The grass and the Gruyere

The grass and the Gruyere

Lush green pastures, clear blue sky, cotton clouds passing by, zillions of flowers blanketing the green slopes. Dotted with a few happy cows, this panoramic view is that of the Swiss Alps. Close your eyes. Have a bite of the local cheese. It is beyond expectations, a perfect Gruyere, but wait, it is Swiss cheese with a different twist.

What you taste is actually a Kars gravyer, a local well-known cheese of Turkey, and you are thousands of miles away from the Alps, somewhere almost fallen off the map, definitely far away from the European map, at a corner between Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. But strangely enough there is a Swiss connection, an amazing story of war, migration, tragedies and human perseverance. This is a story of the grass and the green, of the cattle and the man, of tradition and change, of forgetting and remembering, but above all it is a very interesting cheese story.

Gravyer cheese is today one of the most reputed artisanal cheeses of Turkey, still produced artisanally in Boğatepe village and its environs, which is always considered the best dairy product of Kars, a border province northeast of Turkey. Next weekend there will be the “Anatolian Cheese Kars Meeting 2019” taking place between July 5 and 7 in Boğatepe. The event, now on its fifth year and initiated by the artisanal cheese maker İlhan Koçulu, is an inspirational gathering bringing together traditional cheese makers from across Anatolia, academics, scientists, cheese experts, public workers, local governors, civil society organizations, chefs and food writers. The event aims at presenting Anatolian cheeses to the Turkish and international markets through fair trade, so anybody who wants to taste the different cheeses of Anatolia wanting to get information on their distinctive features and exchange ideas is invited to participate. A Swiss guest, Andreas Bigler, a cheese artisan and former president from Emmental Regional Cheese Association, will also be taking part, talking on preparing traditional Swiss cheese for the international market.

In order to understand and savor the Kars gravyer, we need to have a glance at its history, an intricate and complex story telling of how an age-old traditional cheese making from Switzerland is transplanted to an afar land, though climatically similar, with a completely different tradition of cheese making, and also vegetation, and how the novel cheese of a century ago became the traditional local taste even getting a geographical appellation. Now I must give the floor to Fatih Tatari, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis, doing a research on cheese-making and farming practices in the region. He will soon be presenting a paper titled “From Switzerland to South Caucasus: Colonial Legacy, Artisanal Dairy Farming, and Gruyere Cheese” at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

This is what Fatih Tatari tells us about the background of Kars gravyer that was transplanted to Kars from Switzerland.

“Throughout the 19th century, the peoples of South Caucasus struggled with the long lasting wars between Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Persian Empire, whose shifting imperial borders paved the way for the nation-state borders that were established later in the 1920s. Local populations were subject to turmoil of war, but also cattle, sheep, goats, geese and horses as well as grass, flowers, forests and many other nonhuman life worlds were also annihilated. Settler-colonial practices started in the Russian-controlled areas of south Caucasus in the 19th century. The businesses that were owned by Russians, Germans, and Swiss entrepreneurs who occasionally established partnerships with important local farming families or merchants started to become crucial both for the livelihoods of local peoples, and for the new order that the Russian Empire and the settlers aimed to implement. Dairies of Swiss cheeses, and more generally, practices of animal husbandry that were organized around commercial cheese-making in pastures, were only a small part of the colonial projects in the whole south Caucasus. After the 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman War, Kars was incorporated into Russian territory until 1917. Similar to the rest of the south Caucasus, Russian rule encouraged Russian, German and Swiss entrepreneurs to establish agricultural enterprises in Kars. These incentives were crucial for the start of the production of aged mountain cheeses that are locally known as Swiss cheeses. Local peoples encountered alpine cheeses like Gruyere and Emmentaler that were re-invented in the high-altitude pastures of south Caucasus.”

To keep the story short, that is the background of how the “secret” ingredient of Gruyere, the propionibacteria necessary for its fermentation, which creates the cheese’s characteristic holes, was transplanted to Kars dairies, and how the Zavot cow, a cross between the Anatolian breeds and the Simmental and the Alpine brown cattle that the Swiss cheese makers had brought with them, is now considered a national breed. The bacteria and the cow found new habitat in Kars territory, combined with the exceptional flora and endemic herbs they have created an incredible “local” cheese. This is how the Swiss Gruyere met with the grass of Kars and lived happily ever after with their offspring Kars Boğatepe gravyeri, well with a few bumps on the road, but that is married life!

Fork of the Week: Having grown up in Ankara, one of the perfect date places in our teenage and grown up life used to be Café de Paris restaurant in Çankaya. How a very Parisian dish became a feature of the Ankara dining scene was a complete mystery, but the menu was simple: A true Parisian entrecote served in a pool of Café de Paris sauce, perfect French fries, a crisp lettuce salad with mayo and walnut dressing followed by a chocolaty dessert. That was it, no other food was available, but together with a glass of local wine from Kavaklıdere vineyards, it was as good as it could be. Long forgotten, only remembered in deep happy memories of our younger days, now there is a nostalgic come back, thanks to the talented chef duo Tolgar Mireli and Ali Açıkgül, who are re-launching the exact menu in their newly opened Chef’s Touch, only a stone’s throw away from the original place, at the very top of Nenehatun Avenue in Ankara. Call 0537 443 48 48, or just drop by Nenehatun Avenue No 122.