Your Last Escape: Svaneti

It’s been an interesting Christmas/New Year season thus far in our winter mountain fastness, with two of the mentioned events already having happened and their Orthodox counterparts still to come.

We still let out the cows every day from midday onwards for a brief sojourn in the fresh air, no matter how cold, and a drink form a nearby trough meant for them. This being midwinter, we don’t expect them to wander far: there’s not much vegetation to find and eat, and they “know” they’ll get good portions of hay and salt in the barn anyway, something to return to.

But the bullock... he still, occasionally, does a teenager thing, and stays away. Like he did a few days after Western Christmas.

His “niece” had been born on that holiday, a white heifer to a white mother (her first), and the latest in our unbroken string of unassisted births for which we are so grateful; see the photo. She was doing well since I had found her that morning, drinking from her mother and gaining weight. Why he decided not to return was a mystery and a major stress. We were readying to kill him in the coming spring anyway, after he turned two years old. That evening turned up nothing, so he would be out for the night: not the coldest on the calendar at minus 6 degrees C, but worrying enough.

Next day, after school my wife, a neighbor and I all continued separate searches around the village and its considerable outskirts. It wasn’t until about 5 pm, light getting ready to start fading, that I spotted a hopefully colored bovine across a nearby stream, fenced in. It wasn’t until I approached right to it that I could see that it was indeed Mr Meat, his face obscured by the fence from easier identification. Indeed, he was stuck in that field, having entered it by what means I knew not, and I had to open a gate to let him out and start towards home. So the Svans hadn’t poached him after all!

This was the clincher for me, though: Mr Meat, you’ve run your last away, and it’s time for you to go under the knife. We don’t plan to need a pair of massive but docile castrated oxen years down the road for plowing, which is a twice-yearly minor event anyway, and also there’s no partner for you in that. Sorry, but there it is.

I enlisted my neighbor’s help, because although I’ve passed the “carnivore test” of seeing an animal go from alive to meat on the table, I’m still nowhere near knowledgeable enough to slaughter and butcher one. He obliged, and on December 30, we did the deed, snow coming down, in our yard. Be warned, from now on the details get a bit more grisly.

This neighbor is actually refreshingly concerned about doing things like this as humanely as possible. To this end he used his sledgehammer to bang our bullock hard on the head, effectively putting him out before cutting his throat. So this part was over quickly and with little if any suffering. Then he really was just meat, and we began the long job of butchering, which here signifies a job properly done as opposed to one badly botched!

Skinning... removal of lower legs... organs... head. Although he hadn’t eaten for 24 hours prior to the event, his stomachs were still, for me, shockingly full of stinking matter. Intestines too. Now that I’ve seen what’s left in a stomach before it becomes the “delicacy” called tripe, I’m doubly determined never to eat a single mouthful of the stuff again, including the Georgian version with trotters and garlic and milk called khashi. Thinking twice about the intestines which case sausages too, thinking hard. For my wife, however, these things are important and wonderful delights. She’s welcome to them.

I assisted where I could, as did my wife and a Korean lady who was our guest, who has studied farming but not had enough hands-on experience. She was right in there, despite the cold. And because this was my animal, I also had the freedom to cut some steaks off him, of which Georgians are sadly ignorant in general but by which I intend to educate a few of them at least. If she can have her head cheese and tripe, I’ll have my bit my way too!

Now that the house is more or less freed of what I consider to be the disgusting cooking smells of the above mentioned items, we can move on as we wait for January 7th and 14th, when the festivities will start all over again. Twice-blessed!

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

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

Tony Hanmer

06 January 2016 20:29