KRAKÓW: Coding tastes. Jacek Szklarek & Slow Food

About the way to Polish "oscypek" and other endemic culinary peculiarities that was leading through.. Italian hills. Kasia Pilitowska’s talking to Jacek Szklarek, the chairman of Slow Food Poland and “the defender of the right to taste”.


Why did you fall in love with Slow Food?

It was pure coincidence. I went on a scholarship to Rome but  if I’d limited myself to the confines of the city I probably wouldn’t have heard about Slow Food. However, one day I ended up in the countryside near Sienna that had only one restaurant and it had a snail’s shape as its logo. I asked the owner about its origin and he said that the restaurant offered regional dishes made of endangered types of crops and plants as well as cheese and wine of a unique, local character. I was eating cheese, drinking wine, coding tastes. And I was taking pictures. A whole lot of slides, thousands of them! I kept observing nature, people, their activities. I became a documentarian of very simple works, processes and things.

And where is the snail?

Time kept passing, until two years later I started to think about what I saw then. In 1999, I and my wife went on a trip to Italy and stayed in the Slow Food Headquarters in Bra, Piedmont. We were announced as we arrived and then we saw a middle-aged man with his hair going gray approaching us; he turned out to be Pierro Sardo (Slow Food for Biodiversity). He started swamping us with questions, such as: It’s you who have this kind of cheese that has a shape of a rugby ball, isn’t it?! What do you add to it? Calf rennet? Is it made of pasteurized milk? In warm smoke? And what about cheese mass? Does it age? I had answers to none of these questions. What’s more,  he wanted to present our oscypek on the Ark of Taste* during the first edition of Salone del Gusto (a famous event now) in Turin. He’s heard about this Polish delicacy!



The ark of local products dwindling into extinction?

Yes. They wanted to present the variety of products from all over the world that contribute greatly to a given country’s culinary culture, but are prone to fall into oblivion or become extinct. According to them, our oscypek** belonged there. Not to mention the fact that one Italian told me there was something exceptional about it…


So you brought oscypek to such an extraordinary event?!

I came back to Poland and devoted the following three years to visiting all shepherd’s huts (places where oscypek is made), more than 120 of them! When I was done, I wanted Pierro to see the process of making oscypek himself and I invited him on a tour. How delighted he was! Oscypek qualified as one of nineteen local products from all over the world to be  presented on the Ark of Taste. Needless to say, it was a tremendous honour! The fact that oscypek was placed next to cheddar cheese from Somerset in England speaks for itself... To say more, Pierro wanted us to make this special kind of cheese during Salone del Gusto, and to organize a presentation centered on the making process. It was November and there was no sheep milk available, but the very last liters of it were brought to us from the Alps that surround Turin. Polish head shepherds (Polish: baca, plural:bacowie) arrived as well, namely Władek Klimowski (the head of the shepherds circle), Wojtek Klimowski, Józek Wojtyczka, Wojtek Komperda and Józek Pietraszek. Italians built a shepherd’s hut with a bonfire in the pavilion and everything was like in the Tatra Mountains. Head shepherds from other countries couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw that a spindle-shaped form  of oscypek is not the result of the use of a wooden form. It’s makers’ hands that give it a shape by laying each of cheese layers on a string.




And how did you sell oscypek during trade fairs? We weren’t in the EU back then..

We’d sold cheese before trade fairs started… Józef Wojtyczka is excellent at telling stories of how cheese was smuggled under seats on a bus to Italy… It wasn’t all well thought out, you see, but totally spontaneous.


Well then. But how were you making a living at that time?

I was working at the Jagiellonian University and for the Good Year company in Dębica. Basically, I was doing great. My heart, however, was possessed by slow food.


Haven’t you ever thought that things may turn around and Slow Food may become a great way to make a living?

I’m thinking about it all the time. Although, I believe I’d have to be one of those who produce slow food. The organization of food fairs in Poland is unprofitable. On the other hand, the satisfaction it gives is enormous. After ten years of promoting local producers, ten years of strenuous work, I see that it’s been worth it. The interest is growing in producers and their products alike so, who knows, maybe one day I will be making cheese!



You chose Krakow to be the host city of Terra Madre - local products fair, why?

Another possibility was to organize the fair in Warsaw, but when I found out about EXPO Krakow – the new exhibition space with halls and conference rooms named Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, Danube, or Vistula, I felt that that was the place. Besides, I live near Krakow, I’m from here and, additionally, the approaching “independence week” (in Poland, the Independence Day – November 11th was on Tuesday this year, hence most Poles had a longer break) sounded like a good occasion to visit the city.

You’ve succeeded in gathering the renowned Polish chefs in Krakow, namely: Amaro, Iwański, Baron, Chrząsowski, Siwak, Kopicki, Narloch… Dinners prepared by them sold like hotcakes!

That was a tryout. In 2006, as Slow Food Poland, we recommended the first slow food restaurant in the country. For the next six years there was no other place of that kind, even though our criteria didn’t change. Generally, it was of nobody’s interest. Wojtek Amaro was given the recommendation from us in October 2012 and was awarded a Michelin star later on. It helped us a lot. As it turned out, a snail is also a kind of a coveted star that is worth being worn in a lapel.



Will women enter the pantheon of snails one day?

We’re looking for them, there are many amazing female chefs, for example Agata Wojda from the “Opasły Tom” restaurant in Warsaw. However, it’s about restaurants coming up to Slow Food’s expectations, we emphasize local products and the creative use of them. That’s what makes us outstanding.



Terra Madre, November, Krakow

Terra Madre – Slow Food Festival was not only about the two-day-long fair of good food accompanied by the vast array of workshops, but also about meetings in several of Krakow’s venues and about dinners prepared by chefs recommended by Slow Food Poland. Moreover, the fair gathered almost 70 producers from Europe.

There was plenty of food to be tasted, e.g.: half a roast geese and cervelat from Wiesław Dreszler as well as other cured meat produced with the use of traditional methods; real oscypek from Wojtek Komperda; Consonni’s confectionery; bread from Piskorek’s bakery; goat and sheep cheese from various regions of Poland; preserves, jams, juices and coffee roasted in Krakow. Slow Food representatives from Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic presented their delicacies on the fair.

What attracted attention apart from the fair and dinners were the Laboratories of Taste divided into three sections: “Drinking”, “Eating”, “Cooking” respectively. The first section’s program included, among others, sampling the best Polish craft beers, natural wines and Tokay. Those who favor kitchen activities could have chosen between culinary experiments for kids with Dorota Minta, laboratories devoted to bread, stories about coffee, cheese, old Polish apple trees, Polish crops and Mangalitsa (a natural breed of pigs from Europe). The last section focused on culinary shows performed by chefs recommended by Slow Food as well as food bloggers who came to Krakow to prepare special dinners. Goose was served by Dominik Narloch, variety meats were served by Adam Chrząstkowski and Aleksander Baron; Mariusz Siwak and Marcin Sołtys presented a wide range of Polish delicacies whereas Rafał Konopnicki and Janusz Fic served game. The first edition of the festival finished with the 2nd Krakow’s Festival of Young Wine.


* The Ark of Taste

In the 20th century 75% of food products in Europe (vegetables, fruit, crops) vanished. Similar situation happened in America at the same time, although there it was 93% of products. Hence, the organization created a program for the restoration of biodiversity called the Ark of Taste. Just like on Noe’s Ark - plants, animals and ready-made food products that are to become extinct will find their place on the Ark of Taste. Among the protected Polish products are the following: a red cow which lives in Lesser Poland (Polish: Małopolska) in Szczyrzyc Abbey, oscypek produced by shepherds, mead produced by Maciej Jaros.

** oscypek

A smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region of Poland. Since 2007 Oscypek is a protected trade name under the EU's Protected Designation of Origin geographical indication.



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