Tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Turkey, and quite different to the rest of the country, is the town of Kars. Here, Robyn Eckhardt discovers a unique cuisine and a way of life that revolves around following the herd.
By
Robyn Eckhardt

14 Jun 2013 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2013 - 5:58 PM

The sun has yet to crest Cukurdere Mountain when the cows of Toptaşvillage, in north-eastern Turkey, begin their dawn amble. Released from barns after their morning milking, they move sluggishly, a dozen bovine tributaries coming together in a river of brown and white. Driven by shepherds on foot, the animals low and grunt their way up the gentle slope of the dirt road that leads north from the village, eventually disappearing into the velvety green folds of Cukurdere’s foothills.

I watch from the front stoop of the muhtar (village chief’s) house. It is the same spot from which I’d witnessed the process in reverse shortly after arriving in Toptaşsome 12 hours before. Then, hundreds of cows had turned into the village and broken from the herd, as mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers corralled the animals into low barns for the day’s second milking. Not long afterwards, Mensure, the muhtar’s wife, emerged from the barn carrying a tall can filled with frothy fresh milk. In her kitchen, she strained some of the liquid through muslin, heated it and offered me a mug. We moved to Mensure’s glassed-in front porch and she stoked a wood-burning stove while I sipped the warm, grassy milk. As she prepared hasil, a sort of polenta made with coarse burghul and flour, I watched neighbours haul milk cans to the middle of the village, where a pick-up truck with a big stainless-steel tank waited to collect the evening’s take.

So goes a day in Turkey’s cow country, where rural life moves to the rhythm of milking, pasturing the cattle, and milking again. Topta, a village of 60 households set in a topographic bowl beneath the slopes of Cukurdere, lies some 80km from Kars, the capital of the north-eastern Turkish province of the same name. Few travellers to Turkey make it to this frontier province sidled up against Georgia and Armenia at the country’s eastern border.

I am particularly taken by Kars’s cheese shops – more than two dozen of them, with windows displaying gigantic wheels of gravyer, a semi-firm, aged cow’s-milk local specialty, whose nutty flavour is reminiscent of Emmental. I explore the myriad breakfast salons that serve warm milk, cheeses, local honey and kaymak, a mildly soured über-rich cream eaten with bread. In the city’s restaurants, I eat yoghurt-based soups, and beef – sliced and sautéed in its own fat and served over rice; portioned into miniature steaks and stewed long and slow; and formed into big meatballs enclosing nuts and dried fruits. I see open-backed trucks with cattle on the way to and from the livestock market, and huge half-cow carcasses hanging in butchers. The regional diet is so obviously cow-centric and so different to any regional cuisine I had known from other parts of Turkey I’d been to.

Kars and its northerly neighbour Ardahan province (until 1993, Ardahan was a district of Kars; Topta lies in the former) form a gorgeous expanse of undulating plateaus and wild steppes etched by rivers, dotted with lakes and pierced by alpine peaks. Sitting almost 2000 meters above sea level, the terrain is green in summer, splashed with yellow, orange and crimson in autumn, and buried under metres of snow in winter. Kars’s remoteness has kept industry at bay – it is Turkey’s least developed province, but boasts a wealth of natural beauty and wildlife – and the region’s climatic extremes dictate a short growing season, so the local economy is fuelled by animal husbandry. In many households, wealth is measured not in Turkish lira, but in heads of cattle; cows graze freely on the region’s lush grasslands and produce richly flavoured beef and milk high in butterfat.

In this part of Turkey, beef trumps lamb, but as I learned in Toptaşand other villages, dairy is the predominant protein, eaten in multiple forms at most meals. In addition to gravyer, Kars is known nationwide for its cheddar-like kaar and cecil, a string cheese eaten semi-fresh, dried and blued. Village women also make soft fresh cheese called köy peyniri (literally, "village cheese"), as well as butter, yoghurt and kaymak, and pickle wild greens in the whey expelled during cheese- and yoghurt-making. According to a local saying, cow’s milk answers all needs: "If you burn your mouth on hot milk, cool it with yoghurt."

Back in Topta, Mensure and I walk to a neighbouring house, she carrying her finished hasil (polenta), covered and wrapped in a towel. Home to an extended family, it has, like Mensure’s house, two cooking areas: one in the house fitted with portable gas burners, and another in an old stone building next door. Aysel, a lanky woman in her 20s, leads me to the latter, a stone-floored room lit by a single bulb suspended from a low ceiling supported by thick, unfinished logs. A sturdy wood stove sits at the back of the room, where Aysel’s daughter stoops over a box of peeping goslings. Against the wall nearest the door, cooking supplies are stacked on fabric-lined shelves hidden behind a hand-crocheted lace curtain. In the corner is a well-worn red senit, the low wooden table used in Turkey for rolling dough.

We are here to make hangel or handkerchief pasta, a Georgian-influenced regional specialty. Aysel effortlessly mixes a kilo of flour with salt, water and three eggs in a plastic tub and, working the dough with alternating fists, kneads it until smooth and elastic. With an oklava (long thin pin), she flattens lumps of dough, wraps it around the pin as she pulls it back, then releases it flat onto the table as she pushes it away.

Aysel boils and drains the noodles and divides them among three bowls. She pours melted butter over one and adds butter and a handful of blue cecil to another. The third bowl of hangel is sauced with warm, garlicky salted yoghurt. There, we eat seated on the floor around a square blue cloth. In addition to Mensure’s hasil (polenta), there are mafis (fried yeasted dough triangles) and a tomato paste soup with green lentils. I try every dish, but hone in on Aysel’s cecil-dressed hangel. Aged six months in the cowhide, the string cheese is pungent, salty and slightly tangy, as delicious as any European blue I’ve ever tasted. The next morning at Mensure’s house, I am thrilled to see it reappear on the breakfast table, alongside a bowl of kaymak and rounds of pillowy bread made with milk and "baked" in a skillet. I wash it all down with, of course, hot fresh milk.

Not only geography, but history, too, has played a role in the development of the region’s cow economy. The Silk Road passed through Ani (a town in Kars) and the Kars plateau was the nexus of Anatolian trade routes connecting with Central Asia and Persia, so the region has long attracted migrants and settlers. Wars and occupations brought Persians, Kurds, peoples of the south Caucasus (now Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), as well as Russians. Cows have probably been raised in what is now Kars and Ardahan provinces for centuries, but it was after the region’s annexation by Tsarist Russia following the Russo-Turkish War, and the subsequent arrival of Molokan (sectarian Christian breakaways from the Russian Orthodox Church renowned for their expertise in animal husbandry) that dairy production there took off. Swiss cheesemakers arrived, too, via Russia, bringing with them the recipe for what would become known as gravyer. A local legend even has it that Russians were so enamoured with the region’s milk that they laid kilometres of pipeline to convey the white gold to Moscow.

By the early 1990s, at least 10 villages in the region produced gravyer in workshops called zavot (derived from zavod, the Russian word for factory). Today Boatepe, a village in northern Kars province about 40km north-east of Topta, is one of the few to carry on the tradition. The turn-off to Boatepe is marked by a giant statue of a smiling cow. I meet native son lhan Koçulu, a big bear of a man with a classically Turkish bushy moustache, who has spearheaded a movement to preserve his village’s cheese tradition by introducing gravyer to Slow Food’s Terra Madre community and promoting it to buyers in Istanbul. Over the past few years, lhan has overseen the conversion of a 19th-century dairy barn and gravyer factory into Boatepe’s Cheese Museum and community centre.

Boatepe’s cows are indeed happy; I watch a dozen calves frolic behind a low stone wall in knee-high pasture dotted with butter yellow blooms across the road from lhan’s family’s 75-year-old workshop. Each evening, thousands of cows driven by cowboys on horseback return to the village after a day out chawing on wild grasses; they stream over the rolling hills that surround Boatepe and converge on its main road before being directed to barns for milking. Much of the village’s milk goes to its seven gravyer and kaar cheese workshops, while the rest is collected for larger production facilities.

Due to the gravyer season being limited to the months in which cows can graze on pasture, production takes place twice a day. As the evening cycle doesn’t begin till 9.30pm, there is time for dinner, cooked by lhan’s sister-in-law, at her house behind the family’s mandira (cheese workshop). It is a meal of, and from the cow: yoghurt soup with lentils and noodles, beef ribs, romano beans in tomato sauce thickened with kaymak, salty homemade tulum cheese (made here with cow’s-milk aged in the hide), as well as thick slices of gravyer and kaar, and cool yoghurt to spoon over a cucumber and tomato salad. lhan tells me that a late thaw has delayed the start of this year’s season by 10 days. Fewer days for cows to pasture before the arrival of the summer solstice, when the number of kilos of milk required to produce one kilo of gravyer rises from 10 to 13, means that less cheese might be made this year. “Allah willing, maybe we can make it up by going 10 days longer at the end of the season. But I doubt it,” lhan says.

After reviving ourselves with glasses of strong tea, we walk to the workshop, a long low-slung stone building. On one side of the narrow room stands two deep kazan or cauldrons made of copper and set in white tile. Each, at three-quarters full, holds 750 kilos of milk. Forty-five minutes after the milk has been mixed with rennet, it has set. A white-coated usta (master) and his apprentice - lhan’s 19-year-old nephew, home from the military – cut the curds twice, then using giant whisks and working over a steady flame, slosh the mixture back and forth with enough force to raise waves and send bits of curd flying. lhan stands by throughout, small mesh strainer in hand, periodically gauging the curds by squeezing them dry and rubbing them between his palms, stretching, flattening, crumbling and tasting.

Finally, it is time to drain the whey. lhan places a timber plank across the mouth of the cauldron and his nephew, holding a flexible metal rod with a fine cloth mesh strainer attached, hops over, balancing on his stomach. Holding a sturdy mesh cloth attached to a flexible metal frame, he plunges his arms into the liquid, then brings it up to the surface. The usta and two helpers pull the corners of the mesh together, attach them to a metal hook suspended from a beam above and, at lhan’s order of “cev!” (lift!), manoeuvres the sack of curds above the cauldron and slides it along a track beneath the beam using a rope and pulley to the opposite side of the room. There, they lower it onto a wooden frame, remove the mesh, redistribute the curds and weigh it at less than 400 kilos. The cheese is pressed for five minutes, trimmed and weighted again for 24 hours before it is moved to lhan’s ageing facility, a grass-topped stone structure partially built into the earth. It will be rubbed with rock salt and given a soak in brine before going to a hot room to leak fat and water, and finally, to a cold room to age for at least two months.

How does one know a good gravyer, I wondered? “The smell should be strong, the holes should be round, and the cheese should be a little bit soft, and not dry,” lhan tells me. “At least, that’s how my cheese is,” he says.

I don’t crawl into bed until 2.30am, but when I return to the mandira at nine, lhan is there, adding rennet into another cauldron of milk. “Look, here’s the oil that came out of the cheese overnight,” he says, running his fingers over one of the wooden presses and pointing to the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. “This is medicine. The women like to rub it on their faces to look younger.”

Later, I find out how else the cheesemaking "waste" is used, as lhan heats the butter-like kaymak made the night before in a pan with solids drained from the gravyer’s whey and trimmings from new cheeses. He cooks the scrapings in the bubbling fat until they crisp and the room smells like one big cheese toastie, then picks a piece and pulls it apart between his fingers; its crust breaks to release a long, soft unbroken string of cheese. lhan smiles. “This will be a delicious gravyer.”

Back in Kars, I go in search of edible souvenirs and end up at Kafkas Peynircilik, one of the city’s many cheese shops. The shop’s cooler is packed with rounds of kaar, sacks of fresh and aged cecil, tubs of yoghurt, bottles of milk and vacuum-packed bags of kaymak. An open wheel of gravyer sits on the counter, a knife stuck in its centre. 

“I eat a half kilo of cheese a day, gravyer and kaar,” says 21-year-old Ali Goker, a Kars native. With the exception of the 15 months he spent in compulsory military service, Ali has been working at Kafkas since he was 10.  Like most others in Kars, the cheese shop has its own kaar and gravyer factory; Ali tells me it sells about 100 tonnes of cheese a year. “Some tourists buy, sure. But it’s mostly locals. Everyone here eats cheese. Cheese and milk – two things Kars has lots of.”

Gravyer is “man’s cheese”, Ali says; most women don’t care for its smell. Eaters of kaar are likewise divided by sex and age: women and young people prefer the cheese young and milky, while men and the elderly like it strong and bordering on stinky. Opting to buck the trend, I ask Ali for a kilo of gravyer and two of the oldest, smelliest kaar he has in the shop. As he vacuum-packs my purchases, I ponder the massive wheel of gravyer on the counter – the geography, climate and history of a Turkish province, in one 75-kilo package. 

 

Photography by David Hagerman.