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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Celebrating Georgian Food

by David J Constable

About David: David is a features writer and essayist who has written for numerous titles including Esquire, the Evening Standard, Vertu Select, The Arbuturian, Foodepedia, and Fire and Knives. He writes a weekly blog for the Kensington and Chelsea magazine, The Notebook, and is a member of The Royal Geographical Society and The Guild of Beer Writers. He lives in London.

16.05.2012. Situated at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, Georgia’s food is a reflection of where they sit politically and geographically on the map. It’s a tight amalgamation of what is home-grown and that which is inspired, collected and cherry-picked from its left-Mediterranean and right-Soviet neighbours.

Wine is the country’s greatest ambassador with around 525 native grape varieties. Archeological excavations (the finding of pips and pollen grains in mud bricks) proved that wine was made – and of course, drunk – in South Caucasus, Georgia circa 6000 BC., making Georgia The Cradle of Wine. This puts a spring in the step of those involved in the Georgian wine scene and those whose job it is to produce and promote Georgian wine. With history on their side, they know that what they are producing is good; they’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

In 2011 Georgia launched the first International Qvevri Wine Symposium, in which culture, history and science combined to celebrate and educate. I was invited to attend by Pheasant’s Tears, a small Georgian vineyard in Jugaani Village who produce hand-crafted natural wines according to ancient Georgian principles. Along with various samples of natural wines – something that has always been a symbol of the country and its people – there were also plenty of opportunities to sample the food from this small corner of the former Soviet edge.

What I experienced in Tbilisi and Kakheti, in surrounding farms, vineyards and religious institutions, was largely communal helpings, seeped in rusticity; khachapori and zaratskoy (breads), soft cheeses, walnuts and pork. For a country with such a fascination and diverse variety of grapes and wines, there is still some work required in their culinary output; to intensify gourmet pallets in order to withstand and respect the pairing and to define their own national food identity. This is not to say that Georgian food is bad, it’s very good, but rather it plays a secondary role to wine and needs to be researched, prepared and executed in such a way as to compliment and raise cuisine to further heights than it currently stands.

Food, along with wine, is part of the Georgian community. It’s celebrated as a vital commodity in the bringing together of friends and family. It is what food used to be and what much of the Western world have now forgotten, allowing the art of dining to instead be something rushed or consigned to a human necessity for survival, rather than as an opportunity for celebration.

At the dining table, guests are invited to begin with khachapuri, a thin pie-like slice filled with salted cheese; and then there are lobio (kidney beans), sulguni (cheese roasted in butter) and chopped fennel mixed with pork-cuts and plums. Fish, breads, fruits and fresh honey arrive. There was a memorable beef stroganoff (Russian boef a la Stroganoff) and a rich goulash with dumplings (Hungarian).

Like in England, family tables are filled with regional produce, much of which is the rustic, earthly pickings of once peasant-pleasers; those cheaper-cuts of beef and pork, here, strongly peppered (khiakali) or mixed with aromatic herbs.

A further example of meaty-mixture from local produce is kupati, which I tasted at a vineyard lunch in the Alizani valley. What appear at first to be little sausages, are small encased meat parcels made from pork, beef, mutton and red peppers; sizzling morsels of fleshy delight. And there’s a hot broth to follow cooked from beef and lamb entrails called khashi, again a illustration of how the cheaper cuts (organs) are used to present hearty, farmland luncheons.

The Mediterranean influence is adopted also, incorporated into local dishes with ingredients from family farms and orchards; mixed with the herbs, garlic, red peppers and pomegranate grains for vibrant exhibition and texture. Straightforward ingredients are twisted and developed, feeding from border-neighbours Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia into their own national, fiercely independent, cuisine.

Often there is a head of the table at a Georgian meal, named the ‘Tamada’, elected to toast and maintain discipline. The ancient ritual of host has been kept throughout Georgian history in strict tradition. Here again, is an example of food as custom and celebration, as well as of humour and necessity. Incorporated into the proceedings are tales and jokes, and learnings from the Tamada’s wisdom.

Food in Georgia is not pushed to the forefront, like wine, and is something less discussed, researched and promoted. Indeed, it’s role remains for families in the home while Georgian wines journey the globe. But it’s no less considered in the homes, farms, orchards, vineyards and religious institutions of Georgia, for it is the accompaniment shared with wine amongst family, friends and in welcoming all guests. It’s a cuisine rooted in traditionalism while gathering new momentum from neighbouring countries, and Georgia’s culinary journey has not ended yet.

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