At the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, when the Tsar’s officials found themselves in front of the endless highlands of the province of Kars, they immediately saw the region’s potential for cheesemaking. Tsarist Russia encouraged the arrival of populations from distant regions to this new border to facilitate its colonization. This is how Swiss and German communities ended up settling here, bringing with them their habits and customs as well as the art of cheesemaking and the technique for producing Gruyère. On their long journey from Europe to the Caucasus they brought not only their skills, but also their herds and, most importantly, the “secret” ingredient to Gruyère, the propionibacteria necessary for its fermentation, which create the cheese’s characteristic holes.
There are no longer German-speaking communities in the Caucasus these days and Kars has been part of Turkey for almost a century, but the cheesemaking traditions continue to live on in the Boğatepe highlands. Here, at around 2,300 meters above sea level, during the brief summer season when the snow gives way to lush pastures, the producers collect milk from herds of Zavot cows, the result of a cross between the Simmental and the Alpine brown cattle that the Swiss cheesemakers had brought with them.
The processing is complex, and done on an impressive scale: it takes around a thousand liters of milk to obtain just one Gravyer cheese. The raw milk is poured into large copper cauldrons and heated to 35°C, then the rennet is added. Once the curd has been broken, it is reheated to 50/52°C—the optimal temperature for it to become elastic and compactible—while the master cheesemaker stirs the curds, breaking them until they are the size of rice grains. The curd is then gathered into a cloth, placed in a mold and subjected to heavy pressure for 24 hours.
After an initial rest of 36 to 48 hours, the cheeses are immersed in large tubs, where they are salted in brine for 4 to 5days. Then they are left for about a month in a room with 80% humidity and a temperature of 25-30°C. Here they are rotated every day and turned over every two days. After this first aging, the Gravyer cheeses are transported to storage warehouses where they are left for at least 6 months. Compared to its Swiss cousin, Boğatepe Gravyer is produced without the inoculation of bacterial cultures, because the artisanal nature of the production facilities means the propionibacteria transfer naturally from the environment to the cheese.
The Kars region is known throughout Turkey for the quality of its cheeses. But these days almost all Kars Gravyer is made around the city of Kars, rather than in the highlands, and using industrial methods. Only a very few Gravyer producers continue to make the cheese in the mountain pastures, using raw milk, respecting tradition and without using inoculations of propionic cultures.
The Presidium supports the producers still working in the mountain pastures, helping them to find the right balance between artisanal traditions and the need to follow food-safety legislation. The project also wants to promote the quality of the mountain cheeses, promoting them on the national and international market.
The Presidium has been established as part of the ESSEDRA project, co-funded by the European Union through DG Enlargement and promoted by Slow Food, which has the objective of supporting the process of integrating the Balkans and Turkey into Europe through a strengthening of civil society and its capacity to influence policies and promote sustainable rural development models.
Boğatepe highlands, Kars province
Two dairies, one owned by the Özşahin family and the other by the Koçulu family. The latter runs its dairy through a cooperative, whose members are the farmers that supply the milk.
Celal Omur, Ergüç Zavotçu, Zakir Haskarabağ, Nevzat Haskarabağ, Turan Yeniaras,
Okşay Mastar, Zakir Ömür, Atila Aydar, Yücel Aydar, Halay Aydar, Musa Aydar,
Korkmaz Aydar, Osman Haskarabağ, Mehmet Yeniaras