Hungry Traveller in Tbilisi, by Tristan Rutherford
Delicious Magazine, September 2018
Bunches of wild asparagus sprout next to a fish tank of teaming trout. Wheels of cheese weigh down a Lada to its bumpers, as strings of dried apricots dangle from the vehicle’s wing mirrors. As the crow flies, the Deserter’s Bazaar in downtown Tbilisi sits 100 miles from the borders of Russia, Turkey and Iran. It shows. Tehrani-style street stalls sell blue fenugreek and bee propolis. The indoor section of Georgia’s largest market – a Soviet-era maelstrom of giant pumpkins, pickles in oil drums and braying beasts – vends wild tea foraged near the Black Sea.
That said, the bazaar couples treats you literally cannot pair in Georgia’s neighbouring countries. The spices of Arabia are displayed next to a entire row of fresh suckling pigs. Alcohol is sold with such abandon that during my hour stroll, I’m strongarmed into sipping four home-made wines and two shots of chacha, a marc-like pomace brandy know as vine vodka that clears the tubes like liquid nitrogen. Pistachios are bagged and sold by Asian nation of origin – Uzbek, Azeri, take your pick.
The most memorable section? That would be the cheese. There is guda sheep’s cheese aging under a sheepskin to guarantee a farm-tastic tang. And dambal’khacho, a moulded quark wrapped in paper, aged underground, then served seared in hot butter. Plus nadugi. That’s a cheese inside a cheese. Like a ricotta whey wrapped inside a silken slice of cow cheddar. There are plenty of healthy offerings too. A case in point is tklapi, a ‘fruit leather’ made from plum, peach or apricot mush spread on a plastic sheet then air-dried. Torn up bits of sour tklapi can be used as a throat lozenge. Sweet ones are lobbed into a stew. A full half of the ingredients and dishes I witness can’t be nibbled anywhere else.
Long-time resident Paul Rimple sums up Georgia’s crossroads cuisine on his Culinary Backstreets food tour (culinarybackstreets.com). “National dishes were cross-pollinated by Georgia’s position on the Silk Road from China to Europe,” he explains.
Our first stop is a subterranean bakery based around a vast tandoor-like oven. Armenian-style lavash and Indian-esque paneer nans are sold steaming for pennies. Other fluffy bread pillows are stuffed with lobiani (beans spiced like an Iraqi bazaar) and khabizgina (with kefir, herbs and mashed potato providing a digestible dough-on-the-go). “Bread is sacred in Georgia so it’s never chucked away,” says Rimple. “Part of the reason is that Georgians eat and drink so
freakin’ much at dinner, so breakfast is leftover loaves from the night before.”
A church farm shop next door describes a foodie culture that borders on the fanatic. Products sourced from local villages include comb honey, takeaway curd and plastic syringes of queen bee serum. “To aid fertility, locals would sooner inject one of those in their mouth than visit a doctor,” claims Rimple. All products are organic – and also come blessed by a local priest, a bonus in a nation where dining companions are considered ‘guests from heaven’. Church frescoes regularly feature god, the son and holy toast, with barrels of wine drawn alongside. “Even in the unearthly USSR, Georgian cuisine was considered the best,” concludes Rimple.
The best street snack on Rimple’s £70 full-day tour, which includes lunch and market tour, are churchkhela. These candle-shaped candies found across town are formed when almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts are threaded onto a string. Then they are dipped into cauldrons of bubbling fruit juices – grape in the mountainous east, crushed berries on the western coast – then left to drip-dry. They are calorific, intense and regionally diverse. In other words, Georgian cuisine on a stick.
Timeless and modern
New direct flights from London make it possible to eat Tbilisi over a long weekend. By dishing up culinary history to a modern audience, the country hopes foodie tourism will keep traditions alive. A case in point are the only-in-Georgia dumplings called khinkali, which are served by the thousand each lunchtime at Zakhar Zakharich (3 Right Bank, Mshrali Bridge).
The restaurant still makes its dough by hand. Raw pork, lamb or beef is twisted inside each dumpling along with garlic, parsley or mushrooms, then boiled in a herby broth and served. It’s dim sum, Caucasus-style. The trick is to pinch the doughy topknot (called the “kudi”, or hat) while sucking out the “k'uch'i” (stomach) without spilling the unctuous interior. Drinks are also eminently Instagramable and geographically unique. I sip a sparkling Zedazeni Tarragon soda and plan dinner.
Sabatono (30 Alexandr Griboedov Turn) is perfect for first-time foodies. It presents a geographical cornucopia of Georgian cuisine in visitor-friendly surrounds. I kick off with a pizza-style khachapuri. Like a Turkish pide, it’s a bready boat filled with molten sulguni cheese, with two cracked eggs as passengers. Ajapsandali is an aubergine firestarter that could have ridden out of Central Asia with Genghis Khan. Eggplant is also rolled around walnut paste into badrijai nigvzit wraps, then seared and served à la minute.
By the time tkemali sour plum sauce is being poured over mtsvadi brochettes I’m a broken man. For £10 my dinner has spanned the entire nation state. I can only stagger to Vino Underground (15 Galaktion Tabidze St), an all-natural wine cellar that also serves vintages from every corner of Georgia in one gem of a bar. Better still, with no sulphate hangover I wake up thirsty for more.
The road from Tbilisi to Georgia’s principal Khaketi wine region takes 90 minutes. It undulates through meandering rivers to citrus orchards, both watered by the snow-capped Caucasus peaks that hem in the verdant plateau. Grapes grow in wild abandon, some even climbing 100ft-high mulberry trees that litter the route. In Soviet times only four of Georgia’s 525 grape varieties were allowed to be made into wine. Thankfully, in these isolated parts, that policy of culinary homogenisation was impossible to police.
My tasting trip has been organised by Living Roots (travellivingroots.com) who organise culinary, ethnographic, foraging and wine tours. Our host today is Georgia’s most acclaimed winemaker, John Wurdeman, of all-natural vineyard Pheasant’s Tears (pheasantstears.com). His cellar contains not stainless steel tanks but ceramic qvevri. “Wine ferments inside these giant amphorae buried into the ground,” explains Wurdeman. “As qvevri leave no metallic, oak or other tang each vintage speaks Georgian.” Georgians have been fermenting wine in the same manner for 8,000 years and see no reason to alter the method. Indeed viticulture is so ingrained that parents smear wine on the dummies of fractious babies.
Outdoors we stroll Wurdeman’s all-organic vineyard. Birds, bees and butterflies buzz the vines. During Soviet times chemical fertilisers were either too expensive or woefully misallocated, so few despoiled Georgia’s divine terroir. On Pheasant’s Tears’ rooftop tasting salon we crack six bottles including a 2012 Chinuri, a grape that has grown resistant to high altitude frosts and mildew over millennia to produce a silken amber nectar with a faint fizz of mint and pears. It’s unlike anything I’ve sipped before: booze like it tasted before the industrial age.
Queen of cuisine
The future of Georgia’s food and wine can be traced back to Tbilisi. Sprawling across the ivy-choked courtyard of the Georgian Writers’ Union building is Littera (13 Machabeli St), run by female head chef Tekuna Gachechiladze. Not for nothing is she known as ‘The Queen of Georgian Fusion’. “In this country we are so obsessed with heritage that we have forgotten our tradition is to invent,” she explains. Gachechiladze has therefore trailblazed a new trend that serves timeless ingredients with Asian and European élan. To prove the point she orders us all 11 items on her starter menu.
In the national stew called chakapuli, which zings with tarragon and white wine, Gachechiladze has replaced the meat with Black Sea mussels. Their ozone whipcrack matches the dish perfectly. Trout is normally grilled but on this starter she serves it tartare with adjika pepper paste, “to preserve its real flavour”. We split the dish in two like old friends – then order the same again. “Our food is not globalised,” says Gachechiladze. “But we would still like to share it with the world.”
More food and travel stories from the Middle East can be read here.