Monday, March 10, 2014

Polish Farmer's Cheeses: New Trend and Quality

Krakó Slow Wine is a wine bar and wine shop which opened a couple of months ago in the ex-industrial part of Kraków called Zabłocie. The area, where the Oscar’s Schindler Factory is also located, was a sad and depressing part of the city not so long ago. It has been revitalized during the past few years. The wine bar is run by people who are fascinated by the culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, at the same time, they are importers of Georgian and Middle-Eastern European wines.  No wonder why the place offers genuine and natural wines from this part of Europe, made from local grape specimen. The “slow wine” idea focuses on searching for the roots of authentic, genuine wines. “Krakó” in Hungarian language simply means Kraków, my hometown and at the same time it is the name one of the mountains in Tokay-hegyaljai (the wine territory in Hungary). This is where the Wille-Baumkauff family makes a wine called Pendits Furmint Krakó. “We want to prove that natural wines can be clear, lasting and excellent”- underline the owners. There are around 50 various wines in their offer (Hungarian Tokay, Eger regions, Romanian Nachbil and Georgian producers). The place is not big, but not too small as for Kraków standards. Additionally, when you enter the place, it seems to be actually quite spacious, thanks to high ceilings and skylights which also make the whole premises lighter. Every month the owners organize meetings and discussions about wine and food. Aside from wine, it also offers some regional snacks and specialties, including Polish farmer’s cheeses.

Who's one of the best cheese experts in Poland?

Cheese and wine is a natural and common pairing so no wonder why the owners invited to Kraków one of the most renowned cheese experts in Poland – Gieno Mientkiewicz. The evening and the degustation where I went last week was dedicated to wines from Central Europe and the cheeses for the tasting were brought by Mr. Mientkiewicz from Warsaw. The meeting was moderated by my friend Mariusz Kapczyński, who is a wine passionate, and the owner of vinisfera, a web site about wines. If there is anyone who knows everything about Polish cheeses, this is Mientkiewicz, a guy whose life history is a bit twisted, as he says, but fascinating. Lately he was even interviewed in Warsaw by journalists from the BBC. They tried some Polish farmer’s cheeses and they fell in love with them! He's a walking cheese encyclopedia, no wonder why he has his own TV program dedicated to Polish farmer's cheeses.

Polish farmer's cheeses – sery zagrodowe. What is that?

Farmer’s cheeses are called in Polish "sery zagrodowe". The author of this term, which is commonly used among the foodies to describe Polish farmer’s cheeses, is also Mientkiewicz. "Zagroda" literally means a croft in Polish; as these cheeses are made by small family enterprises.  Mientkiewicz travels all over Poland and visits various Polish cheese makers, finding some jewels.

When one looks at the map of Polish cheeses, one will notice that there is relatively a lot of cheesemakers. Their number is estimated to about 600 but it is probable that there are more than this. Let's hope that we will soon be able to read about them in the first guide on Polish farmer's cheeses. According to Mientkiewicz, there are two most important "cheese areas" in Poland. The first one is located in the north east of the country. This is where the so called "breakfast cheeses" are produced, such as Wiżajny, Tykocin and korycińskie cheeses,  which are delicate, natural in taste, and of course, ideal for breakfast. The second is area is located in Lower Silesia (south west) where eccentric cheese makers experiment with textures, flavours and ideas. 

Making quality cheeses is a tough business in Poland. It is due mostly to the lack of experience. The producers of these cheeses cannot rely on rich traditions, as they are the first generation of people who decided to go into the cheese business. As we know, French or Italians built their cheese reputation over decades and generations. 5, 10 or even 20 years is not enough to build quality, distribution and trademark, even when cheese makers work hard, are determined and patient. Moreover, the Polish Government does not support small food producers. As many say, Gieno Mientkiewicz plays the role of a "locomotive" for the cheese business, finding cheese marvels and trying to promote them in the whole country. To sum up, despite the obstacles the cheese market changes slowly in Poland. 20 years ago the only cheeses that available in stores were: "ser biały" (literally, "white cheese" or tvarog) and "ser żółty" (literally, "yellow cheese" like fake edam, gouda and so on, usually sweet in taste and good for kids). I do not mention traditional and regional cheeses, for example oscypek, bryndza, bundz all from the Podhale region or korycińskie from Podlasie, in the east of the country, which were always present in non formal trading, as it was possible to buy them in the countryside or on food markets.

These Polish farmer’s cheeses are often manufactured in areas which are ecologically clean. The animals are fed naturally and they eat what is available in the season. As a result, the taste of milk differs according to the seasons, and it is a real challenge for producers to keep the taste and the quality of their products consistent all year round. As you may guess, some of the cheese makers are people who quitted the cities and moved to the countryside.  Certain of these cheeses are great, as made by talented people, and tons of them are good. They are, more or less directly, inspired by the heritage of other countries, like for example France or Italy. In the wide range you will find cheeses from fresh, non pasteurized goat, sheep or cow’s milk. Amongst those cheeses you will find some flavoured with domestic or foreign herbs or other seasonings; soft cheeses with a white mold or washed rind crust; blue cheeses, semi hard cheeses (uncooked and pressed ) and cooked and pressed hard cheeses. These homemade cheeses are expensive, but do you know any good farmer’s cheese that is inexpensive?

Because farmer's cheeses are expensive and represent a niche market, their distribution channel in Poland is still bad. However, things look better than a few years ago. First of all one can buy cheeses on food festivals (which are organized mostly in the summertime, like for example the "Gruczno food festival" which takes place every August, the "Good Cheese Festival" in Lidzbark Warmiński and the "Festiwal Nieskończonych Form Mleka" in Sandomierz). Secondly, the most renowned producers sell cheeses on line, vacuum pack them and send via messenger to any private address. Thirdly, there are some internet stores like this one run by Gieno Mientkiewicz, which carries cheeses from various producers. Finally, they start to be available in certain ordinary stores or food markets, especially particular in Warsaw.

Who are the most renowned producers of farmer's cheeses?

Today I will only mention a couple of them, which I know quite well. The producers listed below are known in Poland among foodies and chefs who promote new Polish cuisine.

Sery łomnickie (łomnickie cheeses): Made by the Sokolowscy family, owners of a farm located in the south west of Poland. They specialize in goat cheeses. Some of them won domestic competitions. Their aged goat cheeses are also surprising (natural ones as well as those with spices, for example cloves or fenugrec).

Rancho frontiera: An organic farm in the Masuria region, in the north of Poland. The owners make excellent sheep’s and cow’s cheeses. They produce excellent aged, blue and young cheeses, which most famous is the jersey blue cheese. It won the main award at the Gruczno Festival in 2013.

Gospodarstwo Rolne "Kaszubska koza": Honorata and Tomasz Strubińscy's farm named "The goat of Kashubia" is located in Robaczkowo, in the Kashubia region (northern Poland) is a family business where the two passionate make extraordinary goat’s cheeses from non pasteurized, fresh goat milk. I have tried all of their products and two of them are absolutely excellent: one is called "drunk goat", a goat cheese macerated in fruit marc. The other one is an extremely delicate young and fresh goat cheese called "kozia rura".

Sery z Wiżajn: Cow’s aged hard cheeses made with rennet, according to traditional recipes of older inhabitants of the Wiżajny and Rutka Tartak districts in the northeast of Poland.

Sery grądzkie (Wielkopolska): The owners mainly produce aged goat cheeses, most of them being over one year old. Their cheeses are recommended by the most renowned Polish chefs and restaurateurs, such as Agnieszka Kręglicka and chef Adam Chrząstowski.

Kogel mogel with Goat's Halvah Cheese

This is the simplest dessert to prepare.  Kogel mogel are just egg yolks stirred with sugar. This type of preparation became known under this name in the 17th-century amongst Jewish communities of Central Europe. The dessert was very popular when I was a kid, a period when sweets were difficult to buy in stores. The only requirement is to have top quality eggs which must absolutely be clean and disinfected, if you do not want to risk to catch salmonella.

I had it last summer at Solec 44 in Warszawa with an unusual flavoring: the goat cheese called "goat halvah" made by Mrs. Sokołowska of sery łomnickie (mentioned above). During the event at the Lipowa wine bar, this cheese was offered to me by Mentkiewicz. This cheese is a real must. It is made of the goat’s whey caramelized for several hours, similarly to his far Norwegian cousin, geitost.  It is not as sweet as halvah, but its texture resembles halvah a bit and it also a bit nutty with a delicate after taste of yeast and sourness. The "goat halvah" may be served on a platter with other cheeses, but it is supposed to be at its best as a seasoning or as an addition to desserts. Top Polish chefs use this cheese in their restaurants. The first Michelin star chef, Wojciech Amaro makes an ice cream with it. After I got the cheese, I copied this extraordinary version of kogel mogel and had it as a little dessert.

Seves 2
4 egg yolks, free range eggs
2 heap tbs sugar
A bit of grated goat halvah cheese
Fresh thyme

It is a simple dessert to prepare. Place raw egg yolks with sugar in a bowl. Whip egg yolks with sugar to obtain a smooth and creamy texture. Sugar must be completely dissolved.
Pour mixture into serving dishes.
Sprinkle the cheese on top.
Sprinkle some thyme leaves.

Bon appétit!
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