After a few days in Samegrelo, I caught a marshrutka (public transport van) north to the breathtakingly beautiful, mountainous Svaneti region. The peaks here rise up quickly, and almost before you realize it you are switchbacking among steep, pine-covered slopes cut by plunging waterfalls and rushing streams. (Make sure to take a window seat on the van. The view from the passenger seat would be stunning but isn’t for the faint of heart, as the highway is only two lanes and drivers often veer into the oncoming traffic lane to pass slower vehicles, sometimes cutting it too close for comfort.)
Like Samegrelo, Svaneti is a region named for its inhabitants, the Svan people. They also speak their own language, one full of intimidating consonants that spring from the back of the throat. As we hurtled upward, I marveled at how these highland people and the Georgians below them had ever mixed centuries before this road was laid. I can only imagine the courage and fortitude those emissaries, traders, explorers, and others must have had to make that journey into or out of this silent, truly awesome landscape, not knowing what they’d find on the other side. Among Georgians, the Svans still have a reputation for being stoic, suspicious of strangers, and better suited to self-defense than the hospitality Georgians so pride themselves on.
My destination was the village of Etseri, a jumble of homes and small farms at the 112 km marker off the main road from Zugdidi to Mestia, Svaneti’s regional capital. A Canadian man I’d met while teaching English in Batumi a few years ago and his Georgian wife have since opened a guesthouse there, the first one. Everywhere you look is a postcard view—hell, an expansive, mighty National Geographic view. There are no shops and no restaurants in Etseri, so Tony and Lali (and sometimes their hired kitchen help, a neighbor woman called Nana) prepare all the meals their guests eat from scratch.
What there are plenty of up here is cows. They roam freely across the hillsides—and in the road, down the path, next to the school, etc.—munching grass and getting muddy and placidly outnumbering people. Tony and Lali keep one of their own for milk. I went out with Lali one evening to milk their cow (unnamed, as she will become dinner(s) one day). I was surprised by how hard I had to pull on her udder to coax the warm milk out of it, not wanting to cause the cow any pain. “Once you see how hard the calf pulls on them, you stop worrying so much,” Tony reminded me.
They use the milk to make their own cheese and yogurt, which is the norm here rather than the exception. Yogurt could hardly be simpler: warm the milk on the stove, add a spoonful of leftover yogurt from your last batch, stir, wrap the jar in a blanket and set in a warm place overnight. Enjoy in the morning with tea, bread, and jam. (Tony makes his own jams from all sorts of fruits and berries, including sea buckthorn: tart, ball-bearing sized, bright orange berries that ripen after the first frost and make their own pectin when you heat them, so they gel naturally.)
The most common cheese in Georgia is called imeruli qveli (Imeretian cheese, for the central Georgian region of Imereti, though it’s ubiquitous everywhere). It’s a fresh, salted cow’s milk cheese that crumbles easily when cool and melts smoothly when hot. To make it, you heat the milk, add a few drops of rennet, let it sit until curds form, stir again, then dip your hands into the liquid and slowly begin to gather the curds into a mass at the side of the pot, letting the whey slide through your fingers. (This feels wonderful on a cold autumn night, where the only heat in the house emanates from the wood stove you’re standing over.) Once the curds have come together into a solid shape, lift it from the pot and set it in a colander over a bowl to drain overnight. In the morning, you have a basket-shaped block of cheese. Salt it on both sides: this helps to preserve it.
If you want to make the creamier, more pliable sulguni (think Georgian mozzarella), just cut the imeruli cheese into slices, melt them in warm water or fresh milk, and slowly gather the cheese back into a ball, squeezing out any excess whey as you go.
My cooking lesson with Nana the Svan began the next morning. She looks not much older than me but already has three children, and plenty of experience cooking for a crowd. She starts off with a chicken, potato, and tomato stew and a salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, and onions, then mixes the dough for khachapuri and kubdari, a savory pie stuffed with chopped meat and onions that is a specialty of Svaneti. We pause for lunch with Tony and Lali and the workers who are renovating the upper floor of their guesthouse, washing down the soup and salad with machari, or immature wine.
Like most Georgian village families, Tony and Lali make their own wine at home in the fall. The climate in Svaneti doesn’t lend itself to grapes, so they order theirs from Kakheti, Georgia’s wine region in the east. The white rkatsiteli grapes ferment for a few weeks in big plastic barrels, fizzing and bubbling while their natural sugar turns into alcohol. The barrels are covered lightly during this period to keep bugs and dust out, but not sealed completely, as the gases released during fermentation need somewhere to escape. You can drink this sweet-tart liquid (machari) until the barrels are sealed and the wine is left to age until springtime.
After lunch Nana throws together some cupcakes filled with spoonfuls of jam or coffee cream and topped meringue and chocolate icing. As they’re baking, she finely chops chunks of beef and pork and mixes them with minced onions, garlic, oil, spices, and herbed Svan salt to make the filling for her kubdari. For the khachapuri, she crumbles a bunch of salted cheese into a bowl and adds chopped beet greens to half of it, then rolls tennis ball-sized chunks of filling for each of the pies.
Getting the filling inside the dough isn’t hard, but making sure the filling reaches the edges of the pie inside can be challenging. Nana has the technique down to a science, and I don’t think she’d quite realized that until she tried to teach me how to do it. Basically, she gently stretches a hummock of dough into a round slightly larger than the filling ball, pulls the edges of the dough up around the filling and twists them together at the top to seal it shut, flattens it with her palm, and then spreads the pie out by pressing down in concentric circles starting from the center. My attempts to copy her movements first mad her shake her head and then giggle, but after several more tries she seemed decently satisfied with my progress.
After stuffing, each pie sat for a few minutes on top of the wood-burning stove to proof, then baked for about 10-15 minutes inside. Nana poked a small hole in the top of each kubdari before baking to let steam escape. As each pie came out, she brushed the top of it with melted better. The aroma of woodsmoke and roasted garlic filling the kitchen was making me salivate. It wasn’t time for dinner yet but I couldn’t resist: I cut one kubdari pie like a pizza and dug in. No surprises here: just hot, chewy dough, juicy meat, pungent garlic, and satisfying salt. Perfect mountain food. Or for that matter, perfect pizza alternative anywhere in the world. Stay tuned for a recipe!
Have you ever tried kubdari? Where, and what was it like? Tell us in the comments.
Want to stay at the Hanmer Guesthouse yourself? Find them here on Facebook.
More photos from my stay in Svaneti are available on the Georgian Table Facebook page.