An emerging hotspot for adventurous foodies and wine lovers, Georgia lies by the Black Sea, in the Caucasus Mountains. Fly to Tbilisi before exploring the countryside in search of great wines and a cuisine that’s colourful and vibrant, full of fresh and fermented vegetables, aromatic herbs, grilled meats and cheese breads.
Georgia is often dubbed the birthplace of wine (the earliest archaeological evidence of winemaking is in this region). Its unique winemaking tradition has continued uninterruptedly for over 8,000 years. The Georgians make their wines in qvevri: giant clay vessels shaped like eggs. The qvevri are made by hand by the few families that still know how, and fired before being buried in the ground. That’s where the wines are made. At harvest time, ripe grapes are poured into the qvevri and allowed to ferment naturally, without added yeasts or chemicals.
The wine often remains in the qvevri for several months, producing orange wines from white grapes with extended skin contact. These aromatic, pleasantly tannic wines go brilliantly with the wide array of dishes found at traditional Georgian feasts, or supras.
Khachapuri in SamegreloNo Georgian meal would be complete without slices of hot khachapuri. This cheese-filled bread is Georgia’s most iconic dish, as popular throughout the country as pizza is in Italy. Yeast or soda dough is folded around the cheese filling before being rolled or patted flat so the thin bread has a layer of cheese neatly hidden within it when baked. Other fillings for the hot breads are beet-greens, crushed beans and spiced meats.
Cheese khachapuri varies with the regions: in Adjara, on the Black Sea coast, the bread is topped with cheese and a soft egg. You stir the hot cheese into the egg and dip the bread into that creamy mixture. In Samegrelo, in western Georgia, the bread is even more luxurious, with cheese inside and on top. Utterly delicious as street food or at a banquet!
WALNUT AND HERB PASTES
The Georgian menu always includes many vegetable and vegan dishes. One of the most popular ways to serve vegetables is by combining them with a home-made paste of fresh walnuts and herbs, an easy addition that enhances many vegetables, from aubergines to mushrooms and pumpkins.
The classic way to make the paste is using a mortar and pestle but a food processor works well too. The walnuts or hazelnuts are flavoured with garlic, coriander seed, blue fenugreek, chilli and handfuls of fragrant coriander, basil, parsley and dill. The pastes are diluted with a little water before being mixed into the cooked vegetables.
Dumplings are said to have been brought to Georgia during the Mongol invasions and khinkali are a popular version that are served just-boiled, sprinkled with black pepper and usually without sauce. Their fillings vary. In the highlands of the Caucasus Mountains they’re filled with fresh, grated cow’s cheese or buttery mashed potato.
Meat-filled khinkali are known as soup dumplings. They’re served piping hot and take some skill to eat: you hold them aloft by the stem like a mushroom and bite into the side of the ‘cap’ as you suck the hot broth out. Then you eat the rest of the top, discarding the stem if it’s too thick.
The Georgians may not be big on desserts but that doesn’t stop them from using fruit creatively. In summer, when the sour plum trees – cultivated and wild – are laden with fruits, the plums are picked by families armed with ladders and baskets.
The unsweetened plums are boiled, strained into a purée and spread out flat on a wet board to make tklapi, or ‘fruit leather’. You tear it into strips to eat as a snack, or use it in stews and soups for added fruit flavour. Tklapi is sold rolled or folded and comes in many flavours.
Food and wine writer and photographer, Carla Capalbo, wrote many books on Italian food and wine before falling in love with Georgia. Her latest book is TASTING GEORGIA: a food and wine journey in the Caucasus, in which she travels through the country, recounting the stories of its chefs and producers, and featuring 70 recipes (Pallas Athene, £30).
Words | Carla Capalbo
Images | ©Carla Capalbo