At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the Republic of Georgia has a long, complex history and a fascinating cuisine to match. Add to that one of the world’s oldest winemaking traditions, and you have all the makings of an unforgettable epicurean adventure.
In the cozy, brick-walled restaurant at Pheasant’s Tears winery in the hilltop town of Sighnaghi, a traditional Georgian feast called supra (literally “tablecloth”) is spread out before us. There’s chicken liver and minced walnuts in a piquant pomegranate sauce, and veal roasted with mountain herbs. A rustic chakapuli stew reveals chunks of veal, onions, and sour green plums. Baskets of crusty bread sit alongside slices of smoked sulguni cheese and an intriguing dish of fermented jonjoli (bladdernut flowers) with pickled garlic. My eyes finally settle on a platter of pkhali—bite-size balls of finely chopped vegetables and ground walnuts crowned by ruby-red pomegranate seeds. Some are orange, some are green, and some are red, depending on the main ingredient (carrots, spinach, and beets, respectively). Though there are only six of us gathered around the long table, it looks like enough food to feed 30.
Located in the mountainous region of Ka-kheti some 100 kilometers east of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Pheasant’s Tears is a collaboration between American artist John Wurdeman and a local winemaker. Wurdeman first came to the Republic of Georgia in 1995 to study folk music, but it was the country’s rich culture and cuisine that encouraged him to remain. Now, other people seem to be taking notice. “Georgia is fast becoming a food and wine destination,” he tells me. “I know people who simply fly in to Tbilisi to eat and drink.” As for the name of his establishment, it comes from an old Georgian saying that “only the best wine can bring happy tears to a pheasant.”
About the size of Sri Lanka and home to just 3.7 million people, Georgia is not a big country. But the cuisine punches well above its weight—a symphony of tastes and textures that speak of Georgia’s position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Not for nothing did the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once assert that “every Georgian dish is a poem.” There are influences from neighboring Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Persia, Arabia, and even the steppes of Central Asia, courtesy of invading Mongols in the 13th century. The latter is evident in khinkali, thick dumplings stuffed with ground meat, spices, and a piping-hot broth.
The dining scene in Tbilisi has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, with a crop of young chefs plating up new interpretations of traditional Georgian flavors. Perhaps the best known among them is American-trained Tekuna Gachechiladze, whose latest venture, Café Littera, is hidden in the leafy courtyard garden of a renovated Art Nouveau mansion housing the Georgian Writers’ Union. On our first evening in town, we sit here at candlelit tables under a large pine tree feasting on platters of cold appetizers and dips—including a local version of hummus and eggplant rolls filled with walnut paste—while sipping on a dry local white wine. Working from recipes that predate the Soviet era, Gachechiladze cooks what she terms “modern Georgian,” stuffing zucchini flowers with cream cheese and mint before deep-frying them, and challenging convention by substituting mussels for meat in her chakapuli stew.
But even Georgia’s traditional fare is full of surprises. At an underground bakery near Sioni Cathedral in the heart of Old Tbilisi, I watch different kinds of bread being prepared in a tone—a clay oven that resembles an Indian tandoor. The national dish is khachapuri, a cheese-filled flatbread that comes in a dozen different variations, including the ubiquitous (and delicious) boat-shaped adzharuli with its topping of runny egg and butter.
What appeals to me most about Georgian cooking is the loyalty and devotion to fresh ingredients—not just fruits and vegetables, but also cheese and dairy. I encounter a diverse assortment of fresh herbs from basil to bay leaf, and parsley to dill and tarragon, and I soon appreciate the importance of walnuts, which are pounded and used in pastes, stews, and dressings. My favorite discovery is a condiment called ajika, a brilliant red paste made from bell peppers mixed with beets and chilies, garlic, walnuts, and fresh herbs.
No culinary romp through Tbilisi is complete without a visit to Deserters’ Bazaar, a warren of open-air stalls near the central railway station that got its name in the 1920s when soldiers fleeing the front lines of the Soviet-Georgian War offloaded their weapons here. I walk through stalls festooned with reams of green cucumbers, peppers, geometric piles of ripe tomatoes, and sacks of garlic and dried persimmons hanging like garlands. Huge tubs of colorful spices from fragrant blue fenugreek and pepper to Svanetian salt and chilies entice me with their overpowering aromas. Sitting on small plastic stools, traders sell bundles of fresh herbs from parsley to dill and tarragon. Plump matrons peddle blocks of briny sulguni cheese and pots of creamy matsoni yogurt.
To delve deeper into the local cuisine, I sign up for a class at Culinarium, a cooking school in Tbilisi’s up-and-coming Sololaki district that shares space with a laboratory and restaurant run by Gacheciladze herself. Under the tutelage of chef Levan Kobiashvili, I learn to make cucumber salad with fresh walnut dressing and a cold soup called tchriantela made from berries—a kind of Georgian gazpacho—from a classic 1885 cookbook written by feminist princess Barbare Jorjadze that Kobiashvili found in a flea market. “We want to carve out a special Georgian identity that was lost in the dark years of the Soviet regime,” Kobiashvili tells me after the class. “When I started as a chef in the 1990s, it was a very difficult period; we had no Internet or sources of information. We foraged recipes from old cookbooks or by talking to old people.”
In the village of Mukhrovani outside Tbilisi, I also get a hands-on experience making churchkela—the closest thing that Georgians have to a homegrown dessert—at a family enterprise named Dr. George Laboratory. A chewy, waxy sweet made from nuts and reduced grape juice mixed with flour, churchkela has been nicknamed “Georgian Snickers” for good reason. Creating churchkela involves dipping walnuts beaded onto strings in the thick grape paste until they are evenly coated, then pulling them out to dry on a wooden stand. With its mix of protein and natural sugars, the treat is said to be a staple in every Georgian soldier’s kit.
Georgian wine is another story. According to local archeologists, wine has been produced here for at least 8,000 years, thanks in part to a vast spectrum of microclimates and prodigiously fertile soil. Today the country boasts more than 400 native grape varieties, though many others are thought to have been lost during the Soviet era. During my 10-day visit, I taste a handful like deep red saperavi and the aromatic mtsvane.
Much of the mystique of Georgian wines is due to their method of manufacture, which has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Traditionally, Georgian wine is aged in huge clay amphorae called qvevri, which are coated on the inside with beeswax and buried underground before winter. After the first fermentation it is loosely sealed with a clay lid, and once fermentation is complete, the wine is fully sealed with wet clay. At Iago’s Winery in Chardakhi, less than an hour’s drive northwest from Tbilisi, vintner Iago Bitarishvili shows us his cellar, where bold rings encircle the necks of more than half a dozen qvevri. He says Georgians always made wine at home and shared it with their neighbors, but now these additive-free vintages are gaining recognition in Western Europe, with the French city of Bordeaux declaring 2017 as the year to celebrate Georgian wines.
It’s a similar setup at Pheasant’s Tears, where a few of the qvevri date back to the mid 19th century. John Wurdeman tells me that while some wine aficionados might frown at the lack of flavoring imparted by conventional oak barrels, he believes that clay-aging lets the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine shine through. Of course, I buy a bottle to take home with me, adding it to my haul of fiery ajika from the Deserters’ Market and a cookbook called Tasting Georgia. In a country so rich in flavors, it only makes sense to take some home with you.
Dr. George Laboratory
Where to Stay
This former publishing house in the Georgian capital’s charming Vera neighborhood is a hub for creative types. Its 125 rooms and suites combine 1930s New York vibes with old-world Tbilisi charm.
995-32/202-0099; doubles from US$184.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Craving for the Caucasus”).