How Bone-In, Fermented, Goose Dumplings Changed My Whole Idea of Charcuterie
I’ve been seriously craving charcuterie while I’ve been in Georgia. Meat, generally, isn’t treated with much complexity in this country. The only tradition of curing or fermenting meat I was aware of came in the form of lori or ham from the mountains of Racha. Though lori can serve well as a flavouring for strews, it generally suffers from being over-salted and under-dried. Rustic, and sometimes charming, it's often carelessly executed. After Canada, and the unbelievable range of charcuteries I was working with at the butcher shop, this country’s lackluster selection of cured and prepared meats has been its largest culinary drawback.
The lack of a charcuterie culture here was all the more surprising for me given the reverence for fermentation in Georgian cuisine. For the brief budding period of the Caucasian Bladdernut tree, families descend en-masse, picking and fermenting the buds in brine. That preparation, called jonjoli, is one of the most unique tastes in this country. Nearly every widespread vegetable in this country, from cabbage to cucumber, to banana pepper is fermented in simple saltwater solutions. No Georgian would ever be so lazy as to use vinegar. Local fermented cheeses are found in every pantry and coldroom. It almost goes without saying that every Georgian meal is washed down with the country’s proudest fermented product: wine.
So, in a country with a love for fermenting, and the sort of agrarian poverty that lends itself to charcuterie, I could not find a decent local product that matched the capocollo or guanciale I treasured back in Toronto. Until, that is, the team from Poliphonia, one of my Tbilisi restaurant employers, took a trip to Meskheti.
Meskheti has been used as a blanket term for Southern Georgia. Historically comprising much of what is now Northeastern Turkey, contemporary Meskhetian culture lives in the villages of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Our trip took us to the heart of historic Meskheti, the Mtkvari river valley, where the South Caucasus’ most important waterway takes its first few bends on its long journey to the Caspian. For two days we travelled along this valley, staying close to the historic cave city of Vardzia. This fortress, carved into a mountain through the 12th century, was the heart of Queen Tamar’s Georgia. At the height of Georgia’s historic cultural and territorial importance the city’s soldiers defended the southern frontiers from Turkish invasion. All the while, culture flourished inside the caves, 12th century frescos still adorn the UNESCO site's churches, winemaking flourished inside the mountain chambers, and Georgia’s greatest poet Shota Rustaveli composed the Knight in Panther’s Skin, his ode to Queen Tamar, at her court in Vardzia.
Our trip, curated by my boss John Wurdeman, was meant to give us a taste of Meskhetian food ahead of a new Meskhetian menu at Poliphonia. By day two we’d already put two gargantuan meals under our belts. Simple and straightforward, the village kitchens we visited prepared various combinations of fresh pastas, tiny dumplings, cheese, sour yogurt, butter, onions, and garlic. We’d feasted on trout from farms along the Mtkvari, grilled over coals and vine cuttings. We’d eaten the pure white crystalline honey of the region. We were constantly full, and in heaven.
For lunch on the second day we drove to the base of Vardzia, along the one immaculate road in the region. Skipping the mountain fortress, we took an unpaved cliffside road to the village of Chachkari, literally meaning the chachagates. Chacha, Georgia’s version of Grappa, was distilled in this village for Vardzia. It was piped in tunnels through the mountain to the court of Tamar and the barracks of her soldiers. As with much of Meskheti, a fraught history of Turkish conquest and Soviet deportation plans has left the village largely abandoned. However, the family of a young winemaker named Giorgi Natenadze still keep their home in Chachkari. Under the shadow of Vardzia and the shade of pergola vines, Shota, the family patriarch, his wife Nino, and their son Beso greeted us. Our table was laid in their yard, where the sun’s heat broke the cool February air. First, however, we stepped inside to see where the family was preparing our lunch. This is where I met the goose.
It was in two halves, sitting in a weathered enamel bowl while a young man chopped at the bird with shears. Cutting lengthwise against the ribcage, he lopped off a succession of tiny, bone-in chunks. The women around a table next to him, picked up those minuscule pieces and wrapped them in dough, forming tiny, rustic versions of khinkali. The look of it, meat darkened from ruby red to burgundy, the thin layer of fat shining with a yellowish glow, the bones dried out and crunching under the shears. I could tell that good things were happening. John quickly translated and told me that the goose was wild, hence the relatively small amount of fat. The bird, he said, was brine-cured for a week before being dried for a few days in the sun and a further month in a cellar. Though bone-in pieces were going into the dumplings, he said the larger bones from the legs, wings, and breastplate would be broken and added to the cooking water, letting their marrow enrich the broth. I sheepishly asked the goose-cutter if I could taste a few pieces. With a smile, he let me snatch a bite. It was something else.
Like the best charcuterie, it wasn’t over salted. Strongly flavoured, the meat was firm and gamey, the fat was rich and silky with a touch of funk, holding the piece of rib bone in my mouth for a second I was hit with another layer of richness, the salt of the brine seeping out of the marrow. I was excited, this was different. Bone-in charcuterie, outside of Spanish Jamon and smoked pork hocks, is something I’ve rarely experienced. A bone-in cured bird is something I couldn’t have imagined. In the one culinary area where I thought Georgia was unsurprising, I was already flattened by the flavour of this goose. I hadn’t even tried the dumplings yet.
We sat down in the yard and began by tasting some of Giorgi’s wines. Natenadze is one of the first winemakers revitalizing the near-destroyed winemaking traditions of Meskheti. Despite the dry terraced slopes and basalt rich soils of the valley, winemaking in that region was nearly destroyed by a period of Ottoman rule. In a paradise of volcanic terroir, Meskheti represents the next great opportunity of Georgian winemaking. Natenadze’s wines, though imperfect, were lovely reflections of smoky volcanic soils and the wild four hundred year old vines he harvests from. Shota acted as our Tamada as we moved from Giorgi’s bottles to the wine he and Nino made from the pergolas in their yard. Their wine, a blend of local varieties and a wild non-vitis vinifera vine from the Americas called Isabella, brought to Georgia for its resistance to philoxera, was a fresh, acidic, slightly smoky joy.
Then the food came. There was salty cheese that flaked like village butter. Plates of enlivening fermented cabbage and tomatoes that felt like a mouthful of puttanesca. A pot of matsoniGeorgian sour yogurt was the perfect palate cleanser. But obviously, the real revelation was the dumplings. I had been a little put off seeing them prepared. The cooks seemed to add a tiny amount of goose in each dumpling, sometimes using pieces that were mostly bone. Georgian khinkali are certainly dough-heavy but usually they’ve got plenty of meat. However, the point of the dish is not to eat the goose but to devour the dumpling dough, enriched by its fermented contents and the bone-broth it was cooked in.
These dumplings were a bit of a ‘fuck you.’ No restaurant would ever dare to serve a dumpling containing tiny pieces of bone, something you have to eat with your hands and inevitably spit bits back onto your plate. The whole enterprise is ungainly, slightly off-putting, and unbelievably delicious. It reminded me why I love charcuterie. The sight of a board of well-aged meats, cured and smoked, loved and tended to for years, devoured in a few moments in greedy mouthfuls has always upset me. The history of cured meat is one of making rare animal proteins stretch, feeding dozens of people on a single skinny wild goose. Guanciale, more a lipid and flavouring agent than sandwich meat, has always excited me more than prosciutto. These dumplings, bones and all, were a perfect expression of what I love about charcuterie: “this is what we have, we make it last, and we make sure that its flavour stretches far further than its quantity should reasonably allow.”
It was weird, rustic food. It was served beside a river carving a path through basalt mountains. It was accompanied by toasts and stories of unbelievable pain and perseverance. More than an experience of flavour and gastronomic joy, those dumplings and that goose represented survival in a fraught part of a fraught country. In a place where I thought no interesting legacy of cured or fermented meat existed, I was shown the purest expression of what I love about charcuterie, and food in general. It was history, ingenuity, poverty, and deliciousness.