Text by Keti Adeishvili
Georgia must be one of the most cheese-loving countries in the world, and for good reason. The latest studies confirm that the history of Georgian cheesemaking spans 8,000 years, an achievement enabling the country to lay claim to the status of the cradle of cheese.
Today, every niche- and supermarket runs a cozy section with a slew of authentic cheeses like sulguni, Tushetian guda, kalti, dambalkhacho, laguji, chogi, narchvi, kuruti, tenili, and many others – don’t let the names throw you off track, because we will define each in due course.
Nonetheless, this great diversity of cheeses has yet to inundate Tbilisi’s larger farmer’s markets. Desertirebi (Deserters’) Market, for one – Tbilisi’s living cultural monument inspiring foreign visitors to decipher Georgian cuisine and take in the city’s everyday life – has a so-called cheese row showcasing in its entirety only the most garden-variety types like Imereti-style, regular and smoked sulguni, guda, and nadughi cottage cheese. Better still, even this limited diversity of cheeses was virtually unknown to the public at large a mere decade ago. The reasons behind this resistance can be found in Soviet influences. Back in those days, a state food service system was created to focus on mass production at the expense of individualism, with a heavy emphasis on productivity, not niche-based exclusiveness or traditions. This approach not only devastated the diversity of Georgian cheeses, but also dealt a serious blow to many other fields from winemaking to vegetables or endemic wheat varieties.
At some point, forgotten cheese varieties, with their fragmented recipes scattered throughout different regions, drew the attention of Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze. After having delved into ethnographic materials, she went from village to village and, through direct contact, persistence, and other methods, tracked down families that were still making chechili or kalti varieties, for example. There used to be almost 80 varieties of cheese in Georgia, Ana says. She also found one artifact dated to BC and preserved in the Georgian National Museum and proved that it is a cheese container.
Presently, there are 14 officially registered varieties of cheese in Georgia: sulguni, Megrelian sulguni, Svanetian sulguni, Tushetian guda, chogi, tenili cheese, kalti, Adjarian chechili, Meskhetian chechili, gudis kveli, kobi, Imeretian, and Kartli cheeses. In terms of consumption, the most popular types are Imeretian and sulguni. Let’s get to know the most prominent Georgian cheeses one by one.
Sulguni, also known as suluguni, is a kneaded cheese made from unskimmed milk traditionally from Samegrelo and Svaneti. Freshly curdled cheese is processed in hot water first and then wrung by hand. Traditionally, sulguni is round in shape. For long-term storage, salt is added, and the cheese is kept in brine, dried, or smoked over an open fire. This cheese is made from cow or buffalo milk. It is known as selegini or seleguni in its homeland, Samegrelo. It is also pretty big in Imereti, Guria, Racha, and Abkhazia. In the Soviet era, sulguni was also manufactured in factories. The technology of sulguni cheesemaking has also survived among the descendants of Turkish muhajirs from Georgia. In Samegrelo and Svaneti, sulguni is also used as sacred food. The archives of Simon Janashia State Museum preserve ancient figures of animals and birds made from sulguni cheese. These figures were revered by the local Megrelian population as deities. Sulguni is usually served with ghomi grits or used in numerous other dishes. Among its European counterparts, sulguni is closest to mozzarella.
The tradition of long-term cheese storage is found in almost every region of Georgia. One such cheese is Tushetian guda made from sheep milk through a long, complex process starting with clarification: milk is strained using a net with various types of medicinal herbs spread on the bottom. The curdled cheese is then packed into a canvas sack for shaping. Next, the cheese is placed on a wooden board and covered with a nabadi felt coat for 2 hours. Finally, it is ripened in a sheepskin guda sack for at least 60 days. Guda is high in fat with a tangy flavor. The same guda sack is also used to ripen chogi cheese for 20 days. Chogi is soft in texture, yellowish in color, and quite specific in flavor.
Dry Tushetian kalti is another exceptional cheese – essentially, it is a salted cottage cheese ball.
The whey remaining after Tushetian cheese curdling in summer is later heated up and mixed. The resulting substance is strained, kneaded into balls together with salt, and sun-dried or stored raw in a guda sack. Kalti is a soft cheese, tangy and with a strong aroma. It is an excellent choice to pair with semisweet red wine.
Dambalkhacho, a yummy delicacy from the region of Pshavi, is made from cottage cheese. There are actually 2 ways to make dambalkhacho: from buttermilk and from regular milk. Buttermilk or milk is heated to 40-50 degrees, and the resulting cottage cheese, along with its whey, is poured into a gauze bag and hung for straining. Next, it is seasoned with salt and kneaded into gooey balls. The balls should not have cracks. They are next placed in a container over the oven. After drying, the balls are either smoked and rinsed with whey or stored unsmoked. The cheeseballs are placed in clay pots, sealed hermetically, and stored for 1-1.5 months, during which period the cheese grows a layer of mold. The most popular dish using this type of cheese is khacho-erbo (literally “cottage cheese butter”), which in terms of texture and content resembles Swiss fondue. Dambalkhacho can be eaten with bread or used as a stuffing for khinkali dumplings or Pshavi-style ketseuli cheese bread. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia LEPL has recognized dambalkhacho as a monument of intangible cultural heritage.
Kuruti, a cheese from the region of Adjara, resembles kalti and dambalkhacho in many ways. It is made from nadughi cottage cheese. Once whey ferments and acidifies, it is strained, and the remaining substance is rolled into oval balls and sun-dried. Fried kuruti is served with mchadi cornbread in Adjara.
Another distinguished member of the Georgian family of cheeses is tenili. It is made exclusively in its “place of birth”, Meskheti. It is a special cheese in terms of both taste and visual appearance. Making tenili is a very laborious process. Paper-thin strings of cheese are made from cow milk and then drenched in cream.
Similar to dambalkhacho, tenili-making technology has been hailed as a monument of intangible cultural heritage since 2013.
Chechili cheese is made in both Samtskhe-Javakheti and Adjara. Cow milk is warmed up and curdled into cheese. The resulting substance is stretched and twisted like a rope. Next, some salt is sprinkled over it, and the cheese is left overnight. Next morning, it is stored in a cool dry place or in brine. Good chechili should fall apart into thin strings. Fresh low-salt chechili cheese is light and quite palatable. Ripened chechili, though slightly saltier, boasts a refined flavor.
And the last one: Cow milk cheese ripened in a goat kid’s belly. This tradition of ripening cheese in a goat kid’s belly also originated in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The cheese is ripened for at least 6 months. Fresh cheese grows a light coat of mold, its ripened version has bluish mold and is praised for its rich flavor and refined taste. Well-ripened cheese is usually paired with semi dry red wines.