With its stunning natural scenery, ancient towns and compelling history, Georgia really does have it all – and the food is no exception. Georgians are passionate about wine and love their sweets; eating here is more of a ritual than a meal. Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere talks us through an indulgent Georgian feast.
As I sip on Stalin’s favourite wine, I try to decipher the intricate squiggles on the bottle’s label. I don’t get very far – the Georgian alphabet seems better placed in the Lord of the Rings. It’s a mild spring evening in Tbilisi, and the streets hum with the chatter of locals unwinding over a meal after a busy week’s work. Small wooden tables spill out onto the pavements, accompanied by the clink of glasses and the rattle of cutlery. The sound of the Kura River, which flows through the city, is discernible in the near distance.
Food and wine play a vital role in Georgia’s culture and national identity – it was here that wine production was born 8000 years ago. I soon learn the unique alphabet I am unsuccessfully trying to decipher is modelled on the shape of vine tendrils: a clear indicator of wine’s significance in the country’s heritage. To this day, winemakers conform to the ancient wine-producing traditions that have been followed uninterrupted for the last eight millennia. Wines are fermented in clay jars lined with beeswax called qveri, which dramatically differ in size, from small earthen vessels to much larger egg-shaped ones. They are completely buried under the ground where the temperature remains constant throughout the year, thereby allowing the wines to ferment in a cool environment.
Of the 2000 or so grape varieties in the world, Georgia alone is home to over 500 indigenous varietals. The most well known is probably Saperavi, a deeply coloured red (it translates as “dye”) commonly used to make semi-sweet wines that are much sought after in Georgia and Russia. Rkatsiteli is Georgia’s most widely planted white grape variety, also grown over the border in neighbouring Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria.
Back in the restaurant where I’m seated, a friendly waitress with dark features places a large roundel of bread oozing with melted cheese in the middle of the table: khachapuri, Georgia’s favourite side dish and the accompaniment to most meals. The filling contains fresh or aged cheese, normally sulguni, a local pickled cheese that’s also enjoyed in neighbouring countries and Eastern Europe.
Next comes a refreshing plate of cold lobio, red kidney beans cooked and crushed with onions, vinegar, coriander, walnuts and chilli pepper, then left to marinate overnight. A smaller dish is placed next to them; pkhali, a wonderful vegetarian starter of small spinach and walnut balls. A selection of cheeses is also laid out on a rustic wooden board, adorned with a handful of fresh herbs and half-moon shaped tomato slices.
A procession of dishes continues to arrive at our table. Next comes satsivi, cold turkey in a creamy walnut sauce. Georgian cuisine is inconceivable without walnuts – not only are they extremely rich in nutrients, but their milk-like texture replaces dairy, which is found, for the most part, exclusively in cheeses. Walnut sauces are very popular in the Caucasus and are served with a variety of dishes, including badrijani, which consists of aubergines wrapped around a walnut paste.
Soon the aroma of sizzling meats fills the air. Mtsvadi, succulent cubes of skewered pork traditionally cooked over the embers of a bundle of dried grapevines, are served with onions and adorned with parsley and pomegranate seeds.
Lastly, a plate of steaming khinkali is set down. These are dumplings filled with spiced meat – a mixture of beef and pork or lamb with herbs and onions. There is an art to eating them: the doughy handle at the top is never consumed, but used to hold the dumplings, which are bursting with rich meat juices that begin trickle out with the first bite.
Of course, another bottle of red wine is promptly ordered to accompany the tender meats, as my culinary ritual extends into the late hours.
When my belly feels overly content and unable to meet any other food, I am confronted with a large plate of candied treats – Georgia is a real sweet tooth’s delight. There is churchkhela, made from long strings of almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts dipped into thickened grape juice and left to dry, along with kada, a flaky traditional pastry filled with butter and sugar. Finally, I try the much sought after pakhlava, popular in central and southwest Asia, a light and sweet layered pastry with walnuts and honey.
Fully satisfied after this most sacred of Georgian rituals, I saunter back to my hotel with a bulging midriff. As I make my way through the series of maze-like alleyways, the air is still infused with the aromas of this country’s exquisite cuisine.
All photos provided by Khachapuri Café.