Take the plunge into the high-volume hubbub of Tbilisi’s famous Deserter’s Bazaar and you’ll come under a three-senses assault. The piquant aroma from the spice stalls, a butchers’ shouting war and stalls swinging with burgundy-brown, candle-shaped churchkhela sweets. But on one side of the market building, there’s a small slice of calm – in the long corridor where the cheese sellers work.
Selling homemade cheeses from across the country, delivered fresh every day, is a more relaxed and deliberate business. You’ve heard of the Slow Food movement. Perhaps it’s time we were more specific and talked about “slow cheese.” Here, the cheese sellers prefer to wait for the customers to come to them. Hand-written signs in Georgian tell them what’s on offer: guda from the east, imeruli from Imereti and sulguni from Samegrelo in the west.
At the far end of the cheese corridor, we meet Naira Pirtskhalava, sitting behind stacks of smoked sulguni. She is one of the veterans of the Deserter’s Bazaar – so named because many Georgians dodging the draft for the Soviet war in Afghanistan used to hide there and find informal work.
It was another war, in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, that brought Naira here. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, separatist conflict broke out there, and, along with thousands of other Georgians, she was forced from her home. And a week after arriving in Tbilisi, she found work here selling cheese in the market and never left. “It’s been a good job. I paid for my children’s education,” she says proudly.
The next stall along is shared between Makhvala Tsanava and her old friend Gia Ismailova. They have been sitting together selling a mixture of Georgian-style cottage cheese like khatcho and big discs of sulguni and guda for nearly 20 years. They start work when they get their first deliveries at 6 a.m.
The smoked sulguni they sell is still made the same way as it was centuries ago. Once the dense, round wheels of cheese have been formed from curds, they are hung on strings above a fire and smoked for at least two days, often more. It’s slow, labor-intensive work.
Factory production and the convenience of supermarkets are steadily cutting into their business.
“I used to sell 125 kilos of cheese a day,” says Naira Pirtskhalava. “Today, I’ve only sold 3 kilos.” Her neighbors tell a similar story. But there’s nothing like the taste of homemade cheese, slowly made and slowly sold.
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