Friday, April 5, 2013

"The Guardian": Doing the chacha

Photo: Vano Shlamov/Getty
by Dan Peleschuk

05.04.2013. A few shots of the national drink allow travellers to gaze on Tbilisi with fresh eyes. Our guide, Lasha, couldn't find any other words: "Have a couple shots," he kept saying with a wry smile, "and you'll be set."

All afternoon, Lasha's attempts to describe the taste, strength and effects of chacha – Georgia's national spirit – had left us intrigued. We had spent the day touring the picturesque south Caucasian country, known for its majestic peaks, savoury cuisine and the hospitality of its locals. And Lasha, naturally, served as our source for all matters of local history and culture. But whenever the conversation turned toward chacha, a predominantly grape-based liquor reputed for its flavour and strength, he seemed at a loss for words.

So in the evening, as we headed back towards the capital of Tbilisi, a forlorn, roadside mess hut caught our attention. "Maybe they have it," Lasha wondered aloud as we pulled over.

He surveyed the kitchen, and we waited in the adjacent dining room. Minutes later, an apron-clad woman entered with a tray of khinkali, or boiled meat dumplings, and a bottle of clear, inconspicuous liquid. Success.

Once the khinkali had cooled, we raised our glasses, and toasted to one another. The subtle taste of grape tingled through my mouth as the high alcohol content registered, lighting my sinuses ablaze. A quick gulp of the salty juices from the khinkali neutralised the residual bitterness, but the satisfying burn remained. We repeated the process several times as the smile on my face grew larger. I soon realised Lasha was right: I was set.

The trip back to Tbilisi was swift. I began pulsating with excitement to explore the tree-lined streets and decaying, Tsarist-era buildings – sights we'd seen before, but not after several rounds of chacha. We bade Lasha farewell and escaped into the night, popping into one cafe after another. Somehow, the chacha changed everything. I was not drunk, but electric. My head wasn't spinning – it was sprinting ahead, along Tbilisi's winding streets.

The next morning, as we prepared to return home, Lasha appeared with a pair of two-litre water bottles filled with that same inconspicuous liquid. It was our own, home-brewed souvenir.

"Now I know you," he said with a smile. "Next time you come to Georgia, we'll celebrate properly."


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