FOOD STUFF

At the cross­roads of Europe and Asia, the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia has a long, com­plex his­tory and a fas­ci­nat­ing cui­sine to match. Add to that one of the world’s old­est wine­mak­ing tra­di­tions, and you have all the mak­ings of an un­for­get­table epi­curean ad­ven­ture

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY KALPANA SUNDER

At the cross­roads of Europe and Asia, the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia has all the right in­gre­di­ents for a lips­mack­ing epi­curean ad­ven­ture.

In the cozy, brick-walled

res­tau­rant at Pheas­ant’s Tears win­ery in the hill­top town of Sigh­naghi, a tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian feast called

supra (lit­er­ally “table­cloth”) is spread out be­fore us. There’s chicken liver and minced wal­nuts in a pi­quant pome­gran­ate sauce, and veal roasted with moun­tain herbs. A rus­tic chaka

puli stew re­veals chunks of veal, onions, and sour green plums. Bas­kets of crusty bread sit along­side slices of smoked sul­guni cheese and an in­trigu­ing dish of fer­mented jon­joli (blad­der­nut flow­ers) with pick­led gar­lic. My eyes fi­nally set­tle on a plat­ter of pkhali— bite-size balls of finely chopped vegetables and ground wal­nuts crowned by ruby-red pome­gran­ate seeds. Some are or­ange, some are green, and some are red, de­pend­ing on the main ingredient (carrots, spinach, and beets, re­spec­tively). Though there are only six of us gath­ered around the long table, it looks like enough food to feed 30.

Lo­cated in the moun­tain­ous re­gion of Kakheti some 100 kilo­me­ters east of Tbil­isi, the Ge­or­gian cap­i­tal, Pheas­ant’s Tears is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Amer­i­can artist John Wur­de­man and a lo­cal wine­maker. Wur­de­man first came to the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia in 1995 to study folk mu­sic, but it was the coun­try’s rich cul­ture and cui­sine that en­cour­aged him to re­main. Now, other peo­ple seem to be tak­ing no­tice. “Ge­or­gia is fast be­com­ing a food and wine des­ti­na­tion,” he tells me. “I know peo­ple who sim­ply fly in to Tbil­isi to eat and drink.” As for the name of his es­tab­lish­ment, it comes from an old Ge­or­gian say­ing that “only the best wine can bring happy tears to a pheas­ant.”

About the size of Sri Lanka and home to just 3.7 mil­lion peo­ple, Ge­or­gia is not a big coun­try. But the cui­sine punches well above its weight— a sym­phony of tastes and tex­tures that speak of Ge­or­gia’s po­si­tion at the cross­roads of Europe and Asia. Not for noth­ing did the great Rus­sian poet Alexan­der Pushkin once as­sert that “every Ge­or­gian dish is a poem.” There are in­flu­ences from neigh­bor­ing Rus­sia, Ot­toman Tur­key, Per­sia, Ara­bia, and even the steppes of Cen­tral Asia, cour­tesy of in­vad­ing Mon­gols in the 13th cen­tury. The lat­ter is ev­i­dent in khinkali, thick dumplings stuffed with ground meat, spices, and a pip­ing-hot broth.

The din­ing scene in Tbil­isi has ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing of a re­nais­sance in re­cent years, with a crop of young chefs plat­ing up new in­ter­pre­ta­tions of tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian fla­vors. Per­haps the best known among them is Amer­i­can-trained Tekuna Gachechi­ladze, whose lat­est ven­ture, Café Lit­tera, is hid­den in the leafy court­yard gar­den of a ren­o­vated Art Nou­veau man­sion hous­ing the Ge­or­gian Writ­ers’ Union. On our first evening in town, we sit here at can­dlelit ta­bles un­der a large pine tree feast­ing on plat­ters of cold ap­pe­tiz­ers and dips—in­clud­ing a lo­cal ver­sion of hum­mus and egg­plant rolls filled with wal­nut paste—while sip­ping on a dry lo­cal white wine. Work­ing from recipes that pre­date the Soviet era, Gachechi­ladze cooks what she terms “mod­ern Ge­or­gian,” stuff­ing zuc­chini flow­ers with cream cheese and mint be­fore deep-fry­ing them, and chal­leng­ing con­ven­tion by sub­sti­tut­ing mus­sels for meat in her chaka­puli stew.

But even Ge­or­gia’s tra­di­tional fare is full of sur­prises. At an un­der­ground bak­ery near Sioni Cathe­dral in the heart of Old Tbil­isi, I watch dif­fer­ent kinds of bread be­ing pre­pared in a

tone— a clay oven that re­sem­bles an In­dian tan­door. The na­tional dish is khacha­puri, a cheese­filled flat­bread that comes in a dozen dif­fer­ent

vari­a­tions, in­clud­ing the ubiq­ui­tous (and de­li­cious) boat-shaped adzharuli with its top­ping of runny egg and but­ter.

What appeals to me most about Ge­or­gian cook­ing is the loy­alty and de­vo­tion to fresh in­gre­di­ents—not just fruits and vegetables, but also cheese and dairy. I en­counter a di­verse as­sort­ment of fresh herbs from basil to bay leaf, and pars­ley to dill and tar­ragon, and I soon ap­pre­ci­ate the im­por­tance of wal­nuts, which are pounded and used in pastes, stews, and dress­ings. My fa­vorite dis­cov­ery is a condi­ment called ajika, a bril­liant red paste made from bell pep­pers mixed with beets and chilies, gar­lic, wal­nuts, and fresh herbs.

No culi­nary romp through Tbil­isi is com­plete with­out a visit to De­sert­ers’ Bazaar, a war­ren of open-air stalls near the cen­tral rail­way sta­tion that got its name in the 1920s when sol­diers flee­ing the front lines of the Sovi­etGe­or­gian War off­loaded their weapons here. I walk through stalls fes­tooned with reams of green cucumbers, pep­pers, geo­met­ric piles of ripe toma­toes, and sacks of gar­lic and dried per­sim­mons hang­ing like gar­lands. Huge tubs of col­or­ful spices from fra­grant blue fenu­greek and pep­per to Svane­tian salt and chilies en­tice me with their over­pow­er­ing aro­mas. Sit­ting on small plas­tic stools, traders sell bun­dles of fresh herbs from pars­ley to dill and tar­ragon. Plump ma­trons ped­dle blocks of briny sul­guni cheese and pots of creamy mat­soni yogurt.

To delve deeper into the lo­cal cui­sine, I sign up for a class at Culi­nar­ium, a cook­ing school in Tbil­isi’s up-and-com­ing Solo­laki district that shares space with a lab­o­ra­tory and res­tau­rant run by Gacheciladze her­self. Un­der the tute­lage of chef Le­van Ko­bi­ashvili, I learn to make cu­cum­ber salad with fresh wal­nut dress­ing and a cold soup called tchri­antela made from berries—a kind of Ge­or­gian gaz­pa­cho—from a clas­sic 1885 cook­book writ­ten by fem­i­nist princess Bar­bare Jor­jadze that Ko­bi­ashvili found in a flea mar­ket. “We want to carve out a spe­cial Ge­or­gian iden­tity that was lost in the dark years of the Soviet regime,” Ko­bi­ashvili tells me af­ter the class. “When I started as a chef in the 1990s, it was a very dif­fi­cult pe­riod; we had no In­ter­net or sources of in­for­ma­tion. We for­aged recipes from old cook­books or by talk­ing to old peo­ple.”

In the vil­lage of Mukhrovani out­side Tbil­isi, I also get a hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence mak­ing church

kela— the clos­est thing that Ge­or­gians have to a home­grown dessert—at a fam­ily en­ter­prise named Dr. Ge­orge Lab­o­ra­tory. A chewy, waxy sweet made from nuts and re­duced grape juice mixed with flour, churchkela has been nick­named “Ge­or­gian Snick­ers” for good rea­son.

Cre­at­ing churchkela in­volves dip­ping wal­nuts beaded onto strings in the thick grape paste un­til they are evenly coated, then pulling them out to dry on a wooden stand. With its mix of pro­tein and nat­u­ral sug­ars, the treat is said to be a sta­ple in every Ge­or­gian sol­dier’s kit.

Ge­or­gian wine is an­other story. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal arche­ol­o­gists, wine has been pro­duced here for at least 8,000 years, thanks in part to a vast spec­trum of mi­cro­cli­mates and prodi­giously fer­tile soil. To­day the coun­try boasts more than 400 na­tive grape va­ri­eties, though many oth­ers are thought to have been lost dur­ing the Soviet era. Dur­ing my 10-day visit, I taste a hand­ful like deep red saper­avi and the aro­matic mtsvane.

Much of the mys­tique of Ge­or­gian wines is due to their method of man­u­fac­ture, which has been listed by UNESCO as an In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage. Tra­di­tion­ally, Ge­or­gian wine is aged in huge clay am­phorae called qvevri, which are coated on the in­side with beeswax and buried un­der­ground be­fore winter. Af­ter the first fer­men­ta­tion it is loosely sealed with a clay lid, and once fer­men­ta­tion is com­plete, the wine is fully sealed with wet clay. At Iago’s Win­ery in Chardakhi, less than an hour’s drive north­west from Tbil­isi, vint­ner Iago Bi­tar­ishvili shows us his cel­lar, where bold rings en­cir­cle the necks of more than half a dozen qvevri. He says Ge­or­gians al­ways made wine at home and shared it with their neigh­bors, but now these ad­di­tive-free vin­tages are gain­ing recog­ni­tion in West­ern Europe, with the French city of Bordeaux declar­ing 2017 as the year to cel­e­brate Ge­or­gian wines.

It’s a similar setup at Pheas­ant’s Tears, where a few of the qvevri date back to the mid 19th cen­tury. John Wur­de­man tells me that while some wine afi­ciona­dos might frown at the lack of fla­vor­ing im­parted by con­ven­tional oak bar­rels, he be­lieves that clay-ag­ing lets the qual­ity of the grapes and the re­sult­ing wine shine through. Of course, I buy a bot­tle to take home with me, adding it to my haul of fiery ajika from the De­sert­ers’ Mar­ket and a cook­book called Tast­ing Ge­or­gia. In a coun­try so rich in fla­vors, it only makes sense to take some home with you.

A plate of khinkali, tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian soup dumplings that are a legacy of the Mon­gol in­va­sion of the 13th cen­tury.

Above: John Wur­de­man in the wine cel­lar at Pheas­ant’s Tears. Op­po­site from

top: Over­look­ing the tiled rooftops of Sigh­naghi, a hill­top town in Ge­or­gia’s moun­tain­ous east; cheese­filled flat­bread, or khacha­puri, is the na­tional dish.

Chef Le­van Ko­bi­ashvili at Tbil­isi’s Culi­nar­ium cook­ing school. Right: Br­uschetta with nadughi (Ge­or­gian cream cheese), black­ber­ries, and pome­gran­ate seeds at Pheas­ant’s Tears.

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