Milking the Moment: Etseri, Svaneti

Yes, Tony, but what is milking actually like?

I speak as a relative newcomer to this delicate art, but nonetheless one who has performed it for several years now and has most of the responsibility for a whole (small) barn’s worth of cattle, as well as for the milk and its byproducts.

You open the doors in the morning, greet your charges, and assess how they are. If nothing is amiss, then you first clean their udders with a bit of water, to remove the chance of any stray hairs, bits of straw and other foreign elements falling into the bucket. This also adds just the right amount of lubrication to the teats. You’re aiming for a mix of slip and friction, so that your sliding grasp will neither fall off nor get too sticky.

Give them something to distract them while you’re milking: the morning’s food, usually hay from the second floor of the barn, conveniently sent down through a hole to their level. You will have trained them to move the back leg closest to you back out of the way at your touch, so that they’re used to this and won’t try to kick back. Grab the stool and have a seat, bucket on the newly manure-shoveled floor.

Then you begin milking itself. I was taught this by a man first, not by my wife, and here the genders’ grips seem to be different. He uses the whole hand, while she tends to favor just thumb and forefinger. But the former only works if the teats are long enough! Our newer mother had her first calf only a few months ago, and her udder, while supplying a good amount of milk, is still not as developed as that of the older cow, which also happens to be her mother. So, even for me, two fingers are the best way with her, for now. Pull, squeeze, repeat.

Udders are tough! They have to be, to endure the amount of abuse available for even a newborn calf to dish out in its frantic quest for milk. The pulling and pushing never seem to bother mother much, though, so I realize that my arms and hands are no match in strength for that little one’s neck, and feel free to pull as necessary. The milk flows immediately when you’ve got the knack, and gives you a good upper body workout twice a day too. Both hands, so, two teats at a time. A good while of steady flow, gradually slackening off as you go, but you move back and forth between the two pairs of teats, not finishing either set in one go to get every last drop.

Always keeping an eye on the back legs, though, because here “kicking the bucket” is an all too literal possibility! I don’t punish a cow if she misses; but if she knocks the thing over, or gets her hoof into it, or (something I hope never to experience) actually breaks it, then I’m immediately on the offensive, letting her know that this is quite unacceptable behavior. And she will move about a bit while feeding, disregarding your preference for her stillness, so the hair-trigger awareness is vital. Just don’t let it get on your nerves, though! Here too a balance is good to avoid unnecessary stress.

I did worry a bit when the second cow calved and, once her calf was weaned, I added her to my twice-daily repertoire: how much extra time, and strength, would this demand? But it was a gradual process, still happening as she slowly gives more and more milk while her udder and the warm outdoor grazing weather both improve. So I have time to get used to it, physically and time-wise, while my own skills also ramp up to meet the challenge.

Milk, yoghurt, cream, butter, sour cream, ice cream, ordinary Georgian cheese, the sulguni variant, versions of cheddar, blue and Camembert cheese: these are what we have made and can make from the output. Plus the whey left over from cheese making, which the calves love. All full-fat at the moment. Very satisfying, and worth the effort, if you ask this lover of the European cheeses who hopes to see his productions standardize and go commercial in 2016.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1300 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

07 April 2016 20:23