Issue 4, 2018. August-September


TASTING GEORGIA: AN INTERVIEW WITH AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR CARLA CAPALBO interviewed Carla Capalbo, the author of Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, about her book and Georgia's potential as an agritourism destination.

Carla Capalbo's award-winning book, Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, has brought the dialogue about Georgia's rich cuisine and wine to audiences in the United States and around the world.

Through her beautiful photographs and stories, Capalbo has captured the natural grace of rural life and exposed the country's largely unused potential for agricultural tourism.

"Bowled Over"

The book highlights the diversity of rural life and cooking throughout Georgia, with special attention to winemakers.

Capalbo, who has written over a dozen books that capture the beauty of rural life and winemaking, predominately in Italy, was inspired to come to Georgia by the ancient art of qvevri wine.

In 2013, she came to attend an international qvevri conference, organized by Jonathan Wurdeman of Pheasant's Tears Winery and Alaverdi Monastery.

Within days, she was captivated by Georgia's food and its people, but when she looked for books that reflected the recipes and beauty she had experienced, she couldn't find any.

"Had I found the books that met my expectations, I wouldn't have written this one. But the fact is there was nothing, really," Capalbo said.

"There was nothing about the kind of rural life that I have spent so many, many decades working on and interested in. And yet that was the kind of thing I had kind of bonded on in Georgia."

With help from Wurdeman, Capalbo started coming to Georgia to do field research and take photographs for her book. Over the course of three years, she spent around five months traveling around the country and spending time with families - mostly winemakers - in rural communities.

While she did not set out to write a book that focused on women winemakers, the stories and talents of strong Georgian women stand out.

"First of all, of course one cannot help but be bowled over by the hospitality and generosity and openness really of the Georgians and, I found, in particular of the women," she said.

Capalbo was particularly impressed with their ability to turn very basic ingredients into sophisticatedly flavored dishes.

As an example, she tells the story of a woman who produces amazing food using next to nothing.

"This woman has no running water in her house; she is cooking in her bedroom. However, the food that she makes is in terms of the palate of it, in terms of the favors, of the subtly and the complexity, is as good as anything I have eaten anywhere," Capalbo said.

"She will take a handful of dry stinging nettle - of course, you have to have thought in the [growing] season to pick them and dry them - and she has that in her larder.

And a little cup full of cracked wheat, and she will make something out of it, what you could never imagine would ever be good, and is actually just delicious," she noted.

Echoes of Italy

That ability echoed what Capalbo had experienced during her time in Italy.

"As a foodie . . . to me what was interesting was the kind of foreignness and exoticness; the otherness of what I was seeing in the landscape - and in the kitchens - and at the same time what struck me was how familiar it all seems . . . I spent years living in rural, southern Italy where the people similarly have no money - they are cash-poor but have big vegetable gardens, probably still have some animals, and they live - they make a lot out of nothing," she said.

"I have written about all that for a long time, and so when I went to Georgia it was as if I could parse the landscape. I looked out of the window from the little bus and I saw all sort of things that actually I understood: I understood the shapes of the vegetable gardens, the scale of them, animals being free."

The appeal of the cooking and the people were so apparent to Capalbo that she found herself encouraging local winemakers to turn what came naturally to them into stops for tourists traveling in the area.

Over the three years she worked on her book, the changes were notable: Capalbo can list the families that took her advice, and started serving paying guests as wineries and small restaurants - and even guesthouses.

The Georgian people, she said, "are suddenly rediscovering this unbelievable richness that they have inherited: the diversity of the landscapes, the climates, but also cultures and down to grape varieties or tomato types," she said.

"It is an exciting time. Even from the time when I started writing this to when it came out, it has already really shot forward. The potential, as we have seen over the past 20-25 years in Italy, is huge - and in particular, in areas where the rural economy is struggling because there is effectively no work," she said.

"It is a way of bringing an income into the households - they don't even have to go out to work, they can stay in and work. What I think has been very interesting to me has been I could see all of that because I have seen it done before, and so, I have encouraged people to do it."

Keep it Simple

Capalbo noted that she had to reassure people that tourists don't need anything fancy. What visitors want is a "genuine rustic experience" - and, if possible, a modern toilet.

She recalled one family in Samegrelo, which, over the course of three years, created a place where visitors can eat and watch how traditional food is prepared.

"People come and all they want to watch is the old woman stirring the holmi, they [the Georgian family] are surprised that people would be interested in this. We want that, we want the genuine rustic experience to feel and to taste the vegetables because the quality of the ingredients, when they are good in Georgia, are absolutely outstanding," she said.