Home / Business / Tradition of Guda Cheese Production Comes Alive in Tusheti

Tradition of Guda Cheese Production Comes Alive in Tusheti

“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In the past 20-30 years, this centuries-old tradition has been replaced by plastic bags.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 Abulidze 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 Abulidze’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.

Paata never thought of another location to produce his cheese.

“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.