If you consider yourself a wine lover, you can’t have missed the growing enthusiasm in recent years around wine from the small and seemingly distant country of Georgia. Located in a part of the world known as the Caucasus, in Eurasia, it’s bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. Not surprisingly, it’s been an important crossroads in history, being one of the stops along the Silk Road, and coming under Arabian, Mongol, Ottoman and Russian rules at different points in history. The country’s past comes alive on the plate, where foods with origins as diverse as pomegranate, tarragon, plum sauces, brined cheeses and flatbreads appear together any given meal.
But not everything was influenced by Georgia’s past rulers—plenty of indigenous produce feature in the food and wine. Walnuts are native to the region, and a meal without it in some form can hardly be called Georgian. On the wine front, there are hundreds of local grape species, around 40 of which are used in commercial wine production today, with names you’ll never have heard of and probably won’t pronounce correctly on your first try.
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It doesn’t take long to realise how important viticulture is to Georgians – within minutes of pulling out of the airport at Tbilisi, the capital, you’ll drive past suburban homes, each with their own vines twisting on DIY pergolas above the yard. So pack your bags, and start practicing words like rkatsiteli (that’s a white grape variety, pronounced cat-see-telly).
Like stepping into the rustic cellar of your vinophile grandmother’s home, this quaint bi-level restaurant, clad in brick, patterned rugs and mismatching lampshades, is the perfect place to get acquainted with Georgian cuisine. Here, you can sample everyday favourites such as khinkali (soup dumplings, not unlike our own xiaolongbao) and the myriad puri (leavened flatbreads), as well as classics such as badrijani nigvzit (aubergine rolls filled with walnut and garlic paste), mkhali (also known as pkhali, a vegetable and walnut salad chopped almost until puréed) and sulguni (brined cheese, like a very firm mozzarella). The recipes are inspired by one of Georgia’s most celebrated cookbooks, ‘Georgian Cuisine: Tried and True Family Methods’, written by Duchess, playwright and social commentator Barbare Eristavi-Jorjadze in the late 19th Century. To go with the food is, naturally, Georgian wine, and for those new to the pleasures of qvevri wines and Georgia’s immense array of indigenous grape varieties, there are plenty to twist your tongue around, both in saying the names and tasting them.
Barbarestan, D. Aghmashenebeli Ave. 132, Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 322 94 37 79; https://www.facebook.com/barbarestan/
So rooted in tradition is Georgian food that when Tekuna Gachechiladze suggested Georgians change up their classic recipes, they were horrified. Founder of three restaurants and star of her own cooking TV show, the one-time psychologist jokingly says that she is “brainwashing Georgian housewives” by encouraging innovation and experimentation with new ingredients. At her workshop and chef’s table Culinarium, she serves what she calls “Supra Nova”, new twists on the traditional feast, ie. supra. She takes a particular liking to fish; according to Gachechiladze, despite being bordered by the Black Sea, Georgians eat remarkably little seafood. Hence she pairs essential Georgian condiments, like cherry sauce with baked salmon rather than red meat, and native pickled jonjoli flowerbuds, usually served on its own, with tuna tartare. Other items common in Georgian pantries, such as ajika, a chilli sauce, and tarragon, feature in her dishes too, albeit in preparations inspired by other cuisines, no doubt influenced by her initial culinary training in New York. On Sundays, she brings a taste of Asia to the denizens of Tbilisi, with a popular Asian brunch menu.
Culinarium, Lermontovi St. 1/17, Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 322 43 01 03; http://culinarium.gweb.ge
For food and wine enthusiasts, a trip to Georgia would not be complete without at least one session of geeking out on Georgia’s unique wine offerings, and by geeking out, we mean tasting as widely as possible. One of the best places to do this is at Vino Underground, where natural wines from all around Georgia, from established wineries to semi-backyard operations are represented. Lest you think that natural wines were a recent fad, the Georgian qvevri method—where grape must is fermented and left to mature (with pips, stalks and skins added at different stages depending on tradition or preference), in an egg-shaped clay vessel, the qvevri—has been around for 8000 years, and many winemakers continue to produce wine in much the same way as it always has.
Vino Underground, Galaktion Tabidze St. 15, Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 322 30 96 10; facebook.com/VinoUnderground
Even if you’d visited Culinarium, Gachechiladze’s food is worth a revisiting, not least because Café Litera is situated in the stunning heritage property, The Writer’s House of Georgia. The garden is perfect for alfresco long lunches, but the House, built in 1905 and a hotbed of literary salons and other events in Georgia’s cultural and social life of the last century, is a Georgian Art Nouveau gem in itself. Painstakingly renovated a few years ago, the building allows guests to step in and relive the lives of the Georgian literati from the halcyon days, while sharing plates like warm salad of wild greens and mussel chakapuli (tarragon stew).
Café Littera, Machabeli St. 13, Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 577 41 31 34; culinarium.gweb.ge
A capital city since the 6th century, Tbilisi’s Old Town is a unique architectural mishmash of everything from the Medieval to Soviet times. After meandering under the timber balconies, crossing stone paved streets, and ducking into the many ancient churches, you’d be due for a nibble and some wine. Amidst some more touristy choices is g.Vino, where a husband and wife team pour their favourite bottles from small producers who use indigenous grapes, and cook up small plates of creative home-style bar food—from addictive mini khachapuri (cheese-filled bread) to croquettes served with a sauce inspired by gebjalia, a common appetiser of rolled sulguni cheeese with mint and sour cream. If the weather is nice, join the crowds in the intimate front terrace to sip and swirl.
g.Vino, 6 Erekle II, Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 322 93 21 21; facebook.com/g.vinotbilisi
Touted as Georgia’s first “design hotel”, Rooms is a stylish pied-à-terre located in the Vera neighbourhood in central Tbilisi. While there’s a whiff of Grand Budapest Hotel about it, with its vintage phones, lobby library and cage elevator, the steel conservatory corridor that leads to the restaurant, and subway tiles in the bathrooms give it an industrial edge. The streets nearby are steep and charming, filled with little neighbourhood shops, from florists to cheesemongers, but trot downhill and you’ll soon find yourself at must-see sights like the Georgian National Museum, where there’s an exhibition dedicated to viticultural history.
Rooms Hotel, Merab Kostava St. 14; Tbilisi, Georgia; +995 32 2020099; roomshotels.com/tbilisi
Janice Leung Hayes is a freelance food writer and founder of Honestly Green. Follow her on @e_ting
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