At the beginning of the month, the tiny village of Boğatepe, near Kars in Turkey’s northeast, hosted cheesemakers and lovers from around the country for an exchange, while the local Kars Kaşar cheese was given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
Following the event, which was a great success, Slow Food’s Michele Rumiz caught up with two of the festival’s main organizers, Kars Gravyeri Cheesemaker, Ilhan Koçulu and PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology, Fatih Tatari.
MR: What was the main purpose of the event?
The main purpose of the event was twofold: to bring together traditional and artisanal cheesemakers from Anatolia and to declare the PGI of Kars Kaşar Cheese.
First, we aimed to create a space for artisanal cheesemakers from different regions to meet each other, to share their experiences and to create a network among themselves. We believe that it is especially important to make small and special producers of cheeses of Anatolia visible. This gathering also aimed to draw attention to the multiplicity of artisanal cheeses that are marketed nationally and internationally; hence it can contribute to the creation of new links between producers, purchasing agents/buyers and consumers.
The meeting featured tasting workshops of a particular cheese called Kars Kaşar. For three years, we have been working on creating a new organization among the producers of Kars Kaşarı and forming a tasting panel –the first of its kind for an artisanal cheese in Turkey. This tasting panel has been working on organoleptic analyses of cheeses in order to define the specificities, to evaluate potential improvements, and to improve the standards of artisanal production. Similar to last year, for these workshops, Ilhan Koçulu collected 32 wheels of Kars Kaşar Cheese from different dairies in the region. We wanted to present this process that is fueled by the Geographical Indication of Kars Kaşarı to the other cheesemakers, activists, scientists, consumers and press from different regions in Turkey with the hope of establishing new collaborations and/or fostering new initiatives.
Lastly, we hope to create a regional network with the cheesemakers in our neighboring countries, namely Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. We built some contacts this year, hopefully we will come together in the coming years.
MR: Who contributed to make it possible? (sponsors, donors, etc.)?
Volunteers, members of the Boğatepe Life and Environment Association, and producers of Boğatepe Gravyer Presidium made the event possible. Women from the village contributed too, preparing and offering breakfast and lunch, while volunteers and young members worked to prepare the area for the event. All the tents we used were borrowed from neighboring villages in Kars, as many villages collaborated. Zeytindostu Association continued to offer its invaluable support for tasting workshops. Le Cordon Bleu İstanbul and Özyeğin University participated with a team led by Chef Erich Ruppen, who cooked quiches with local cheeses and herbs in a local kitchen, which were then offered to the hundreds of guests. Several academics contributed with their presentations throughout the event. We are thankful to all the cheesemakers from Anatolia who participated and presented their cheeses during the event.
Although the financial support of the event was very limited, we had a few sponsors supporting the event: Serhat Region Development Agency (SERKA) helped us to buy a dozen flights tickets, provided accommodation for 15 guests, and sponsored a welcome dinner on Saturday, June 30th. Kars Chamber of Commerce sponsored the accommodation of 20 guests and the dinner on Friday, June 29th. Kars Municipality, Kafkas University and SERKA provided transportation for airport and transfers between Kars City Center and the village of Boğatepe. Ofis Feedstock Company sponsored the printed materials for the event. Cengiz Ergün (Koçköyü Dairy) sponsored the sound system. P.Ş. Dairy, Ömür Dairy, Kazım Ömür Dairy, and Akif Ayvazoğlu Dairy of Boğatepe Village contributed to the budget. They sponsored butter and cream that were used for pastry by the women. Last but not least, Ilhan Koçulu and Koçulu Dairy, not only paid for the cheeses collected for the tasting workshop, they also bore around 60% of the total costs.
MR: How many people participated in the event?
50 people from Kars and Boğatepe village attended the Kars Kaşar Cheese tasting workshops. On Saturday, we hosted more than 250 invitees in the village. During the main event on Sunday July 1st, more than 1000 people came to Boğatepe village to taste different cheeses.
MR: How many guests did you have and from where? How many cheese makers?
We invited 100 guests, but unfortunately the cheesemakers from Georgia and Armenia with whom we had contact, thanks to the Slow Food network, were forced to withdraw their participation at the last minute. We hosted two friends from Guilan Slow Food Community who traveled from Iran, bringing Talesh Cheese to Kars. Overall, we had 36 different cheeses and 50 cheesemakers who participated at the event, from different regions of Turkey, and 17 types of cheeses from 43 producers in our region, i.e. the provinces of Kars, Ardahan, and Iğdır.
MR: What was, in your opinion, the most symbolic event within the festival? An image or moment that symbolizes the event
We were happy to witness people’s surprise and to hear their comments on how impressive it was for them to meet so many artisanal cheesemakers and sample their products in a small village of a border province. Many people told us that this wouldn’t have been such an impressive event if it had been organized as a fair in a big city, sponsored by municipalities, governors, and companies. Many participants mentioned that they were thrilled by the sincere and warm relationships that they were able to establish during the event, with cheesemakers from different cities, and with peasants and producers of Boğatepe village.
MR: What are the plans for next year?
In January, we are planning to organize a tasting workshop for Kars Kaşar Cheese. We aim to invite a successful organization of cheesemakers from abroad in order to learn from their experiences identifying the specific tastes of a cheese and creating a tasting panel. We will also preserve a second wheel each from 32 different producers, which will then be aged for more than 6 months.
Next summer, we hope to realize our longstanding project of bringing together the worlds of artisanal cheeses and of gastronomy in Turkey. We are planning to host students and chefs from gastronomy schools, inviting them to cook with artisanal cheeses of their region and thus present different uses of artisanal cheeses in Anatolian cuisine.
What drove you to organize a Festival of cheese in Kars? / What is the role of Kars in Turkish cheese tradition?
Kars has a very rich cheesemaking culture since it is geographically located as an entry point to Anatolia from Asia and the Far East, and historically it has been a multicultural province where vastly different communities have coexisted for many centuries. Today, there are still 30 different types of cheese that carry traces of various cultures from the Caucasus, Asia, Europe, and Anatolia. In Turkey, similar to many other countries in the world, traditional and artisanal cheeses that are still produced in Anatolia have been neglected and devalued in the face of industrial dairy products. Luckily, small farmers and cheesemakers in Kars have been organizing in the last decade. Geographical Indication of Kars Kaşar Cheese and the fame of Boğatepe Gravyer Cheese have contributed to the growing interest in Kars cheesemaking. Today, we have a strong enough network in Kars to organize such events. Kars is, however, only one of the important cheese provinces in Turkey, where one can count around 17 cities whose names are associated with traditional and artisanal cheeses. Our goal is to be able to organize this kind of gathering each year in a different cheese province of Turkey. As Slow Food Kars Community, we work to raise awareness of the invaluable cultures of Anatolian cheesemaking! To this end, we appreciate the organization of biannual Bodrum Cheese meetings, organized by Bodrum Hayde Gari Slow Food community. Although we find it somewhat disconnected from the traditional cheesemakers of Anatolia, their efforts as cheese activists are very valuable.
Concerning cheese-making in Turkey, what are the major threats that artisan cheesemakers are facing at the moment in Turkey?
Briefly, we can cite the problems that arise, mostly from the criteria imposed by EU regulations on “food hygiene”: traditional methods, places and materials used for aging and ripening cheeses, as well the traditional cheesemaking cultures in pastures, are severely threatened by these legislations and regulations. There are also important obstacles to marketing traditional dairy products due to the issues of packaging, or requirements of documents such as “permission of production” etc. Another major problem is the unfair competition between traditional and small producers, and dairy industry. There is a price difference between artisanal and industrial products caused not only by the existence of cheap and unhealthy artificial inputs from the dairy industry, but also by the fact that the imposed food safety criteria are the same for small artisanal production as for giant factories.
Are the institutions aware of this situation? are they supportive?
In 2016, as Boğatepe Çevre ve Yaşam Derneği (Boğatepe Environment and Life Association) and Slow Food Kars Community, we organized an international symposium entitled “Local Artisanal Cheeses in Turkey and in the World: The Use of Geographical Indication for Kars Kaşarı Cheese.” This symposium brought together statesmen, ministries, local authorities as well as scientists and producers. Since then, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry and its local representatives have mentioned that there is ongoing research to make legislative arrangements more flexible, in favor of traditional and artisanal production. They also held periodical local meetings with the producers. It is, however, hard to say that there have yet been any significant changes for artisanal cheesemakers.
Are consumers aware of what constitutes high quality cheese in Turkey? Are they able to distinguish artisan from industrial products?
In Turkey, we can say that there are “regional palates”: since local cheesemaking is well entrenched in many regions of the country, consumers from different regions have interest in, and awareness of, the high-quality standards within their own region. The migration from rural areas to the big cities have been increasing in the last 30-40 years, and consumers are still looking for their own regional tastes in big cities. While distinguishing artisan products from industrial ones is easy for most consumers who are somewhat acquainted with artisanal cheesemaking thanks to their regional ties, we should also acknowledge the effects of different incomes and education levels. Discernment of quality, and access to high-quality cheese, are positively correlated with the levels of income and education of consumers.
What can Slow Food do to improve the situation for artisan cheesemakers in Turkey?
It is important that Slow Food continues to support events for artisanal cheesemaking, visible with correct definitions developed by small producers. Slow Food can also offer suggestions for how to better present these cheeses to the market, to consumers, as well as to chefs who could include them in menus. Lastly, mobilizing the international Slow Food network can be a great way for Turkey to learn more about the experiences, organizational structures, and activities of successful artisan cheesemaking organizations in Europe and around the world.