This afternoon, deep in a jet-lagged comatose slumber, I dreamt of cows feasting in a flower-filled spring meadow, and of cheese made from their milk.
In actuality this wasn't so much dream as memory. A little over two weeks ago Dave and I were in Bogatepe, a village set on a high plateau in Kars, northeastern Turkey. Kars is known for two cheeses: gravyer and kaşar. Bogatepe is one of the province's two main gravyer-producing villages. We'd driven some 70 kilometers from the provincial capital to learn about the cheese and its history, and to see how it's made.
Forget everything you think you know about Turkish cheese. Gravyer isn't white or soft or feta-like. It isn't fresh and it isn't aged in a hide. Gravyer would be at home on a northern European table -- not a coincidence, because it was introduced to Kars over a hundred years ago from Switzerland via Russia. Though its name suggests gruyere, gravyer cheese is actually closer to emmental in appearance, texture and flavor: palest yellow with large irregular holes, medium soft, savory, not too salty and mildly nutty.
We spent a long evening and a morning at Koculu Gravyer Zavotu ("zavotu" is derived from the Russian for factory) which, like Bogatepe's other mandira (cheese workshops) -- there are seven in all, and the majority produce not gravyer but kaşar -- uses milk from cows in Bogatepe and a couple of nearby villages. During the three-month cheese-making season Koculu, which dates back to the early 19th century, produces on average three truck wheel-sized rounds of cheese a day, usually two at night and one in the morning. The entire cheese making process takes over five hours, from the time the peynir mayasi ("cheese yeast", or rennet) is poured into huge copper cauldrons of milk taken from the animals just hours before, to the initial pressing of the cheese wheels under a stone-weighted wooden beam.
After 24 hours the peynir ustasi (cheese "master") and his helpers remove the press and peel the rough fabric "clothing" from the new gravyer wheels. Before sending the cheeses off to the depo where they will bob in a salt brine, sweat in a hot room and ripen in a cool room for months, they smooth the surface of each by scraping with the side of a spoon and trim its edges with a sharp knife.
Nothing goes to waste in a mandira. Leftover whey, thick and milky, is turned into food for livestock and given to the village's dogs. The oil that seeps from the cheeses during their weighting and while they sweat in the hot room is collected and distributed to villagers; the women, we were told, apply it as a cream to their faces and hands. ("That's why women in Bogatepe look younger than those in other villages," our host Ilhan Koculu told us.)
And after a long night (the usta and his staff were still working on their second wheel when we left the mandira at 1:30am) followed by an early rise to make yet more cheese the cheese makers take a breakfast that includes those super-young gravyer scrapings and trimmings, all fried in a shocking amount of fresh village butter.
Beyond giving nourishment and energy (and to us gravyer nugget newbies,unspeakable pleasure), those cheese crisps help the cheese maker to predict the quality of his product. After frying up a batch Ilhan demonstrated a test by pulling one apart. He was pleased. Its crackly, deeply browned exterior and long, unbroken string predicted a sufficiently oily cheese of just-right softness.
"This will be a delicious gravyer," he said, pleased.
And then it was time for breakfast -- not just butter-browned cheese, but ethereally rich and thick kaymak, pekmez (grape molasses), helva, bread, olives and -- of course -- tea.
Cheese makers' breakfast: crispy cheese nuggets and kaymak with bread and pekmez
As the cheese makers sat down to eat scrapings from one of the season's earliest cheese, cows gorged on early wildflowers in a pasture just across the road. That evening, their milk would make another wheel of Bogatepe gravyer.
From Dave and I, many thanks to Ilhan Koculu and Cat Jaffee.