Issue 6, 2011. December-January

   

MORE CHEESE, PLEASE!

The passion of a ethnographer for Georgian cheese is giving the country its latest international calling card.

Helena Bedwell

Ana Mikadze asks me to try the Vaio Imeruli Cheese, made at an altitude of 2,200 meters somewhere in the Georgian mountains by Catholic Meskhs.

Today Ana and her ‘Farmer's Assistance Association' - a non-governmental organization are selling 25 varieties of cheese at the shop and are ready to supply as many as 60 on demand from 26 different farmers nationwide, with the help of her business partners.

"Each cheese has its own distinctive name and history," she says.

As a hostess, Ana is bubbly and full of energy, greeting me at her new boutique "Cheese Corner" located on 177 Nutsubidze Street, Tbilisi.

"I am crazy," Mikadze, 40, says, "I talk to my cheese; this is how much I love what I am doing today and everyone should experience how pleasurable it is to watch how cheese is born right before your eyes!"

Georgia was once considered ‘the bread basket of the Soviet Union' because of its cuisine and agricultural products and was popular for its four kinds of cheese: Standard Imeruli, Sulguni, Guda (smelly cheese) and normal factory cheese.

"Georgian's became used to this false idea that there are only four types of cheeses," Ana says. "The Soviet Union was mostly to blame because as many as 80 varieties of cheese making traditions were lost over several generations. It was easy to lose those traditions, because true cheese making requires care and dedication, while during Soviet times the strategy was to make and sell cheap cheese."

Ana's endless curiosity for cheese took her across Georgia in search of lost recipes. An ethnographer by education, she says that she started to turn her passion for cheese into a business after traveling to other countries, where she saw just how many kinds of cheeses there are, so she said to herself, ‘Why not us?' When she returned to Georgia she started to explore the entire country looking for forgotten cheese recipes.

She spent years living with villagers and shepherds in almost every region of Georgia and describes her attempts to obtain these recipes as very difficult, joking that sometimes she had to extract them almost by force. Through these endeavors, however, she acquired those ancient cheese making recipes.

With all this information she made a large cheese map denoting the areas where each cheese is made, which hangs proudly on the wall in her shop.

Some of the methods of making cheese were learned when she watched with fascination how the monks and shepherds made their variety of cheeses. "After the cheese is made and then matured, they used several methods for the final flavoring, this was because they have time and dedication to store their cheeses," Ana said.

"We found out that they bury some cheese; they also hang others in the woods somewhere and then come back for them after a period of time; or store them in honey - the list is just endless," she added.

Ana's odyssey into Georgia's rich cheese culture has turned into a mission to turn cheese into a Georgian calling card, bringing tourists and cheese connoisseurs to the country.

But the problem of an inconsistent milk supply chain is an obstacle for Ana and other cheese producers. It is important for local farmers and milk producers to supply healthy milk with the relevant certification, she stressed.

Former Georgian Agriculture Minister Bakur Kvezereli noted, however, that more and more farmers are registered with the government's agricultural department and are open to the inspection of their facilities, which will result in better quality milk on the market, in a bid to make the cheese safe to consume.

He added that Georgian cheese has "its niche" in the global agricultural market, and the ministry plans to trademark the names of Georgian cheeses to preserve their originality in foreign markets.

In 2009, Georgia exported 5 tonnes of cheese; while in 2010 the amount increased to 53 tonnes, according to Georgian government statistics.

During the first six months of 2011 cheese exports from Georgia reached 18 tonnes, with the products mainly being sold to Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

For Ana, the interest is clear: tourists and cheese lovers visit her cheese boutique every day.

Their favorites are the organic cheeses that look and taste exotic, with names the cheese enthusiasts have never heard of. The shop's selection includes a large smoked cheese which looks like a wheel - Skibu - hanging from the ceiling; Tenili, - the shredded cheese strips, sometimes also made inside a large head of cheese; Gebzhalia - a cheese roll with cream and mint;, and Sulguni, matured in Saperavi wine or stored in honey, which gives it a slightly sweet taste that becomes stronger with age.

The most expensive cheese sells for $18 per kilogram at the boutique, which sell 100 kilograms daily.

Ana said that she will struggle further to discover more cheese recipes across the country and favors the idea of linking her findings with wine tourism.

"Imagine a tourist who comes to Georgia for its wine; why not offer them our cheese map as well, along with the wine route?" she muses.