Biodiversity House Opens with Cheeses of the East

The Biodiversity House of Cheese is the place to discuss some of the main themes of the event through Slow Food’s network present with their Ark of Taste cheeses from across the world.

The first meeting at the House, “Towards Aegea and Anatolia” featured cheeses from Anatolia and further east with a tasting of natural Triple A wines by Velier.

Michele Rumiz, the area coordinator for Slow Food International moderated the meeting where the participants tasted rare cheeses catalogued on the Ark of Taste, starting with Turkey and continuing onto India and Georgia. The cheeses were paired with Georgian wine in amphorae by the producer Iago Bitarishvili, and Udo Hirsch’s natural wines from Cappadocia, Turkey.

Even the etymology of the word cheese hints at Anatolia and the Caucasian, stretching towards India and Georgia, which are very connected areas in terms of cheese production: In Indian the word for cheese is paneer, peynir in Turkish, and panir in Albanian.

Lale Kuseyrioglu, an artisanal raw milk cheese producer in the Antakya region in Turkey makes and promotes some of the rarest cheeses in the country. Lale and her husband decided to leave Istanbul in 2015 to move to Antakya in southeastern Turkey to start a dairy farm with the dream of promoting these rare products that are about to disappear.

They make sure to follow traditional methods and maintain food safety standards at the same time, although it takes more effort and the hiring of a larger number of employees. Currently they milk 3000 litres per day.

Turkey is in fact one of the richest countries in terms of dairy biodiversity and technologies used. Lale founded Pales Dairy in 2015 to produce traditional dairy products of the highest quality possible and with total traceability. Anatolia, where Asia and Europe meet, has been home to transhumance and sheep pastoralism for more than ten thousand years. Anatolian cheese production goes back to 2000 BC, with more than 130 varieties found in Anatolia today. Despite the vast variety of existing cheeses, the majority of people consume only five.

Kuseyrioglu criticized the lack of food safety standards and geographical indications for cheeses as well as consumer awareness on raw milk cheeses. In addition, small scale producers are left to their fate as legislations aren’t tailored to their needs.

Most cow’s milk cheeses in the country are made in large dairy factories. During her speech, tastings of tulum (sheep or goat cheese in a sack), salted yogurt, sara and çökelek cheeses were offered to the participants.

Salted yogurt is a type of cooked yogurt with a sour taste, quite similar to Iranian kashk. It’s made by cooking the soured yogurt in pots, salting them, then keeping them in glass jars to be used throughout the winter.

The next speaker was Aditya Raghavan, a dairy expert from India. Since India is a tropical country, it’s not ideal for cheesemaking. “Also the fact that cows are considered holy, the idea of using rennet is very offensive to many. Despite that we do have some particular cheeses in India, but most people in India have never tried them.”

Kalar is a stretched cheese made by semi nomadic tribes at 2700 meters altitude. It’s made in Komic village, the highest altitude village on Earth. The animals are a crossbreed of yak and cow.

The process is different than regular stretched cheeses. It’s done by continuously adding curd with the use of a vegetarian coagulant. Aditya could not tell us the name of the vegetal rennet as the community is so remote that he could not reach them to find out the name of the plant. They add fresh milk to a mixture of buttermilk and raw milk, and manage the pH without any technology. It’s made by removing the butter from yogurt through churning. Kalar are dried for months after being pressed and separated by hand.

The community even builds religious sculptures using their typical dairy products. Since the area is very rough and difficult, anything they obtain from animals is very sacred to them. The people here can’t survive without their animals. They have a very honest and humble connection with them.

The next speaker was Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze, a cheese expert from Georgia who was originally a philologist but chose to become a cheesemaker. Ten years ago she started a project to promote Georgian cheeses. Ana briefly talked about typical cheeses from the country: bekao, sulguni, khisa, sulguni with mint, sulguni with honey, and cheese ripened with wine.

Overall, the speakers mentioned three particular methods of making cheese common to the regions of the conference: the first is tulum, or cheese in a sack. These cheeses are conserved in sacks of animal skins or terracottas for ease of traveling and permit anaerobic aging.

The second is stretched cheeses. Choosing to make a stretched cheese also means having a safer product due to the very high temperatures the cheeses are produced in. Stretched cheeses are also known as kashkavanAnother example is the fresh sheep cheeses commonly found in Greece, the Balkans and Turkey, with incredible differences in terroir. In Greece it’s impossible to produce these cheeses with raw milk since legislation on raw milk is quite strict.

To sum up, there is a common link in all productions; they are all products of communities, not independent artisans. These producers haven’t yet been able to market their products as succesfully as many artisanal cheese producers in Europe. That’s precisely why the role of organizations like Slow Food is crucial to assist in their marketing activities and production protocols. 

At the end of the conference, one of the winners of the Slow Cheese Award this year, Kakha from Tusheti, Georgia, thanked Slow Food. Even the simple fact that they could come here was amazing, as they live and work in one of the most remote places on the planet, only reachable via a dangerous path with the use of horses.

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