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Former Soviet republic makes feasting an art

Former Soviet republic makes feasting an art
By Margaret Sheridan
When it comes to hospitality, Georgians (think Black Sea, not pecan pie) are stern taskmasters. Their feasts, called supras, are dictated by protocol. The official toastmaster (tamada) grants permission to toast and signals the kitchen to refresh plates and uncork more bottles. At my first supra I lost count at the dizzying parade of plates, which I later learned was 42.
My culinary education in this beautiful former Soviet republic began in April, when I arrived for a short-term teaching assignment for Peace Corps Response. I lived in Chakvi, a village north of the bustling seaport city of Batumi along the Black Sea. During my stay, I took frequent 20-minute bus rides to Batumi to stroll its waterfront; an occasional six-hour weekend train ride to Tbilisi, the capital; and hiking/sipping holidays to Kakheti, a wine region in southeastern Georgia.
Nature blessed Georgia with three climate ranges: subtropical Black Sea, wet (high Caucasus) and arid (eastern Georgia).
But even before the newcomer learns geography, she learns Georgian hospitality. For example, any compliment to a host on his homemade wine results in a jug or two to take home. The slightest attempt to split a restaurant check gets a gentle scolding.
Drinking is serious. Pity the males who are expected to drain glasses of chacha (grappa-like firewater); women get a reprieve. A local pastime is watching a first-time visitor eat khinkhali (boiled dumplings). A dough wrapper twists the savory filling so tight that with the first bite, a spray of hot juice erupts and dribbles down your chin.
While in Georgia, I lived with a family of six. Daily meals were commandeered by Tamara, a stately 64-year-old grandmother from Belarus who spoke only Georgian and Russian. Because Georgians eat by the calendar, her garden dictated which preserves (fig, raspberry, blackberry) were on the breakfast table and what side dishes (green beans and beets, eggplant and squash) appeared at dinner.
With little more than three knives, a large toaster oven, and a square of linoleum as a chopping block, she delivered Georgian cooking — and lessons — without any common bond of language. The wine bottle in the fridge was replenished often from the cask on the side porch.
Georgia beatifies bread. One kind, lavash, resembles a mini-skateboard. Its shape comes from dough slapped against the fire-licked walls of a clay oven. Hunks of lavash function as sponges to mop up sauces such as puckery tkemali plum sauce, a cornerstone condiment.
And the fresh herbs (tarragon, mint, coriander, dill) infuse bean stews, kebabs (lamb, chicken, beef) and even a crumbly version of cottage cheese.
Nuts reign in Georgian cooking. Almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts thicken sauces, are ground into pastes for vegetable pates, are spread over slices of sauteed eggplant and stuffed into pan-fried trout. A bizarre-looking sweet called churchkhela features strings of nuts dipped into a cooked paste of grape juice, honey and flour. Hung to dry on racks, they look like gnarled candles. One honey shop in Chakvi advises customers to drizzle honey over hazelnuts on a clear glass plate to appreciate honey's color and clarity, not unlike oenophiles with wine.
Georgia, christened recently as "the cradle of wine" because the first traces of winemaking are found here, boasts more than 500 grape varieties. Its winemaking tradition features fermentation in clay amphoras buried underground. The country's amber- and gold-colored wines remind me of Halloween. One inky red served at the Vino Underground Wine Bar in Tbilisi was introduced as "black wine," a gift from the saperavi grape.
A visit to Pheasant's Tears winery and tasting room in the Tuscany-like city of Sighnaghi, in easternmost Kakheti, is a must. The owner, American-born artist John Wurdeman, came to Georgia in 1996 to paint but fell in love with the country, the wine and a beautiful folk singer. His restaurant's menus, affixed to antique carpets, resonate with influences from Turkey, Armenia and Persia.
During my visit to the Kakheti wine region, I stayed in Sighnaghi. My hostess at Mate Homestay welcomed me with honey chacha, then a bounteous breakfast on the patio. Because of their hospitality, home stays have become a popular form of accommodation for visitors. Locals, encouraged by the government to upgrade rooms in their homes with Western-style conveniences, pride themselves in hosting guests.
And that government encouragement for food and tourism starts at the top. The most famous culinary cheerleader happens to be the country's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, called Misha. A recent Misha sighting was reported by my students after he and his posse crammed into the wooden booths at Cafe Retro in Batumi, where they devoured copious amounts of Adjarian khachapuri (a regional cheese bread that features a raw egg atop puddles of molten butter and cheese). Yet another feast.
And my Georgian supra experience was repeated many times. But a family emergency in July cut short my stay. A final feast was whipped up in an hour by my Georgia granny. Nineteen neighbors arrived to clink glasses and stow gifts of wine, chacha, fruit and sandwiches into the taxi. Beneath a bunch of calla lilies were jars of granny's fig preserves, a delicious souvenir of Georgian hospitality.
If you go
Money: Currency is the lari (GEL). The current exchange rate is 1.64 per $1.
Language: Georgian and Russian predominate, but English is understood in larger cities and tourist destinations.
Eating, drinking: Pheasant's Tears winery, 18 Baratashvili St., Sighnaghi. pheasantstears.com. Dining, wine-tasting menus; carpets and art for sale.
Vino Underground Wine Bar, 15 Galaktion Tabidze St., Tbilisi. vinounderground.ge. Wine tastings daily and appetizer menu.
Cafe Retro, 10 E. Takaishvili St., Batumi. Email: retro.gia@mail.ru. Regional variations on khachapuri (cheese bread).
Honey House, 18 Tamar Mefe St., Chakvi. Samples of honeys from local beekeepers.
Staying: State-run tourist information offices keep lists of tour guides, home stays, hostels and hotels. Double-check on credit card acceptance; home stays are cash only.
Homestay Mate, 20 Gorgasali St., Sighnaghi. Email: axmetelashvilimanana@mail.ru. Comfortable rooms with generous breakfast. About $21 per night per person.
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December 2020