She came to Kakheti from Tbilisi in 2005 and couldn’t drag herself away. The Alazani River Valley stretches long and wide to the feet of the Caucasus, the tallest mountains in Europe, which jut skyward like some citadel for the mountain gods. The expanse inspires reverence and awe. Kakheti intoxicates.
“I want to live here,” Sopo Gorgadze told herself. She spent nearly every weekend and holiday in the region.
One evening in Tbilisi, Sopo, a stage painter, met a tall, captivating architect at a friend’s dinner party. It wasn’t long after their first date in Kakheti that the couple left the capital behind and established themselves in the Kakhetian village of Shalauri with Sopo’s three daughters in 2009.
“Our friends teased us. Oh, you want to live in the village, okay then, we have the perfect present for you,” Sopo recounts. “They gave us a cow, a Swiss Brown. We named her Marleta.”
We are sitting in their winter dining room (in summer they eat outside), between the kitchen and living room. The furniture is antique, one old clock dings every fifteen minutes while the other seems to be on Georgian time, chiming whenever it feels like it. The walls are covered with paintings by Sopo’s father and the work of his friends. A bulldog is snoring under our feet.
Sopo sets down a board full of small wheels and tubes of cheese, and her husband, Levan (Leo) Tsaguria, joins us. They toss their heads back and chuckle, recalling how overwhelmed they were with all the milk Marleta turned out. “Georgian cows are scrawny, she was huge. We had milk everywhere, 25 liters a day,” they recount.
Neighbors suggested they make cheese, and what started as a hobby slowly snowballed into a full-time, home-grown occupation. “Our guest house became our cheese factory,” Sopo explains.
Leo went online to learn more about cheese and took a cheese-making course the UN sponsored in a nearby village, which virtually nobody else enrolled in. Locals couldn’t understand why they needed the United Nations to show them how to make cheese when they believed they already knew how to make the best stuff in the world.
Guda, from sheep’s milk, is the dominant cheese in Kakheti. It originates from the high mountain region of Tusheti and is pungent, often salty, bitingly sharp and excellent with a cluster of fresh tarragon and hot loaf of tonis puri. It became the “traditional” cheese of east Georgia because of the Soviets, who industrialized its production along with three other Georgian cheeses: imeruli, sulguni and karkhunli, or “Factory Cheese;” each from cow’s milk. Traditional artisanal cheeses all but disappeared as a result.
“The Soviets destroyed so much, we lost traditions. And there is no documentation of cheese history,” Leo affirms.
Leo and Sopo are forging a separate path to create their own Georgian cheese from cow and goat’s milk.
While people like Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze, chairwoman of the Georgian Cheese Makers’ Association, are rediscovering cheese varieties that were dormant during the Soviet period, Leo and Sopo are forging a separate path to create their own Georgian cheese from cow and goat’s milk. They are starting a new cheese tradition.
Conventional Georgian cheeses all use rennet as the active ingredient for coagulation and are ready to eat in a couple of days. Marleta Cheese, however, is made using lactic acid bacteria with perhaps a few drops of rennet and a two- to six-week aging process. The result is a softer, more delicate cheese.
“The softer cheese, like this, we work like jewelry, with care,” Leo says, indicating a neat log of goat cheese he named Lenperi, which means “sun-colored” in Megrelian, the west Georgian language of his ancestors. A composite of different recipes and washed in brandy and salt water, it has a deep earthy creaminess that makes us purr.
Ash Mellow, named by Sopo’s daughter Mariam for its gentle fullness, is a velvety cow’s milk cheese divided in half by a layer of ash. It is as beautiful as it is delicious and exemplifies artisan cheese to a T.
“Try this,” Leo prods us with a blue cheese. “That’s my baby.” Lebishperi, “blue” in Megrelian, is a firm creamy cheese with a rind blotted in blue mold. “I’m working to get the mold inside the cheese,” he says.
People in Georgia have a near-religious affinity for the standard four cheeses and are reluctant to deviate from their comfort zone, particularly as artisan cheeses are more expensive. But thanks to cheese festivals, food and wine fairs and food shows on local TV, many are starting to come around.
Marleta Cheese produces about three to four tons a year and also packages their own jams, tkemali (plum sauce), adjika and other condiments, which they sell in boutique food shops, restaurants, wine bars and in their own shop in Tbilisi’s Vake Park neighborhood.
At first Sopo and Leo tried to do it all. They at one point had four cows and twenty goats along with chickens, a horse, ducks and a menagerie of dogs. But as their hobby became more of an occupation, they had to delegate the care and milking of the cows and goats to others in surrounding villages.
In addition to helping in the cheese room, Sopo, a passionate cook, has turned her kitchen into a professional playground by hosting gastronomic events and teaching cooking master classes.
“This is more of a lifestyle than a business,” she says while boning meat off a goat neck for what will be a most lusty soup. “If it gets too big you lose control over the cheese. We have found the perfect balance between work and pleasure.”