Travelling Through Georgia, Eating My Way to Understanding
Only about four million people live in Georgia, spread over an area smaller than New Brunswick. If you avoid the mountain roads, it would take seven hours to drive across the country, from the black sea coast to the Azerbaijani border. Georgia is small, very small. An unaware visitor would roam across this country, enjoy the same twenty dishes at local restaurants, drink wines from two or three local grape varieties, and come home thinking of Georgia as a unique but uniform place, variated only by highlands and lowlands. The truth of this country, though, is that its tiny space houses an almost unfathomable diversity.
Depending on who you ask, Georgia is home to between one and two dozen unique cultural and ethnic regions, each with its own music, dance, and cuisine. Over three days I was given a glimpse into two of these regions, Meskheti and Imereti, in Southern and Western Georgia. I was welcomed into the homes of a few immensely talented cooks and vignerons to whom the idea of a single, uniform ‘Georgian’ cuisine, would be both a shock and an insult.
The trip began on an early morning in Signagi, my new home in Georgia. Loading the trunk with a few bottles of Pheasant’s Tears wine for our hosts I set off with John, the owner of Pheasant’s Tears winery, Gela, John’s partner and the lead winemaker at PT, and Michael, a visiting chef from Terroirs wine bar in London. Passing through Tbilisi we picked up Carla, an Anglo-American food writer doing a book on Georgia, before heading into Meskheti.
In Eastern and Central Georgia, where I’d spent most of my time here, the landscape is a mixture of rolling hills and plateaus with the looming highlands of the Greater Caucasus omnipresent in the distance. Driving into Meskheti takes you into a new world, nestled in the foothills of the more arid Lesser Caucasus. The landscape is made of river valleys walled by short mountains, covered in low shrubs, rocks, and the occasional herd of cattle. Where the East is full of farmlands, wider roads, and people, Meskheti feels empty. Cars and houses are few and the terraced farms, cut into the mountainsides along the valleys, lie fallow. Meskheti was the first part of Georgia to succumb to Ottoman conquest. Five hundred years ago the region was devastated and depopulated, it’s rich wine culture literally uprooted by Ottoman edict.
John and Gela came to Meskehti, along with their friends Luarsab, Nino, Levan, and Elia, to inspect some land they had recently bought. They plan to begin planting new and unique Meskhetian grape varieties that were nearly lost after the Ottoman conquest. Stepping out of the car John pointed at a large black rock and declared “That, is the future of wine!” It was a basalt stone. Unlike the sandstone and quartz peppered soils of Kakheti, Meskheti is replete with volcanic rock. If the Italian wineries of Vesuvius and Etna are any indication, volcanic soils are among the best for a winemaker seeking character and minerality.
Because viniculture is ubiquitous in most of Georgia, outside of the highlands, the typical spirit is Chacha, a strong grappa-like drink distilled from grape skins. In Meskheti, however, where viniculture was destroyed, the locals distil brandies from wild plum and cornelian cherry.
After our tour, it was time for a meal. Carla, who had been to Meskheti before, was praising Meskhetian food for most of the ride. The woman making us dinner, she said, had provided one of the best meals of her entire life. So, excited and a little apprehensive, we drove to a village nearby John and Gela’s new land. We walked into the home of a local woman, past a yard full of chickens and firewood. The home had no running water, and half of it lacked any flooring. With a broad smile, our hostess walked us into her dining room where she had laid out the first courses of a truly memorable meal.
We were greeted by a tower of fresh bread, plates of pickled tomatoes, and a pate made of minced walnuts and cabbage. Two plates of wild greens were brought to the table, one bunch stewed the other blanched and sauteed, both rich with the pungent taste of local meskhetian butter. Crisp, unctuous cabbage rolls followed, as well as cracked wheat peppered with mutton. Stewed dried fruits provided a sweet break before the three final dishes arrived.
First came a plate of fresh pasta in yogurt. Our hostess had rolled out half the pasta dough into long noodles and toasted the other half into small, crunchy, kernels. The two textures together broke every pasta rule I know, but worked so, so well. Next were tiny khinkali, Georgian dumplings, stuffed with minced garlic instead of meat or mushrooms. They were topped with onions, perfectly caramelized in meskhetian butter. Finally came another version of kchachapuri, Georgian cheese pie, with a lighter, flakier crust than the typically more stodgy varieties I’d seen in the rest of Georgia. This whole meal, obscuring every inch of the tablecloth, was made on a four-burner gas stove by an incredible woman who, when not hosting guests, grew her own crops, raised cows and sheep, and taught at the local school.
The size of the meal, and the comparatively tiny dent we managed to put in it, points to something else important in Georgian food. When a feast is laid out, you’re not expected to eat all of it. Plates of food are shared, family style, around the table, the remnants go either towards breakfast, staff meals in restaurants, or are reused and repurposed for future feasts. In a country where guests are literally considered a gift from god, the simple practice of sharing plates allows for lavish hospitality despite dire poverty.
The next morning, still feeling full from dinner, we drove North to Imereti. Before leaving Meskheti we clambered across the ancient city of Vardzia. Carved inside a mountain during the 12th century, the city concealed thousands of inhabitants, soldiers, priests, and even winemakers. An icon of Georgia’s golden age, each room in the clay city had water running through clay pipes.
Three more hours of driving took us through the Rikoti Tunnel into Imereti. After the dry brown of Meskheti, Imereti felt like a verdant paradise. Green fields and woodlands stretched for miles, the land flattened out with lazy rivers winding all across the scenery. In the far distance we could, once again, see the Greater Caucasus.
A few bends in the road took us to the home of Ramaz Nikoladze. Ramaz is a vigneron, living with his wife Nestan among his vineyards. Out of the car we were immediately ushered by Ramaz to his cellar across the street. Suddenly we were tasting three light, fruity Imeretian wines, Tsolikauri, a light amber, Aladasturi, a pink rose, and a white blend of Tsitska-Tsolikauri. All of these varieties are endemic to Imereti. Ramaz, I learned, is leading a wine revival in this region, teaching traditional winemaking practices to other Imeretian farmers and letting them compete in a market dominated by Kakheti.
After our tasting we were ushered back into Ramaz’s house where Nestan had laid out an Imeretian supra. Beginning with bread, steamed river fish, and plates of blanched wild spring greens. The blanched stinging nettles, served with a sour vinegar, were particularly special. As we began a formal Georgian feast with plenty of toasting and singing, led by Luarsab and Nino, dishes of rice, khachapuri, and hot stewed veal made their way to the table. More singing, and toasting, followed.
On the road back to Tbilisi we stopped at a quiet restaurant along a bend in the river. The place, John said, was one of the best restaurants in Georgia. Shortly after sitting down the table was laid with yet another mountain of food. Among the highlights were veal ribs, baked in a red pepper paste, and river fish fried in a cornmeal batter. Making, again, only a small dent in the meal, we waddled back to the car, too full even to talk.
That tour, was bookended by memorable meals in Kakheti and Tbilisi. The fresh greens of Imereti and rich dairy of Meskheti were contrasted by hearty grilled meats and egg sauces in eastern Georgia or nourishing beans with pickles and cornbread in central Georgia. Two days after our trip, Michael was given control of the kitchen at Azarpesha, one of John and Luarsab’s Tbilisi restaurants, to cook his impression of Georgian food in six courses. Those six plates could not possibly do justice to the variety of tastes and ingredients we experienced over our brief trip. Nevertheless, in dishes like mushrooms with tarragon-infused onions and lamb shoulder stewed in amber wine and served with blanched wild leek, Michael managed to articulate some of the incredible range of flavours we experienced over those few days.
Those three memorable days, a veritable mountain of food, a taste of some fascinating wines, and the beautiful welcomes we received wherever we went, showed me just how much this small country has to offer. I keep telling myself not to be surprised at what I find here, of course a ten thousand year old culture would have unfathomable depths. Yet, every place I visit and conversation I have, I keep feeling that same happy surprise I felt on my first visit to Georgia two years ago. I had planned to be here a month, that quickly turned into two. Whatever course my life takes, I know full well that I will be back here, soon, to find more diversity and yet more surprises.