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Monday, December 06, 2021

Georgia on my plate

In Kvareli town near Tbilisi, an epicurean trail springs plenty of surprises for the foodies.

Written by Pranjali Bhonde Pethe |
Updated: June 2, 2019 8:57:46 am
A view of Tbilisi.

Every Georgian dish is a poem,” Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) once asserted. At the Kindzmarauli winery in Kakheti Province’s Kvareli, 150 km to the northeast of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Pushkin’s words rang true. This lovely town in the lap of the Caucasus Mountains is famous for its wineries and centuries-old tradition of making wine.

Seated under a hazelnut tree, as we devoured the sumptuous Georgian spread placed before us, only the clink of wine glasses broke the silence as the three of us — my husband and I, and our guide — focused on feasting. The eclectic mix of dishes before us included mchadi, a pan-fried cornbread, in-house salad whipped with fresh tomatoes, cucumber and parsley, and bowls full of lobio, a red-bean stew, much like the Indian rajma. Baskets of warm shoti puris, traditional Georgian bread, sat alongside the fiery adjika, a brilliant red paste made from bell pepper, chillies, garlic and herbs. Most of the ingredients were either procured from the farm or foraged from the nearby forests. With such an introduction to the cuisine, it wasn’t long before we had swiped our plates clean and washed it all down with glasses of red wine.

The dry red wine that we sipped on was made from Saperavi grapes and matured in a qvevri — a large egg-shaped earthenware pot used for fermentation, storage and ageing of traditional Georgian wines. Qvevris are either buried below the ground or set into the floors of large wine cellars. Georgia’s 8,000-year-old tradition of making wine has been listed by the Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage. To delve deeper into the wine-making tradition, I signed up for a tour of the vineyard. Along with a bunch of other tourists, our guide led us into a marani, a traditional wine cellar, where several qvevris lay buried. Unlike a regular wine cellar with controlled temperature, these wines were left underground to mature on their own. In one corner lay instruments for cleaning qvevris, crushing grapes and stirring chacha — the traditional pomace brandy made
from grape skin.

On the walls were photographs of men carrying wine in a bag made from cow skin, portraying the way it was transported in olden times. “The qvevris vary in size: volumes range from 20-10,000 litres,” said the guide, as she ladled a year-old red wine from the qvevri and offered us some. Before I left, I also got a hands-on experience in making churchkhela, a traditional Georgian candy made with grape must, nuts and flour. I was handed a string beaded with walnuts that I dipped in tatara, a mixture of flour, sugar and badagi (concentrated fresh grape juice) until they were evenly coated. It was then pulled out and left to dry on a wooden stand.

The next day, I drove out of Tbilisi to Gudauri, a skiing destination to the north of the Georgian capital. The view changed rapidly from concrete buildings to rural landscapes. Shepherds tending to their sheep, bee farms and apple and peach orchards lined the road, punctuated by houses overflowing with gorgeous blooms.

Rows of neatly lined jars of honey, homemade wine, pickled vegetables and chacha were on sale at the makeshift stalls along the road. We drove past green pastures until the highway ascended rapidly after Ananuri, a charming castle built in the 13th century. The Aragvi river coiled underneath, sunlight embellishing its waters with a bright gold.

At Gudauri, we paraglided into the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains and, later, drove up to the iconic Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument until we had to head back due to a landslide warning. We stopped at a local restaurant in the hamlet of Pasanauri, where the women taught me how to pleat khinkalis — Georgian dumplings stuffed with minced meat. With a rhythmic movement of their hands, they carefully wrinkled up the edges of the khinkalis into a frilly pouch. I enjoyed a delicious local fare of mkhvlovani, a spinach and cheese pie and khachapuri — a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread.

Overnight, at a homestay in Akhaltsikhe, I was treated to a supra, a home-cooked feast, by my Georgian host. The table groaned under the weight of traditional dishes like fried trout, sulguni (brined Georgian cheese), jonjoli (pickled bladderwort flowers) and a lobiani (red bean-stuffed bread). My eyes settled on a platter of smoked eggplant rolls stuffed with walnut paste. Though we were just three, it looked like the food was enough to feed a dozen more. We washed it all down with jugs full of wine.

Georgia’s food is full of surprises. I realised this over the next few days as I combed the streets of old Tbilisi. Veritable forests of herbs — parsley, tarragon, dill — with mountains of spices and salt mixes, piled up on tables; colourful thin sheets of tklapi, a Georgian puréed fruit roll-up leather, festooned the stalls. In this milieu of fresh ingredients and delicious meals, I had almost forgotten that it was time to go back home. My haul from the market included the fiery adjika, a bottle of dry red wine, Svanetian salt and a tiny bottle of chacha.

As I write, my mind goes back to this flavourful memory where the hearty taste of the khinkali, the richness of the lobio and the cheese-filled khachapuris held me in good stead. During my trip to the foothills of Georgia, I got an opportunity to witness poetry on plate — and experience pure bliss in every saunter and sip.

Pranjali Bhonde Pethe is a Pune-based writer

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