The next day, Erin and Wendy and I meet Makvala Aspanidze and her sister Donari in a village near Aspindza, where Makvala lives in a ramshackle old house with her elderly mother and her nephew. The Aspanidzes and others native to this area of south-central Georgia call themselves Meskhi, or Meskhetians (hence the first part of the name of this region, Samtskhe-Javakheti). This area is one of the poorest in Georgia: 60% of the population lives below the poverty line and 80% are either subsistence farmers or unemployed.
Makvala and Donari have agreed to give us a master class in Meskhetian cooking. They take care to don plastic hair nets and aprons before starting to cook, which is a considerate nod to American-style kitchen sanitation standards but makes me smile for its peculiarity in this context—we’re cooking in a structure with stone walls, a corrugated metal roof and peeling wallpaper. There is no sink and no soap in the kitchen–water is drawn from a well outside. Makvala’s mother is convalescing in the next room, where Makvala asks us to toss our coats and purses. Our Georgian guide Sofia and driver Beso seem more concerned about the shabby appearance of things than Wendy and Erin and I are. Beso spends the rest of the trip incredulous that someone would parade a gaggle of American tourists past their ailing mother–to him it seems the epitome of rural bumpkin-ness. Yet this is how they live, and I’d rather see that than have it whitewashed. Still, I hope our tour company is compensating them well for their food, knowledge, and time, all of which they gave generously.
We’re having dessert before dinner today: Makvala brings out homemade cornelian cherry liqueur and a pan of honey cake (my favorite!). It tastes like someone slathered whipped cream between layers of graham crackers like a dessert lasagna, then poured more cream over them until the layers softened and melted into one another—in other words, heaven. Next is gently sweet tea made with leaves from their linden tree. (Lindens are closely related to the North American dogwood.) Now that we’re full and happy, the cooking can begin!
Unlike most of the foods I’d encountered on the trip thus far, I’ve never so much as heard of most of the dishes they are about to show us how to prepare, which is exciting for me. First up is qaisapa, a sweet-savory “soup” made from dried apricots, a type of plum native to this area called chonchuri (also dried), plum jam, sautéed onions, and clarified butter. While the dried fruits are softening in hot water on the stove, Donari starts in on the obligatory khachapuri. She’s making penovani khachapuri today, which requires making her own puff pastry. She doesn’t put any yeast into her dough—just flour, water, and salt—and says the dough should be firm, which promotes the formation of flaky layers. She forms softball-sized balls, lets them rest for a few minutes, then begins to stretch each one into a sheet the size of a small tablecloth. She doesn’t have to do much work—the dough stretches neatly under its own weight as she lifts and turns it—but controlling the speed of the turn to make sure the dough stretches evenly turns out to be harder than it looks. (She bravely let us each try our hand at it.) Whereas Arleta in Samegrelo had spread the layers of her penovani khachapuri with margarine, Donari uses lard in hers, which gives the khachapuri an addictive porky note. The pastry’s paper-thin, crisp crust shatters when I bite into it, and the layers of rich dough pull apart to reveal a center oozing with salty cheese.
Then comes tutmaji, another local specialty, this one a dough and yogurt soup that’s said to work wonders on hangovers. “The men always ask for this one,” says Makvala knowingly. Basically, it consists of little dough worms and lumps of egg, salt, and flour all fried in clarified butter (which has a very particular, pungent aroma to it here, likely due to whatever forage the cows are eating), then boiled in salted water, with a few cups of yogurt added at the end. It’s not my favorite.
Donari is now rolling out a softer, yeasted dough (which she prepared before we arrived) to make bishi and bushtulebi, essentially two different forms of fry bread. Bishi are flat discs about 6 inches in diameter, while bushtulebi look like golf balls. Donari fries them in sunflower oil (which is ubiquitous in Georgia) until they are golden and crisp on the outside, satisfyingly chewy on the inside. These are unsweetened, but Donari suggests drizzling honey over them if we like. Our stomachs are so full of dough by now that we can only muster a few. As throughout Georgia, running out of steam before the food is gone is expected here—if there isn’t too much to eat, there’s not enough.