Prepared by ENPARD Communication Unit
“My greatest achievement is that I have revived an almost forgotten tradition. Now this will continue and nothing will hamper the process.”
“Alaznistavi” farm is located some 2,100 metres above sea level in Alaznistavi, in the northeast region of Tusheti. Far from highways and spread out across traditional grazing grounds, the cooperative is surrounded by stunningly preserved pine forests and ancient villages in ruins. The members of the cooperative make Tushetian cheese the old-fashioned way.
Nomadic sheep breeding has always been a traditional occupation for the men of Tusheti and has played a role in the development of the local culture. The technology of Tushetian guda cheese production has been passed down from generation to generation. Matured in a guda – a traditional Georgian sack made from sheep or veal skin – the cheese boasts a truly distinct and unique flavor.
In the past 20-30 years, this centuries-old tradition has been replaced by plastic bags. Unfortunately, in the process, the cheese has lost its unique taste.
Chairman of the “Alaznistavi” cooperative Paata Abuladze is in love with Tusheti and its traditions, and his ancestors date far back in the region. He rekindled his connection to the region over 50 years ago.
“I spend four to five months in Tusheti every year”, he says.
Despite his roots, Paata Abuladze’s family lives in the Kakhetian village of Alvani these days. Gradually abandoned years ago, dating back to a process that began in World War II, Tusheti was reduced to some 100 families by the 50s.
Today, only border guards and some 10-12 families live full-time in Tusheti, even during the winter. They largely live in the village of Omalo, while the other 60 villages in the region take in residents only during the warmer seasons.
Families come back to Tusheti to manage guesthouses and other tourist facilities, and to graze sheep in summer. Paata also visits Tusheti on a seasonal basis.
He has practiced many professions. He was involved in sheep-breeding for several years during his studies. After completing basic training in the army, he studied veterinary medicine and furthered his studies in cattle-breeding.
Later he began producing and selling meat, for the purpose of which he moved to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. But the bustling city life got to him, and he wanted to return to rural life to continue cattle-breeding. Despite this, Paata kept an eye on developments on the market.
As a result of his long-term observations, Paata realised that there was a demand for organic products. After thinking carefully about several options open to him, he decided to revive the Tushetian tradition of guda cheese-making, which had long gone out of style.
„I have been involved in agricultural activities for years. While in Tusheti, I helped shepherds and accordingly I perfectly knew how to make traditional guda cheese” – noted Paata.
Enthusiastic about his idea, Paata acquainted himself with the appropriate legislation on food production and food safety standards. Given that this would be difficult to do while working out of a small hut, he decided to build a co-op where his production of guda cheese would be in compliance with international standards.
In 2015, Paata established an agricultural cooperative in Alaznistavi with the help of the EU-funded project “Supporting Agricultural Cooperation in Georgia” implemented by Oxfam under the European Neighbourhood Programme for Agricultural and Rural Development (ENPARD). With the EU support Paata was ready to make his next move.
The alpine and sub-alpine conditions of the local terrain in Tusheti made the location ideal for the production of Tushetian guda cheese. A production farm of cooperative was also placed there, where the farmers make cheese from sheep as well as cow milk.
“The only place where it is possible to make guda cheese is in Tusheti. The village is distinct because of its medieval origins and rock-dwellings, which are like refrigerators. There is a specific species of grass that grows here, and the difference between night and day-time temperatures is minimal. All of these factors leads to the highest quality of cheese production. This kind of cheese cannot be made in Pshavi, Khevsureti, Javakheti or any other area of the Caucasus. Tusheti is a place that has all the conditions needed to make authentic Tushetian guda cheese. Of course, cheese-production is easier in other places with a well-established electricity grid and telecommunications infrastructure, and where the roads do not often lead to tragic incidents. But we prefer to stay in Tusheti because we know that the grass is best here, there is natural refrigeration and other factors that help create the unique taste of guda cheese“.
The majority of “Alaznistavi” members are from Tusheti and are involved personally in the daily activities of the cooperative
As of today, the cooperative includes 11 members. The majority of them have their roots in Tusheti, but like Paata are also from Alvani. Most of them have earlier worked in cheese production and cattle-breeding. Some of the initial co-op members brought their wives in to help, and three women are now involved in the co-op’s activities.
It was not difficult for Paata and his friends to adjust to the peculiarities of making guda cheese. In centuries past, sheep-breeding and guda cheese making were one of the main activities of Tushetian men. Generally, the work was too intense for any one man to handle, and so seven to eight people were involved in an enterprise. Today, the agricultural cooperative serves the same function, and has the added bonus of official registration and certain other benefits.
The European Union allocated grant assistance worth over 98,500 GEL to the cooperative. In partnership with Oxfam, Paata’s cheese-production factory was built for the co-op with appropriate lighting and heating systems. The co-op members underwent trainings organised by Oxfam and the Biological Farming Association ELKANA, which helped them to better manage their business.
Members of the co-op are responsible for taking care of the sheep and cows, making cheese and gathering firewood. The chief responsibility is given to the head herdsman, who is an experienced specialist whose role it is to make cheese and supervise the milking of sheep. This is the only person who has the right to enter the cheese room – nobody else can take items from or into the room.
There is another manager at the cooperative who manages the production of cottage cheese. Yet another cleans the stalls where the sheep are milked, one person is responsible for firewood, someone else bakes bread and cooks, and so on. Every member of the cooperative has his or her specific duty, but sometimes they share in the collective work.
Paata Abuladze follows the cattle to pasture in both winter and summer.
“If you are not personally involved in these activities, it becomes more difficult to achieve your goal. Everyone has a different function, and if the owner doesn’t oversee the entire process, the business will not move forward. If you have 1000 or even 2000 sheep, you should be with the shepherd and supervise his work from time to time. You should do everything that the workers do – eat the same food, get warm the same way and go through the same difficult day’s work that they do. Otherwise, you’ll ruin the business” – Paata says.
The sheep spend the winter in the pastures of Shiraki and Eldari, while cows stay in the village of Alvani in the coldest season of the year. In spring, in mid-April, the cattle move off to pastures – first the sheep, which do not find it difficult to walk on bad roads from the valley to the mountains. In several days time, cows, which need less time to change their temporary shelter, also start moving off to pasture. From the beginning of May, cattle begin grazing again on Tusheti’s traditional grazing grounds.
The milking of sheep and cows and the production of guda cheese also starts from this period. Over the course of four months, over 100-120 days, the full resources of the cooperative are mobilized in Tusheti. Wives also move from Alvani to Tusheti, taking their children with them for holidays.
The process of guda cheese-making is quite long and labor intensive. In “Alaznistavi”, about five people are responsible for milking some 500 sheep.
After collection, the milk is stored in a special tank, where its temperature is periodically measured. It is important to maintain the temperature of the milk at 37-40 degrees. Then the cooperative members pour lactic acid liquid in the milk, which they call dedo in Georgian. In about half an hour, a sticky liquid is created, which is known in Georgian as delema.
Cooperative members remove the serum from the liquid and fragment the delema.
After that, the liquid is removed from the vessel and the remaining cheese, which is about 8-9 kg, is cut and put in a canvas bag specially made for the cheese, which allows the cheese to take its round shape. The cheese is then put on a pad and covered with a felt cloak for half an hour to draw out the remaining serum. After that, the round-shaped cheese is placed in guda.
Over the course of 2-3 days, the guda cheese must be kept in a warm environment which is necessary for cheese fermentation. It is then relocated into a specially designed room, where it has to be turned around three times a day to change the shape. In order to ripen the cheese properly, it is kept for at least 60 days in a guda. In about 2 months time, the cheese is free of all kinds of bacteria and has an ideal taste.
The cheese produced from spring to late summer is stored in cool stores. At the end of August, the sheep are sheared and sent to pasture. Meanwhile, cooperative members collect enough food and wood for the shepherds to last them through the cold seasons. Starting in September, they transport cheese from Tusheti to Kakheti.
Taking into account the fact that “Alazsnitaive” warehouse is located some distance away, on traditional grazing grounds, first the horses take the produced cheese to the highway and then it is transported by vehicle. Once brought to Alvani, the guda is opened and the cheese is vacuum packed. Now the guda cheese is ready to be sold.
As of today, the cooperative owns about 600 cattle. Some of them are owned by the cooperative members. If this amount of cattle is not enough for production, cooperative members “borrow” animals from those people, who have animals but are not able to send them to graze and milk them. Alaznistavi has enough resources for these activities.