Yulia Bachurynskaya and Alyaksey Kuchko ran a successful cheese production farm in the north of Belarus. Now the pair have rebuilt the business in Poland, catering mostly to Belarusian emigres.
In 2020, the same year massive repressions began in Belarus after a disputed presidential election, cheesemakers Yulia Bachurynskaya and Alyaksey Kuchko packed up what they could carry and moved to Poland.
“We decided to take horses and dogs with us,” Bachurynskaya says, adding that the expense of horse transportation west to Poland was worth it because the horses “had already been through a lot with us together and we had become close.”
Three of their seven dogs were given to friends.
In December 2021, the pair left Belarus. Their dogs and horses needed passports and vaccinations to cross the border, and the horses also had to undergo veterinary tests. The horses traveled separately in a transporter, while four large dogs were squeezed into the couple’s car. The animals took up so much space that Bachurynskaya and Kuchko were limited to taking just two suitcases. Whatever they couldn’t fit was left in Belarus or sold.
"We would have stayed. We had a good farm, we wanted to invest in it and develop it, but somehow we didn't see a future," Bachurynskaya explains.
The couple sold their sheep, goats, and cows, and called on friends of friends in Poland to give them temporary accommodation. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to millions of refugees entering Poland, it became difficult to find housing there, especially a property with land.
"I had to search a lot, travel, and learn Polish quickly," Bachurynskaya says.
Eventually, the Belarusians found a house for rent not far from Krakow, along with 3 hectares of land. Now their farm is populated with their "Belarusian" horses and dogs, as well as 20 sheep and 18 goats that they bought in Poland.
At first, “as in any village, or any country,” Bachurynskaya says, the local residents were wary of the newcomers. But soon they came to visit the Belarusians.
“Some brought potatoes, some beets, because it was the vegetable season. Now we’ve been accepted," she says, "because if you treat people well, they will treat you the same way."
The Belarusians' animals even help the owner of their property. The Polish landlord doesn’t live in the village but is obligated to mow the grass on his land, as per Polish law.
"Our animals ‘mow’ the grass for him. Goats and sheep pluck grass almost to the roots,” she says.
To save on lawn-mowing costs, “our neighbors are asking for our animals to graze on their land, too,” the cheesemaker told RFE/RL.
Bachurynskaya says the Poles in their adopted region of Malopolska are relatively conservative in their cheese choices and tend to stick to a handful of traditional Polish cheeses.
"Belarusians are more adventurous with trying new and unusual styles of cheese, so we are focusing on Belarusian consumers for now," Bachurynskaya says.
According to the cheesemakers, styles such as feta and mozzarella are in demand during the warmer months.
"Summer is the season of salads, vegetables, and tomatoes. Light cheeses go well with all of this. Belarusians love Halloumi. Halloumi is good because it holds its shape when fried in a pan," Bachurynskaya explains.
Bachurynskaya reworked the classic Halloumi recipe back in Belarus, with an eye for flavor innovation and local ingredients. When cranberries were added to their Halloumi, the cheese was a hit with Belarusians.
The couple are currently working through the documentation that will allow them to sell their cheeses at fairs and markets in Poland.
Milk from their animals needs to pass various quality tests, but Bachurynskaya says that, in Poland, “it's not difficult at all because here the officials don't look to punish you at every opportunity, but only to explain, help, and warn.”
So far, the main market for the couple’s cheeses comprises other Belarusians, both in Poland and elsewhere, including Lithuania, Germany, and Switzerland. The Belarusians also received orders for chocolate-coated curd snacks.
"We hadn’t made them before, so we decided to give it a go,” Bachurynskaya says. The couple based their recipe on a Soviet-era standard but cut down the sugar content.
“We make curd snacks coated in dark, milk, and white chocolate, as well as orange glaze with berries,” she says.
The cheesemaker says that some Belarusians order the curd snacks -- a popular confection in Belarus -- as gifts for their Polish colleagues.
"Many of our customers have become our friends over the years. Some were our clients back in Belarus, and now they are here in Poland, too. They buy our cheeses and come to say hello," Bachurynskaya says.