(processing of fruits & vegetables, production of concentrates, purees, and frozen apple cubes)
What's in a name? Or better yet, what's in a cheese?
The origins of the word sulguni, a salty, soft cheese made from fresh cow or buffalo milk, stem from ‘suli’ and ‘guli’ meaning ‘soul’ and ‘heart’ in Georgian. This cheese, a fixture on nearly every Georgian table, could not be more aptly named.
What makes sulguni unique is the way it is made – a process fine-tuned over centuries that involves stirring and kneading the stretched curd, then shaping it into a disk and covering it in salt. This technique gives the cheese its distinctive layers, juiciness and slight crunch when sliced. Whether fresh, dried, aged, smoked or flavoured with honey, wine or traditional spices, sulguni’s signature taste is unmistakable, making it one of the country’s most famous cheeses.
But not all cheeses marketed under the name sulguni adhere to the traditional recipe. This dilutes the image of what is an undeniably important part of Georgia’s rich food heritage. That is why Georgia, and other countries worldwide, are choosing Geographical Indication labels (GIs) to protect their food traditions.
Over the last several years, FAO and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have been working with governments and producers worldwide to support geographical indications for traditionally made products. GI labels bring more value to products, translating into higher incomes for rural households, promoting pride in local food cultures and attracting youth to a promising agricultural business. It is just one in a series of FAO initiatives that work with partners to support rural livelihoods and communities.
The real deal
Georgia has an abundance of unique delicacies, from saperavi wine to churchkhela, a sweet made from grapes and walnuts. Like sulguni, these products have qualities and reputations that stem from their place of origin or “terroir”. These products are a result of the specific knowledge and practices built through interactions between the local community and its environment. This, combined with local know-how passed down from generation to generation, are precisely what gives the final products their distinctive taste, texture and appearance.
An official GI label attests to the fact that the product originates from a particular location and possesses specific qualities that are attributable to that specific geographical origin. GIs link products to local heritage and are even protected with intellectual property rights.
Preserving food heritage and know-how
For Venera Liparteliani, a smallholder farmer in Western Georgia, making sulguni is a regular part of her life. “Fresh sulguni should be soft and juicy,” she says. “It’s not difficult to produce, but you need to follow specific steps.”
In order to market sulguni under the GI label, the cheese must be made according to a strict set of specifications. FAO empowered the sulguni producers and their organization, the Georgian Dairy Association, to upgrade these specifications to ensure food safety and adaptability to modern production, while staying in line with tradition. Thanks to a system of certification and controls against counterfeiting, consumers know they are getting the real deal when they buy GI-labelled sulguni. This is true whether the cheese was made by a small producer, like Venera, or a large company.
More than just a label
There are more than 8 000 registered GI products worldwide, and they pull in roughly EUR 50 billion a year in trade. A GI can act as a marketing tool for local producers, attracting a customer’s attention, commanding premium prices and catering to a growing market that values quality, tradition and reputation.
Giorgi Karsamauli, one of the young founders of the Tushetian Guda Cheese Association, produces another famous Georgian cheese, Tushetian guda, that is also now protected with a GI label. He comments that, GI certification helps preserve the traditional practices, for example keeping the cheese in a sheep skin bag instead of a plastic one, while also helping ensure food safety. Giorgi also commented on the fruitful work that has been carried out in this regard with public authorities and inspection services.
“When we take our Tushetian guda cheese to exhibitions and fairs, people are very surprised to see this strange bag made of sheep skin. I explain to them what it is and how the cheese is made and how this gives unique characteristics to the cheese,” Giorgi explains.
He also notes that the GI process can offer a promising future to the communities living high in the mountains by improving livelihoods while preserving the pastoralism that protects natural resources in the Tushetian National Park.
GIs can breathe new life into rural economies by sustaining production activities and creating jobs in new industries like rural tourism.
People, products, places
With youth increasingly leaving rural areas for cities and with processed foods on the rise, traditional foods run the risk of disappearing, especially as habits and lifestyles change. But by putting traditional foods like sulguni and Tushetian guda on the map – linking people, products and places – FAO, together with partners like the government of Georgia, is helping to instil a sense of pride in rich local, food heritage, especially among younger generations. Recognizing producers’ contribution to national food and biodiversity heritage and increasing the value of and pride in these products boosts livelihoods and helps to keep these food traditions alive and celebrated for years to come.