Saturday, 28 June 2014

Shepherds and Cheese.

The idea behind our trip to Pankisi was to take the opportunity and learn about sheep cheese making in the region and using our guesthouse as a base, discover the many local cultural delights. The following story illustrates our little journey to fulfill a lifelong ambition and perhaps help folk understand more about this rapidly vanishing world. 

After our whirlwind trip from Tbilisi we swiftly made our way to Jokolo by taxi and settled into our welcoming Guest House. An airy place tucked down a side road close to the river called Nazy’s Guest House. More of her and her family later. The following morning we were introduced to Ramzan who was going to be our horseman and guide in the mountains. Our quest was simple, ride into the mountains, stay with some shepherds and photo document how cheese is made in the Caucuses Alpine pastures. Why? Well Melissa and I had seen shepherds making cheese in Romania and even stayed with Cow Herders in Hutsulshchyna in South Ukraine but we had never been able to photo document Shepherds making sheep cheese on the mountainside. You saw it here first. Try this link for cheese making adventures in Southern Ukraine - Hutsulshchyna and don't ask me to pronounce it. 

This was a new adventure for Ramzan and he rose to the occasion. Unlike Nazy, who speaks perfect English and I mean perfect, Ramzan speaks Russian, Chechen and possibly a few other languages but not English. Not that this ever mattered as he is a wonderful man who is testament a smile goes a very long way and Nazy was only a mobile phone call away. Yes you can get a signal everywhere, especially in the mountains.

Our ride was a slow day's ride which if you are fit you could walk. I had promised Melissa a wooden cabin but our man with the cabin no longer milked Sheep and Goats so we rode for another hour and found a father and son team of Azerbaijani shepherds. They were a bit surprised to see a middle aged English couple on horseback but my advice is on such occasions go equipped with a box of 200 cigarettes and a jar of coffee. You will be friends in a trice. 

Shepherds in the Caucasus now invariably make their temporary home under plastic sheeting. This was quite a smart affair and clearly there for the summer. 

A short walk from the tent is a glacial lake. A real treat for Melissa who got very excited about this rare mountain occurrence but not as excited as the frogs that night who sung a wonderful chorus all night long.

We arrived just as the curds had been separated from the whey and placed into muslin bags. The curds are then squeezed on a make shift draining board to remove as much whey as possible.

These shots were tricky to take due to the smoke from the fire but you get the atmosphere.

Once the cheeses have been drained they are put into plastic tubes where salt is sprinkled between each cheese. With the tube filled with cheeses they are sealed tightly and left to ferment.

A very proud Shepherd who has over 500 goats and sheep to look after. 300 milkers all of which arrived at dusk. We were beginning to worry if the cheese we could see was from cows which is often  the case. My wife is allergic to cow's milk hence the fascination and quest to find sheep cheese. This is now a very rare sight as it is much easier to tend a dairy herd than milk sheep and goats.

We slept with the cheeses in a cosy corner. Notice the rifle hanging up for when wolves get curious.

This lad took the sheep and goats up onto the mountainside. Notice his knapsack. I've only seen these in museums. The knapsack is made from a sheep's stomach and very special indeed if you like such things.  

Just by the small lake is a spring and just perfect for a morning's shave and wash. I like the plastic bottle for a tap.

These sheep's ears fascinated me. They are cut off a sheep if it dies through an accident or natural causes. The Shepherd can then show the owner the ear and prove he has not sold the sheep. Not all of the flock are owned by the shepherd. Some are on loan for folk in the valley below. The owners take a cut of the cheese made. 

Just before milking started two Kist lads arrived from the valley. This is tough work and it takes 5 man hours to milk 300 sheep and goats. The goat's milk gives the cheese a sweet flavour. 

This bucket with bracken filled to the brim is used as a filter to catch the sheep's poo and other foreign bodies. Now you never knew that did you, well it was a first for me.

Once the milking had finished we saddled up. The idea was originally to stay longer but the ride up had been tough for the horses and I'm now very arthritic. We made our way down to Jokolo at a leisurely pace and Melissa walked.

An end to a magical trip and so easy to arrange with Nazy's help. You know you've got to do it!

Here's the Cheese market in Telavi where  our shepherds hard work ends up.It's about 20 mins away by taxi. I just love markets and this one doesn't fail.

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