Sulguni is a stretched curd cheese made from whole cow or buffalo milk or a mixture of both, in some cases with the addition of goat’s milk, which traditionally had the shape of a flat disc.
Before the upheaval caused by the mass production policy imposed by the USSR government, there were at least 80 traditional dairy products in Georgia. Today, widespread cheeses are little more than a dozen and sulguni is one of the best known.
Traditionally produced in the western regions of Samegrelo and Svaneti, sulguni has spread out nationwide and in several Eastern European countries.
What characterizes Sulguni is its production technique, a process perfected for centuries by Georgian producers and which involves the manual kneading of the stretched curd and its immersion in brine. This technique gives the cheese its typical, savory and acid flavor, also causing the expulsion of droplets of milky whey when the cheese is cut.
Once the milk has coagulated (with acidic or rennet coagulation), the curds are broken down and heated to a temperature of about 34-37 ° C. At this point, 70-80% of the whey is removed from the curd and left to mature.
Once matured, it is cut into slices which are then placed in hot water. Thus, begins the spinning phase: the curd is lifted and pulled manually on a wooden board, until a homogeneous and stringy paste is obtained. The stretched curd is then removed from the whey, placed in the molds and cooled. Once placed in brine, Sulguni is ready for consumption after a few hours, but can be stored up to a month in the same saline solution or smoked.
As reported by a study conducted by FAO starting from 2017, the processing technique has then several variations, the heritage of traditions passed down to producers over many generations: some of them, for example, use hot milk instead of water to melt the dough before spinning. Others enrich Sulguni with the addition of honey, wine or spices to the dough.
If until the early 2000s the technique described above was mainly prerogative of Georgian artisan cheesemakers, today, the denomination "Suluguni" or "Sulguni" is often used improperly to identify industrial cheeses of different origin, whose production is entrusted to automated processes involving the use of industrial enzymes. The gradual industrialization of such production does not seem to be prevented even by the 3 geographical indications (GIs) registered in Georgia in 2012 : Sulguni, which can be produced throughout the entire Georgian territory; Megrelian Sulguni, produced in several municipalities in the Georgian region of Samegrelo; Svanetian Sulguni, whose production area is limited to the territories of the municipalities of Lentekhi and Mestia, in the Svaneti region and which, unlike the first two which involve the use of cow, goat and buffalo milk, excludes the use of the latter.
Although referring to different production areas, the relative regulations prescribe an identical milk transformation process without referring to differences linked to the area of production, nor do they provide for traditional processes or tools to be necessary used as characterizing the different Sulguni. Moreover, there is no mention of local breeds, such as the Megruli Tsiteli (Megrelian Red)
cattle breed, traditionally used for the production of Sulguni in Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti, or specific indications for the breeding and feeding of animals, elements that are potentially reflected in as many varieties and production variables.
FAO has worked to accompany Georgian producers in a plan to revise current product specifications. In particular, in the context of the aforementioned fieldwork conducted by the same organization, the producers reached an agreement regarding: the inclusion of different variants traditionally considered Sulguni (different forms and variants characterized by the addition of ingredients such as honey or wine) ; the provision of a distinction between fresh and seasoned Sulguni; the use of natural rennet; the indication of a specific period of time for the maturation of the curd.
Sulguni is the key ingredient of elargji, a traditional dish from the Samegrelo region that was prepared on holidays by melting the cheese together with millet polenta, now replaced by white corn flour.
The elargji is prepared using fresh Sulguni, processed the same morning. It is cooked in a copper cauldron over a high flame, usually outside the house. The cheese is cut into thin slices and cooked together with a white cornmeal polenta. The sticky and stringy consistency that elargji takes on immediately requires constant stirring, so as not to let the dough burn. Working very close to the fire, whirling such a resistant pasta, for almost forty minutes, requires a great physical strength, which is why it was traditionally the task of men. Halfway through preparation, the cauldron is moved slightly away from the fire but the men continue to mix, alternating in relay. At the end of cooking, the stringy elargji is spread on a wooden bench, cut into slices and eaten with hands, sitting on the ground. The flavor of elargji is acidic, savory and smoky (a feature that today is lacking in preparations made on the stove), its consistency is compact, stringy and serous.