by Barbara Balfour
It was a dizzyingly intimate moment, as visceral and emotional as it gets at the gate of an international airport at midnight.
As my cameraman and I waited, bleary-eyed, in Istanbul for our flight to Tbilisi, we heard them well before we got to the departure gate: burly Georgian men, arms slung around each other’s shoulders as they belted out the piercing tones of traditional polyphonic singing.
Time stood still as our fellow passengers’ deep, melodious voices reverberated, acapella, through the airport, and while I had no idea what they were singing about, I could easily picture their ancestors – the fierce warriors ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once wrote of, who would sing while preparing for battle.
And that’s how, on a week-long assignment to film a travel documentary in the ancient nation of Georgia, I succumbed to its charms before even boarding the plane to get there; before I remembered what tomatoes are supposed to taste like, and realized it is, in fact, possible to not only knock back copious amounts of wine without feeling like death afterwards, but also fit in piping-hot slices of what was basically a double-crust cheese pizza at almost every meal.
It’s not surprising the famous composer Piotr Tchaikovsky, who wrote much of Sleeping Beauty in Tbilisi, referred to Georgia’s capital city as “a sweet dream.” This is an accurate description for the entire country. Surrounded by the Black Sea, and nestled between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, Georgia is blessed with soil as fertile as its landscapes are diverse, from snow-capped mountains and deserts to endless rolling vineyards.
Home to 525 varieties of grapes and counting, most of which you’ve never heard of, Georgia is the original birthplace of wine. This is where wine-making began more than 8,000 years ago. Its position at the crossroads of competing interests between Europe and Asia has made it vulnerable to invading empires for centuries – and the vineyards were often the first place they attacked.
Georgia has been taken over by Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Turkey, and most recently Russia, who now illegally occupies more than 20 per cent of the country. And just as fending off countless invasions has become central to Georgian identity, so too is feasting on the bounty of the land and sharing it with guests, who are seen as a gift from God.
Led by our energetic, baritone-voiced guide, Tsotne, we experience the hospitality of this country first-hand through its world-class cuisine. Our feasting starts in Tbilisi, the country’s capital, where in one generous spread after another, Tsotne introduces us to typical Georgian dishes like lobio, an unforgettably delicious kidney bean stew served in a clay pot with sides of hot bread, sprigs of fresh coriander, and crunchy fermented vegetables.
Lobio – an unforgettably delicious kidney bean stew served in a clay pot, with sides of hot bread, sprigs of fresh coriander, and crunchy fermented vegetables.
Khachapuri, the pizza-like cheese bread, is an essential part of any Georgian feast. So too is the ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad, topped with tangy, garlicky walnut vinaigrette and served family-style with every meal.
I shovel in scoop after scoop of phkali – spice-rich pates of walnuts mixed with vegetables such as beets, eggplant, spinach or pumpkin, and garnished with ruby red pomegranate seeds. While it doesn’t take us long to polish off shkmeruli whenever it’s ordered – juicy, tender fried chicken cooked in garlic and milk in a clay pot – my absolute favourite dish is the modest yet mighty khinkali.
I still have dreams about those chunky soup dumplings. Made of minced meat and spices and encased in dough that has been pleated 12 times, it takes a little skill to eat khinkali gracefully: A little black pepper sprinkled on the bottom, a small bite near the top while holding onto the doughy stem. Slurp the hot broth without spilling it on yourself, then shove the rest in your mouth, leaving the knot of dough behind on your plate. Repeat, as often as possible.
|There are many different types of khachapuri, but my favourite had to be this version, which is basically a double-crust cheese pizza and served at almost every meal.||A much-loved Georgia culinary specialty is shkmeruli: juicy, tender morsels of fried chicken cooked in garlic and milk in a clay pot, which we dined upon at Meama.||Scarfing down khinkali is an art form. Here my cameraman and I are clearly mastering it. A little black pepper sprinkled on the bottom, a small bite near the top while holding onto the doughy stem. Credit Tsotne Japaridze|
Later in our journey, as we venture from the capital to bounce along the country’s winding roads, we spot multicoloured, candle-shaped churchkela hanging from roadside stands. These visually striking strings of nuts dipped in flour and simmering grape juice are referred to by locals as Georgian Snickers and could quite possibly be one of the world’s oldest energy bars.
These multi-coloured, candle-shaped energy bars are a common sight at roadside stands throughout the country. Locals refer to them as Georgian Snickers; called churchkela, these visually striking strings of nuts are dipped in flour and simmering grape juice.
On our way through Kakheti, the country’s eastern wine-growing region, we stop at the town of Signaghi, the so-called “City of Love” because of its 24-hour wedding chapel. There, we visit several family-run wineries, including the organic Okro’s Wines.
Owner John Okruashvili graciously opens bottle after bottle of red, white and amber vintages for us to try – each one refreshingly free of chemicals, additives, or sulfur, and which we enjoy from the third-floor terrace of the home where he grew up, overlooking the stunning Alazani Valley and the Caucasus mountains to the north.
John Okruashvili, owner of Okro’s Wines in Sighnaghi, graciously opened bottle after bottle of red, white and amber vintages for us to try – each one organic, free of chemicals, additives, or sulfur. We enjoyed them from the third-floor terrace of the home where he grew up, overlooking the stunning Alazani Valley and the Caucasus mountains to the north. Credit Tsotne Japaridze
I’m normally a cheap drunk but in Georgia, I’m surprised to find myself not only keeping up, but also pain-free the next day. That’s partly because of the unique way Georgian wine is made: with minimal intervention, in an egg-shaped clay vessel buried deep in the ground, called a qvevri. The grapes macerate along with the skins, stems, stalks and pips, producing rich varieties in vessels that can hold up to 2,000 litres.
Of course, every wine tasting comes with a feast – and Okruashvili not only plunks down plate after plate of delicacies but also sends us home with jars of home-made cherry compote and fresh-pressed sunflower oil from the garden – courtesy of his mother, in whose cooking you can taste the love and pride in every bite.
The Georgians often like to tell the story of when God first created the world. He handed out parcels of land to those who came to meet him at a scheduled time, but the Georgians were too busy toasting and feasting to make their appointment.
When God told them all the land had been given away, the Georgians apologized for their tardiness and explained it was because they had been drinking to his honour. Pleased with this response, God replied, “If that’s the case, then I will give you the best piece of land that I was saving for myself.”
And that region was Georgia.
|Georgians consider guests “a gift from God.” They will not let you leave hungry. This lunchtime feast was laid out for us at the Goderdzishvili family cellar in Bakurtsikhe, the Kakheti wine-making region of Georgia. The family has been making wine in traditional clay egg-shaped vessels called qvevri for more than 150 years.|
Today Georgia remains still so far off the beaten track, that most people still think of the American state rather than the country. On my way back home, the lady at the currency exchange counter at Toronto’s Pearson airport stared at me blankly when I requested to convert my leftover Georgian currency into dollars. After much back and forth she looked it up on her computer and said firmly, “There is no country of Georgia in my system.”
I suppose for now, it can be our little secret. But in a world getting increasingly hungry for authentic experiences, Georgia won’t stay unknown for long.
|Barbara Balfour is a television host and producer, award-winning public speaker, and international print journalist. Her work has taken her to over 40 countries and she is currently working on a film documentary about Georgia. Follow her work at www.barbarabalfour.com|