Issue 1, 2015. February-March

   

GEORGIA VIA FOOD, TRADITION AND COWS

Investor.ge has asked U.S.-based food blogger Jenny Holm to write about her adventures exploring the tangy and tantalizing changes in Georgian cuisine, as chefs and amateur cooks work to create new dishes and preserve ancient traditions. Her first column is about a recent trip to several regions outside of Tbilisi.

Jenny Holm

Nana forms kubdari at Hanmer Guesthouse in Etseri, Svaneti

This past October I finagled a month off work to take a trip I'd been dreaming of for several years: a food-centric journey across Georgia on which I'd learn to cook regional specialties with local home cooks and meet the chefs, winemakers, and artisanal producers who are helping to both restore native traditions that were nearly wiped out during the Soviet period and breathe new life into a food culture that hasn't always welcomed innovation.

I'd spent a semester teaching English at a public school in Batumi in 2010 and can speak Russian and basic kitchen Georgian, so I felt confident in being able to get around and handle daily situations on my own. I started out in Tbilisi and returned there periodically throughout the month. The restaurant scene in the capital has become considerably more interesting since I last visited.

Wine-focused Azarpesha and its sister wine shop, Vino Underground, showcase small producers and natural wines, many of them fermented the traditional way—underground in clay amphora called qvevri. Azarpesha's menu features heritage grains like red doli wheat (used to make a nutty, satisfying bread) and makes use of seasonal ingredients found often in home cooking but rarely in restaurants, such as wild herbs and foraged mushrooms. Other standouts included co-owned Shavi Lomi and Lela, which serve up traditional Georgian flavors in non-traditional ways, and Culinarium, a restaurant and cooking school founded and operated by Tekuna Gachechiladze, whose creative "Georgian fusion" cuisine has brought her both fame and a degree of notoriety among locals.

After a few days in the capital, I was itching to get out into the countryside. I headed to Samegrelo, a region in western Georgia where a contact had set me up with a local host family. On my first morning in the village, I awoke with a kitten on my chest and a cow mooing outside my window—a sound that would become a familiar refrain over the next several weeks. Megrelian food tends to be spicier than that of other regions, thanks to liberal use of the hot chili paste adjika. My host Arleta uses it as a dry rub on roasted chicken, mixes it into the walnut sauce that can dress up just about anything, and rolls a mint-spiked version into a roulade of homemade cheese. She grows many of her ingredients herself in a small orchard of hazelnut, walnut, and fruit trees and a kitchen garden.

A Meskhetian feast at the home of the Aspanidzes near Aspindza, Samtskhe-Javakheti

Next I moved on to Svaneti, where a Canadian friend and his Georgian wife run a guesthouse in the village of Etseri, far from the tourist trap of Mestia. The view from their front door is breathtaking, all snow-capped peaks and golden meadows dotted with the neighborhood cows. Their Svan neighbor Nana taught me the finer points of filling and rolling kubdari, a savory pie stuffed with chopped meat and onions that she bakes inside the wood-burning oven that also heats the home. I tried my hand at milking their cow, then learned to make Georgia's ubiquitous imerulicheese from it.

Over the course of the month, I managed to visit six of Georgia's twelve regions. In Akhaltsikhe, the owner of Edemi Guesthouse, Marina Nariashvili, took me under her wing for three days, teaching me everything from the easiest way to slice a pumpkin (with an axe) to how to make cauliflower so good it's addictive. In a tiny village not far from the Vardzia cave complex in southern Georgia, two elderly sisters demonstrated how they make their own puff pastry for khachapuri using lard, which gives it a slightly smoky, porky tinge.

Traveling outside the capital and eating with families in their homes gave me the chance to try dishes I'd be hard-pressed to find in any restaurant: aromatic pumpkin and quince pilaf with raisins and orange marmalade layered among the rice, a Meskhetian soup called qaisapa made with dried fruit and sautéed onions, a savory walnut and wheat berry porridge served to commemorate the dead.

Learning to make puff pastry for penovani khachapuri with Donari Aspanidze near Aspindza, Samtskhe-Javakheti

It also gave me a taste of Georgian life very different from that in the urban playgrounds that Tbilisi and Batumi represent.

These kinds of unsanitized experiences that encourage personal connections between travelers and hosts are what so many travelers crave. With its historic wine-making tradition, unique yet accessible cuisine, and plethora of family-owned farms, orchards, and vineyards, Georgia could become a popular destination for adventurous travelers interested in culinary and agritourism.

Limited English skills outside the capital, underdeveloped accommodations in rural areas, and a paucity of guides specializing in food and wine remain obstacles to full development of this sector at the moment, but as media coverage and word of mouth about Georgiaas a tourism destination spread, I hope to see local and international entrepreneurs respond with opportunities for travelers to experience the country's food and wine as its own people do: in the home and on the land.

Outside of her day job, Jenny Holm is a freelance writer and recipe developer based in Washington, DC. You can find her writing and Georgian recipes on her blog, GeorgianTable.com.