Interest sparked in Moscow; interest deepened by two recent books on the food and wine culture of Georgia and the Caucasus; expectations of a day exploring the Kakheti region’s farm to table offerings high.
The experience: beyond expectations.
The first glimpse of Telavi market sends a tingle of excitement down one’s spine. An unassuming street entrance, guarded by a woman selling pickled walnuts, leads into the space. Passing the butcher with the best chops (and good pork too!), you are confronted by a flight of steps leading down into a cavernous covered market place, with its steel and glass structure looming overhead and providing a muted light into the hall below.
Every inch of space on the way down is filled by spice merchants, bakers, confectioners, herb sellers. In the main hall itself, their numbers multiply, and in the apparent chaos of stalls you realise that there is order after all.
Aisles are organized by produce: spices such as adjika and svanetian salt, marigold and blue fenugreek; sauces such as tkemali; confectionery such as churhckhela; fruit and vegetables; cheese, often sheep’s milk cheeses, from the curds to young, salty hard cheeses and sheets in rounds so thin you cannot imagine how they are made; pickled and fermented peppers, garlic and jonjoli, the buds of acacia trees; nuts, often walnuts; and most notably herbs: vast quantities of herbs, from the recognizable to those giving pause for thought to the indigenous and as yet untried.
Olia Hercules, in her book ‘Kaukasis’, describes one local herb, ombalo, thus: ”imagine marjoram and mint making love on some swampy marches and bearing a wild herb child.” By bringing this image into the meadows, she brings you close to what, at the end of the day, you recognize as a food culture that remains close to its origins in foraging and self-sufficiency. Unlike Western cultures where agrarian roots are often lost to mass marketing, genetic modification and lobby groups, you get the sense that many Georgians have never lost their connection to the soil.
This sense intensifies as the day goes on and the food bought on the market is transformed into an alfresco supra, the traditional Georgian table of plenty.
Between Tbilisi and the Telavi market and from there to Zangaura, the magnificent scenery in Kakheti unfolds: mountain passes give way to fertile plains; herds of cows and sheep wander together in open countryside, accompanied by a shepherd, sometimes on foot, sometimes horseback; vineyards begin to appear.
There are stops at historic sites: Gomri was the capital of Kakheti until the 16th century; and there is the obligatory lunch of khinkali, Georgian dumplings filled with a variety carnivorous delights, or mushrooms. or cheese, or potatoes, at a restaurant overlooking Telavi.
And then we arrive at Zangaura. This is Merab Bulzade, physicist by profession, winemaker by passion, with his 2,000 year-old qvevri discovered on his property. After the break-up of the Soviet union, he reclaimed his family land holdings in Kakheti, then gave up the sciences in favour of the winemaker’s life. In the vanguard of the resurgence of traditional natural winemaking techniques, several of his wines are fermented in qvevri, giant terracotta pots buried in the soil within his newly-built winery. There the grapes are crushed. The juices, as well as the skins, stalks and seeds, are decanted into these qvevri, where a natrual fermentation is induced by the presence of the solids in the juice. The first stage of the fermentation, up to six months depending on the grape variety, continues in contact with the solids, at which point the juice is taken off the lees and continues its fermentation for up to another six months. The solids are then used to make chacha, Georgian brandy.
He has 40 hectares under saperavi vines, the most important of the red wine grapes grown in Georgia, particularly in Kakheti. He not only produces wines from his own grapes, but buys and sells from other winegrowers across Georgia. The result is a range of award-winning wines, from crisp, steel-fermented whites, to the intense amber-coloured wines resulting from the long contact required by the open fermentation process, to the deep reds typical of the saperavi grape. These wines, the whites in particular, are unlike the wines drunk in the west. Often tannic, not high in alcohol, they can be mouth-puckering at first. But they yield a long after-taste, lingering on the palate and evolving, offering complex flavours as they fade.
And after a tasting in his cellar, under the trees and the sky in a meadow at Zangaura winery as the sun fades, nestled in the lee of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian border, the picnic begins.
Kristo and Georgi of Ezo Tours, equipped with the produce from Telavi market, demonstrated what it means to be treated to hospitality in Georgia. It centres round the Supra: a table laden with a never-ending supply of dishes, fresh and fermented, hot and cold, highly seasoned and redolent of the scent of herbs. The cuisine is direct, delivering tastes that are, to the western palate, sometimes astringent, bitter even.
The techniques use added oils sparingly, and typically as a seasoning to finish a dish, relying often on nut pastes and their natural oils to thicken sauces and lubricate food as it cooks. Pork and beef predominate; cheeses are often of sheep’s milk, young and intensely salty. Herbs are ubiquitous: think of them as the vegetarian mainstay of many meals, used as garnish, in pastes and as vegetables in their own right.
Fermentation, from garlic to tomatoes to jonjoli adds another set of astringent vegetable notes to the table. Spice mixes, wet and dry, such as adjika and svanetian salt, provide a unique heat to the cuisine, relying as they do on combinations of garlic and chili, as well as dried spices such as the indigenous blue fenugreek, and ground and dried marigold petals.
But what is truly enlightening is the effect that these have in combination. This picture of astringency and bitter flavours, tannic wines and intensely salty cheeses, when tasted together, produce an utterly harmonious taste experience. The sharp edges give way to a rich, intense palate, all coming together as a complementary whole. and utterly rewarding.
After almost six hours of leisurely indulgence, continuous wine tasting and conversation, the day ends.
See the complete photo essays on Steller at these links:
Olia Hercules: Kaukasis, the Cookbook. https://oliahercules.com/
Carla Capalbo: Tasting Georgia. http://carlacapalbo.com/