It’s nine p.m., and even with the full moon I can see thousands of stars. I am at 2,300 meters (about 7,500 feet) and I am walking into a dark long shed. In the darkness, I smell hot humid boiled milk. I keep walking into a deep throaty smell of fermentation. Finally I end in a smell that is cold, aged, salty. The lights shoot on and giant warm orbs of gruyere cheese glow from the shelves. All around me men suit up and start pulling the cheeses from the shelves, salting, spinning, wiping, drying… and to think just five minutes ago I thought I was headed to bed!
I am in Bogatepe, a yayla of Kars that is famous for its cows (boga meaning male animal and tepe meaning hill). The whole drive here, I faced the most traffic jams I have seen since coming to Kars ie herds and herds of cows and cowboys taking their time crossing the road. From the roads to the hill-crests, cows look like trails of ants as they move meticulously across these ancient steppes.
A local cheese legend, Ilhan bey had invited me to visit his family and learn about local sustainable small-scale agriculture from his village Bogatepe. Bogatepe has become renowned as an organic dairy product hub for the region. After arriving in the village, I spent the afternoon with some of the women from Ilhan’s family, asking questions about their lives, sharing details of my own project and looking for their advice and feedback. As we talk, we milk cows, we drink tea, and we eat many varieties of delicious cheeses.
Beekeepers don’t bring their bees to Bogatepe because the weather is so cold, that every drop of honey that the bees can make, they must eat to stay warm. But cheese and bees go hand in hand. Here in Kars, there is a foodie holy trinity, the geese, the cheese, and the holy honey. Most of the time, local farmers produce two out of the three. I am not going to pretend I know a thing about cheese, even though ever since I moved to Kars, I have lived atop a cheese-making factory of sorts. Every night through our adjacent windows, I see my cheese people neighbors orbit around white hot glowing milky circles, which are lined in perfect rows across my neighbor’s room. My neighbors are good to me, they supply me with cheese, sometimes dinner, and their door is always open for tea.
Although I spend a good deal of time with the cheese people, I know very little about their work. I realize this the moment I walk through the cavernous dark cheese making rooms of Bogatepe. Each of the rooms has a different purpose. In one there are deep copper bowls for stirring hot milk, in another a warm stove and humid shelves for fermentation, and in yet another, cold dry salting boards for completing the process. Ilhan bey is preparing a cheese-making museum to inform visitors of all the intricacies of making cheese; I now understand why such a creation could be so valuable.
While the cheese people work late into the night, my belly is full of warm milk, and I am lured back into the house. There is one thing I know about village homes, they have some of the best beds in Turkey. We throw a cow dung heat brick into the stove, the room lights up in warmth, and I curl into a sheep fluff stuffed bed. In the dark cheese rooms, men continue to work late into the night, creating bright white cheese mirroring the bright white moon.