Issue 5, 2017. October-November



A Georgian-Swiss partnership is reviving a lost tradition of Alpine cheese manufacturing in the Georgian mountains.

Text and photos by Tatjana Montik

The history of Swiss cheese in Georgia dates back to over 100 years, when immigrants made cheese in Tsalka, a town south of Tbilisi. Their creamy cheese became well known both within the Russian Empire and abroad, winning honors at international exhibitions.

More recently, two Swiss entrepreneurs, Frances Belser and Daniel Wuethrich, have spent the past two years reviving the tradition together with their Georgian partner, Zurab Macharashvili.

Cheese as Art

I visited the Swiss couple's cheese production site high in the mountains of Metekhi, in the western Georgian village of Chorchani near Adigeni. Giorgi, a young driver who works in the enterprise, took us to the alpine meadows at an elevation of 2240 meters in a Soviet jeep built in 1968. The road was difficult, with huge boulders scattered unexpectedly along the route. "This car is so good that it doesn't need any road at all," Giorgi told us proudly. From the top of the mountain we could see another gorge where the famous Abastumani Observatory lies hidden in the forests below.

Macharashvili, Belser and Wuethrich founded the company Alpuri Oqro, or "Alpine Gold," two years ago. Macharashvili, an artist, said the business is a form of art. "Cheese making is like making wine every day. But you only make wine once a year. It's as if here every day you have a harvest, and every day you make wine," he said.

Macharashvili showed me a beautiful two-story wooden chalet where the cheesemakers live during the summer season from mid-June to early September. They built it last summer with the help of a Swiss carpenter. A mobile cheese-making station is an integral part of the business and, as with the Swiss tradition, the alpine cheese is produced exclusively with milk from cows that graze in alpine meadows.

Macharashvili's family is from Chorchani, so he has access to the meadows in this area. According to Georgian law, alpine lands can only be used by local villagers-and only for agricultural purposes. "A relative who doesn't live here anymore allows us to use this land. We have transformed an old storage house into a cheese cellar and brought up our mobile cheese station. At the end of the season, we load our cheese station on a truck and bring it back to Tbilisi, where we have a second cheese cellar," he explained.

In Georgia, farmers usually own the cows that produce milk for cheese, but Alpine Gold does not own cattle. Instead, it buys milk from local farmers who meet certain quality standards. "We show them how to clean the cows' udders and filter the milk properly. We also provide our suppliers with specialized milk cans," Macharashvili explained.

A Little Swiss Village in Georgia

Rosemarie Minder has come from Switzerland for two seasons to help with production. She learned cheesemaking in Switzerland and worked for eight seasons in her home country as a cheesemaker. She said she feels at home in the mountains of Georgia, as it resembles the Swiss mountain village where she grew up.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, I follow Minder to watch the entire process of cheese making. The extraordinary sunrise gave us the impression that this high mountain village was floating above the clouds, which lay much lower down the mountain in the early morning. A bit later, the mist from higher peaks descended to cover the village. The air was crisp and fresh, and the unique smell of meadow flowers imbued every breath.

"I love these early morning hours here," Minder said, "and for me the cow bells are very special morning music." Every day she works with one of her two Georgian assistants, Nanuka Narimanidze and Salome Gigashvili. Both young women have Bachelor's degrees in food processing from the Georgian Agricultural University in Tbilisi and all remain in the village for the summer season.

Every day they receive milk from the farmers and pour it into a huge copper kettle for pasteurization. Then they clean the farmers' milk cans and filters with pure spring water from the mountain. "Hygiene is very important for us," says Minder, "and we work with solar energy to run the air-conditioning for the cheese cellar and to heat water. We use a special lactose tester to check our milk regularly for fat and protein content. We also test the water to be sure that it contains no bacteria, or we have to boil it before use."

Swiss Standards

On the wall, documents are posted that the cheese makers fill in daily, noting the times of cleaning and kinds of antiseptic measures.

Some of the farmers who supply milk spoke to us as they delivered their morning milk. Nana and Zaza Kvidjinadze care for their 30 cows and participate in the project. "After Alpine Gold production came to our village, work was easier, as we can sell them all our milk. Of course, we need to meet their standards. For example, we have to skip the first few squirts of milk from the udder as it contains more bacteria; also, we use a special material to clean the udders. Then we have to filter the fresh milk properly," the farmer said. "But on the other hand, at the end of the season we can get a bonus of additional 10 tetri per liter if we have worked according to all the guidelines."

An hour later, I accompanied Minder and Gigashvili through the cheese-making process. They showed the fermentation process and explained the necessary temperatures and the importance of time management. "In cheese making, you must be very precise and punctual, keeping to the schedule, otherwise you won't get a good-quality product," Gigashvili said.

"Another essential factor for good-quality cheese is how we take care of it during the ripening process," said Minder. "In France, for example, this is a profession in itself." She took me to the cheese cellar located near the entrance of the cheese station, and explained that the room temperature must be kept between 12 and 16 degrees centigrade with a humidity level above 90 percent. "No fluctuations are allowed," she said.

For Swiss cheese production, 10 liters of milk are needed to produce each kilogram of finished product. Compared to this, Georgian cheese only needs 6 liters of milk to produce each finished kilogram of cheese. Depending on the season, Swiss cheese makers take in between 270 to 400 liters of milk daily, and thus can produce up to ten "wheels" of cheese per day, each weighing five to six kilograms. Another difference is the long ripening period for Swiss cheese, which can last up to five months, before consumption. It is very labor intensive, which of course influences the price of the end product.

Both assistants of Alpine Gold admit they are "addicted to cheese." Narimanidze said that in the future she would probably establish her own cheese-production facility: "I gained a lot of knowledge here and learned to be detail-oriented and time-efficient. I also learned that I can express my own opinion and my bosses listen. Here, I feel like part of a team, not just an employee, and I can help solve problems. This is very important, because when five people think together, it's powerful!"

In the evening, we sipped amber-colored Rkatsiteli wine while tasting young Muchli cheese that Minder sliced for us. "Muchli needs only six weeks to ripen," she said. "Each wheel is around 1 kilogram and has a nice moist, reddish crust. When we cut it, we can feel it is still soft and creamy. We say this cheese has a creamy consistency. It also has some holes, but this is ok, as it has not been pressed under a cheese stone and its taste is mild. Mutchli goes well with bread and wine. In Switzerland, we eat it with boiled potatoes and yogurt or curd sauce. It's also good as a dessert cheese."

Recipe for Success

In Chorchani, I learned that to produce a good-quality Swiss cheese you need to work hard. "What else do you need for a successful agricultural business in Georgia?," I asked Macharashvili. "First of all, we need stability in the country. Our people have forgotten how to live in stability. Most think only about today and maybe tomorrow, but not more. This is why they cannot work using a business plan. In our business, we need to plan at least three years ahead, but if we consider our suppliers, none of them know for sure what tomorrow will bring, and cannot even guarantee they will work with us next year. So you need stability first of all, and of course time and patience, as well as good relationships with people, including your partners and suppliers," he said.

Back in Tbilisi, I met Frances Belser in her cheese cellar in Okrokhana to learn more about Alpine Gold. She told me that before she and her husband decided to invest in Georgia, they studied the market thoroughly for a few years. Two years ago, they decided to take a risk and establish the Alpine Gold business using their own capital of 100,000 lari. They have continued to invest, building up the infrastructure and production process at the mountain farm, and in two years they have managed to double their cheese production from 1,000 kilograms last year to 2,000 kilograms this year.

Belser described the mid- and longer-term plans for the company. "We plan to continue working in Chorchani village, as it is close to the sea and has a good annual rainfall and optimal climate for mountain cheese production. This is why we plan to stay and intensify our work with local people.

We are thinking of ways to offer possibilities to young people and encourage them to come back to their lands to work with us.

We pay the best milk prices in the region (up to 0.9 GEL per liter) and provide our suppliers with modern working tools from Switzerland.

In the medium-term we want to improve the local infrastructure and to make up to 4,000 kilograms of cheese per year. In the long term, we plan to build an agricultural cooperative with local farmers, a project that corresponds to the development plans of the Georgian government. Our goal is to build a fixed cheese and milk station and to have decent water reservoirs."

"Of course, there are always risks in this kind of business," she continued, "but we have experience. Since 1992, we've launched new products in the Swiss market successfully, and to succeed in a foreign country you first need to succeed at home. Besides this, you need to realize that sometimes it means taking two steps forward and one step back. You must be present at the production site yourself and not delegate everything to someone else. All this will ensure success."

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