Issue 3, 2019. June-July

   

GEORGIAN CHEESE GAINS MOMENTUM

Like Georgia's famous wine, the country has been making cheese for thousands of years. But short-sighted agriculture policies under the Soviet government all but destroyed Georgia's cheese culture. Today the domestic cheese industry is slowly gaining strength. It is returning to its historic roots, building domestic demand for long-forgotten cheese sorts - and eying the potential for foreign export.


Fifteen kilometers from the nearest road, Alaznistavi Agriculture Collective is making cheese that is destined for the United States.

Smelly and salty Tushetian Guda cheese is one of Georgia's traditional cheeses, a treasured treat passed down by generations of farmers high in the mountains in Tusheti, in north-east Georgia.

But a couple of years ago the founders of the Alaznistavi collective realized people had forgotten the traditional way to make the cheese.

For example, producers were making it using plastic bags, not sheep skins, which fundamentally changed the flavor and meant the new generation did not know how to properly make the cheese.

So Giorgi Abuladze and his father decided to restore the craft. They began making Tushetian Guda cheese the traditional way.

That sentiment is nothing new to Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze. The head of the Georgian Cheese Guild, Mikadze-Chikvaidze has widely been credited with saving Georgian cheese making traditions. At the heart of her efforts is her campaign to educate people about the country's traditional cheese types.

Mikadze-Chikvaidze remembers a time in the not so distant past when just four types of cheeses - Sulguni, Imeruli, Karkhunli (factory-made Imeruli) and Guda - were widely recognized in Georgia.

In truth, however, the country has a tradition of cheese making that includes dozens of types of cheeses - and stretches back over 8,000 years.

Mikadze-Chikvaidze was the first to start to dig into that past, traveling through Georgia's regions, into villages and tiny hamlets, searching for the women who were single handedly preserving the country's cheese making traditions.

She told georgiastartshere.com that it is impossible to know how many types of Georgian cheese exist - or, at least, once existed. "It could be anywhere from 80 up to 150 or more ... I have personally found 32 varieties, well lost and done with, had I not found them," she was quoted as saying.

Recipes, stories and flavors in hand, Mikadze-Chikvaidze has been blazing a trail for Georgia's foodies, chefs and cheese producers to follow.

But it is not an easy path.

While Georgia has an ancient tradition of making cheese, oppression during the Soviet era reduced the country's rich culinary heritage to just a handful of dishes - including four cheeses.

"The socialist economy didn't have room for the cheese industry-at least not smallbatch, artisanal, aged cheese," Mikadze-Chikvaidze told Saveur magazine.

"Sulguni and Imeruli were mass produced and churned out the next day. It was all about feeding the people, not about savouring food. That was considered too bourgeois. In the Soviet period, and a decade or so after, there was the attitude that if it wasn't for sale at the market, then it didn't exist. It's a very Soviet mentality. When I'd turn up in a village and ask about artisanal cheese, they'd stare at me blankly and then point me to the supermarket to get some Sulguni or Guda. People were afraid of being punished for making something that wasn't within the system."

It was not just a cut in the types of cheese that was allowed to be produced; the quality also suffered.

In an interview with Investor.ge, Mikadze-Chikvaidze recalls a conversation with a foreigner. After she lists off the names of some well-known Georgian cheeses, the foreigner shakes his head, saying "'no, you only have three types of cheese - salty, very salty and very very salty,'" she said.

Not long ago, Mikadze-Chikvaidze took a Saveur journalist for a country-wide cheese sampling, via kitchens and dinner parties in rural communities from Svaneti to the Turkish border.

The journalist, David Farley, clearly captivated by the cheeses, draws readers on a journey around the country, from kitchen to kitchen.

- In Svaneti, he tries Narchvi cheese, which he says has "a deeply funky aroma, buttery texture, sweet initial flavor, and lingering saline quality"

- Near the Turkish border, he sampled Pashvis Nagbiani, aged three months in a goat's stomach with the texture of aged Parmigiano and a "flavor reminiscent of a sharp cheddar." In the same village, he meets one of the last three women who make Tenili, a spun cheese dipped in heavy cream and stored in clay pots.

- In central Kartli, he tried Sushvela, a type of cheese traditionally made in the western Autonomous Republic of Adjara, on the Black Sea. The community that knew how to make it, however, was relocated to Kartli after a landslide decimated their village.


A woman named Meri Makaharadze makes Sushvela for Farley to try, telling him that she and the women in her community were making it for themselves for generations before Mikadze-Chikvaidze found them. She invited them to her annual cheese festival in 2016 and, since then, Makaharadze and the rest of the Disveli Female Cooperation have been selling it to high-end restaurants in Tbilisi.

Other traditional cheeses have also gained an audience in the capital and at local supermarkets.

"Cheese became popular in the last ten years for two reasons: One is the proper promotion of Georgian cheese and cheese makers. This was initiated by Anna Mikadze-Chikvaidze, who started cheese festivals which are taking place in Georgia every year. Farmers from nine regions present different types of cheese," Nino Zambakhidze, head of the Georgian Farmers Association and who owns a cheese factory in Akhaltsikhe, told Investor.ge.

"The second reason is an increase the in the number of tourists. Khachapuri (cheese bread) is a Georgian traditional dish, and you will not find any tourist who has tried it and didn't like it. So demand has increased and farmers have begun producing more cheese."

But Alaznistavi's Abuladze notes it has been difficult to win over local customers.

Consumers, he said, are plagued by a "mentality" that foreign food is better, including cheese.

With the help of an exporter, he has found an audience among Georgia's diaspora and fans from other parts of the Soviet Union. Alaznistavi cheese is currently exported to the United States, as is cheese made in Tsalka, Georgia, under the brand Tsezari.

In the US, Israel and throughout the former Soviet Union, people know and remember the cheese, Abuladze said.

In the Georgian market, cheese still faces several major obstacles. These challenges, warns Mikadze-Chikvaidze, mean the local cheese industry is not ready to export on a massive scale.

For one, there is not enough raw milk to support the domestic demand for cheese, let alone produce more for export.

Mikadze-Chikvaidze stresses that today only 30 percent of the cheese sold in the country is made with real milk. The rest is made using milk powder.

There are other problems related to quality and supply chains, the lack of farming collectives and general know-how.

There is hope that things are improving, however.

Mikadze-Chikvaidze highlights new regulations for food safety as positive developments.

The sector has also benefited from several internationally financed programs to strengthen milk and dairy production in the country. One of the most recent efforts, a joint program financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), works to support the sector by developing Geographic Indications (GIs). The project is being implemented together with the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, the National Intellectual Property Centre of Georgia (Sakpatenti), Swiss organization REDD and the Georgia-based Biological Farming Association ELKANA.

Elkana's Tamar Noniashvili told Investor.ge that 13 types of cheese have been registered as GIs in the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia: Sulguni, Megrelian Sulguni, Svanetian Sulguni, Tenili, Kobi, Georgian cheese, Chogi, Guda, Tushetian Guda, Adjaran Chlechili, Meskhetian Chechili, Imeretian cheese and Dambalkhacho.

GIs can help countries develop tourist industries, create jobs and help small-scale producers earn higher prices for their products, according to a press release published by the FAO.

"A successful GI can protect the cultural heritage and distinct biodiversity of the area and, therefore, promote the sustainable development of rural economies," said Mamuka Meskhi, Assistant FAO Representative in Georgia.

"FAO and the EBRD have been supporting the development of GIs in various countries throughout the region, and Georgia is a good example of our successful collaboration on the ground."

The FAO also stated that GIs can "transform the agrifood sector, making it more efficient, sustainable and inclusive, and reassuring consumers that what they are buying is safe and of high quality."

"Product quality, safety and traceability are increasingly important for consumers of Georgian products, both locally and abroad," Victoria Zinchuk, Head of Agribusiness Advisory of EBRD, was quoted as saying.

"Promoting a regulatory environment for Geographic Indications can enable local Georgian producers to differentiate their products and win consumers' trust. Ultimately, this leads to enhanced profitability and long term competitiveness of Georgian products."

Elkana's Noniashvili told Investor.ge that the variety of cheeses - and consumer demand for high-quality products - is increasing every year in Georgia.

She pointed to the agriculture ministry's marketing and branding efforts to protect and promote Georgian products.

"Products that fulfil requirements of respective production standards defined in Georgian regulations can be labelled with the national quality marks: PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), PAO (Protected Appellation of Origin), 'Traditional Product,' 'Georgian Quality,' and 'Handmade,'" she said.

"Various types of cheeses with these marks can already be found on the Georgian market."

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