Carla Capalbo's Tasting Georgia: A Perfect Picture of Georgian Cuisine
I finally have a book for the people who ask me about Georgia. Don’t get me wrong, some amazing writers have dealt with the history, politics, and ancient wine culture of this country. Until now, however, nobody has come close to capturing the surprising diversity of Georgia’s gastronomic culture. Carla Capalbo’s new book Tasting Georgia succeeds in that respect and almost everything else it attempts to do. It is at once a reference guide for travellers, a cookbook, and a soulful testament to Georgia and its people.
I should add that I know Carla a little bit, having accompanied her for one of her many research trips. Even if we hadn’t met, however, I would still be heaping praise on Tasting Georgia. Moreover, having seen her in action, and knowing Georgia a little bit myself, I can say just how hard putting a work like this together was. For all its legendary hospitality, Georgia can be a hard place to visit. There are plenty of traps designed to dumb down and distract from the country’s authentic cultures. Not to mention the rough roads and inconsistent infrastructure that keeps so many of Georgia’s best pockets isolated from the outside world. Despite this, Carla endured countless hours of travel and still managed to get the very best information out of each destination.
Capalbo begins with a broad survey, outlining Georgia’s troubled history, its unique wine culture, and the geography that helped define the country’s gastronomy. From there she goes region by region, outlining in remarkable detail the specific dishes, wines, and people of Georgia’s provinces. Each chapter is accompanied by maps, suggested places to visit, as well as recipes inspired by each region’s local cuisine. The detail and diligence of her work is astounding.
As I said, and may well keep saying, the detail in Tasting Georgia makes it the ideal reference point from which to really explore this place. Nearly every important stop-off point on the regional roads is explored. Hotels, guest houses, and village homes are listed and referenced. Capalbo interweaves the tastes and traditions of each region’s wines with the remarkable life stories of those who make them. Her writing is clean and clear without feeling clinical. You could flip to a page for a quick look at where to stay in Tbilisi, or spend an afternoon reading, happily transported to the mountain vineyards of Racha.
The recipes in Tasting Georgia are a fantastic source for any and all interested in Georgian food. Carla is honest in saying that some of her recipes are somewhat non-traditional. Nobody in Georgia, to my knowledge at least, would think of making Mussels Chakapuli, a stew of tarragon and wild green plums traditionally made with spring lamb or veal. Yet, the riff on the old school is inspiring, and something I plan to attempt as soon as I get to a place where I trust the shellfish. Her Khachapuri, the ubiquitous cheese pie, is square, a shape that would shock any Georgian. Having fucked up a fair few attempts at making Khachapuri myself, however, I’m keen to try her more idiot-proof square method of stuffing the pie. Sharing these dishes, and fashioning them in such a way that non-Georgians unsteeped in the traditions here could attempt them, is one of Tasting Georgia’s great accomplishments.
Winemaker Zaza Dasabelidze and his son. Capalbo has included so many small tender moments like this in her book
It is in its photographs, all taken by Capalbo, that Tasting Georgia really captures the soul of the country. Georgia’s mountain vistas and bohemian side streets are all on prominent display, but it is the way Carla presents people, their homes, and the work of their hands that is most impactful. From farmers’ smiles to weathered fingers shaping Khinkali dumplings, Capalbo’s photos show the real love she has for the Georgian people. Though these photos display the poverty in which so many live here, they focus on the pride those people have, in their work and their families. They show, without a single word, why Georgian gastronomy and Georgian culture have withstood eight thousands years of trial, pain, and triumph.
For all my gushing I don’t think Tasting Georgia is faultless. Nevertheless, it balances its faults remarkably well. If the writing ever begins to feel dry, a look at the photos will re-enliven the reader. If the recipes diverge from Georgia’s conservative dining traditions, Capalbo acknowledges and addresses it. If she mainly focuses on the hardcore natural end of winemaking here, Carla ensures the reader knows that other styles exist but the natural wines are the ones she chose to explore in depth. On the whole, she acknowledges the role of her own taste in this book while still striving for some objectivity, a balance, like so much else in Tasting Georgia, that she strikes remarkably well.
Georgia is a hard place to do justice to. Sometimes it feels like there’s just too much of it, every turn in the road forces you to reassess your whole sense of this country. Tasting Georgia is, to me at least, the best effort yet made to really explore what Georgia’s food, wine, and culture, really is. It captures the true sense of diversity and surprise here, while retaining a single unified vision. It excites and informs the reader in equal measure. It is a genuine pleasure to see, and an even greater pleasure to share with people. You should probably order a copy.