork belly), baleron (gammon), pasztetowa (a kind of pâté) and smalec, chrzan and ogórki małosolne (lard, horseradish and semi-sour pickles).
The whole was washed down (as everything else in Poland is – see Low-down on Vodka) with a shot of, on this occasion Baczewski, vodka.
The Poles may not have been focussing hard on cheese, but it is nevertheless a fact that it’s the sixth largest cheese producer in the world – a surprising statistic.
I tried four cheeses:
This is the cheese that the Poles are probably most proud of, Halina told me. It’s a smoked sheeps’ cheese which comes from the mountains. I found this very smokey – quite sour and salty, with a slightly rubbery, slightly granular texture. The salty taste is apparently due to the natural ingredients and the fact that only wooden implements are used.
This cheese is made from May to September, and it’s sold very fresh – it’s not obtainable after October.
Its appearance is distinctive. It has a cylindrical form, with traditional decorative shapes due to using wooden moulds. It varies in colour from a cream colour, to a deep toffee depending on the length of the smoking (which is done over pine or spruce).
It’s made from unpasteurised sheeps’ milk.
I think this would be good to nibble with drinks….a cold, dry sherry perhaps.
I thought this was a bit like rubbery, stronger sour-tasting, softer-textured, yellower Caerphilly.
Halina explained that “Homiłka is more of a regional way of preparing cheese than a separate style. It’s made with twaróg (a bit like quark but different) with some mint and butter mixed in. The purpose of the butter is to hold the cheese together.” Personally I thought this cheese tasted of toothpaste… a bit over-minted!
In the end I decided this was my favourite. It’s a very soft, white cows’ milk cheese – the same softness that the cheese you get wrapped in foil triangles has. Slightly chalky, quite sour, a little salty….interesting. Halina advised me it was good with tomatoes and a Polish bagel.
What is the difference between twaróg and quark?
Twaróg (in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, tvaroh) often has rennet added to it to help it firm up a bit more. Rennet is an enzyme obtained from the stomach of ruminant animals, it separates the curds from the whey, so that the liquid whey can be drained off and the remaining cheese turned into curds – firm enough to cut into slices and put in a sandwich, especially if butter is added to hold it together – as above.
Quark, on the other hand, is only (well there are exceptions) set with acid, and it’s stirred during the production process to keep it loose – it’s more like fromage frais in texture, or cottage cheese without the lumps – you can use it like yoghurt.