A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Aspindza

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.

land near Aspindza

What the land looks like around here

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.

Georgian honey cake

Honey cake

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!

linden leaf tea

Linden leaf tea

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.

making penovani khachapuri with Donari

Spreading the puff pastry dough for penovani khachapuri with Donari

 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.

Makvala shows off the finished penovani khachapuri

Makvala shows off the finished penovani khachapuri

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.

Meskhetian feast

A Meskhetian feast

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Vardzia

My friends Erin and Wendy joined me in Georgia in mid-October for nine days of travel, adventure, and more food than most people consume in a month. After a quick two-day sojourn to Yerevan, Armenia (which I found less charming than Tbilisi but with a more varied and colorful fresh food market), we passed back into south Georgia and met our guide for the next week, Sofia.


Sofia is about my age, and her eyes sparkle with a playful mischief that endeared her to me almost immediately. As we travel along bumpy dirt roads towards the caves of Vardzia, she regales us with tales of Georgia’s Golden Age in the 12th century as if she lived it herself. Her command of dates, place names, and other facts about her country is encyclopedic but never boring. Sometimes she brings us back to the present with funny anecdotes from her real life, like the time she was assigned to memorize portions of Shota Rustaveli’s 12th century epic poem, “Knight in a Panther’s Skin” (as all Georgian school children must do). “I used to put the book in the refrigerator,” she tells us, “to punish it.”

Back when Rustaveli was writing his poem, while the rest of Georgia was enjoying its golden age under badass Queen Tamar, the area we’re driving through was constantly being invaded by bands of fearsome Turks. The land bouncing by out the window is stark, rocky, and wind-blown—unlike remote Svaneti with its watchtowers and saw-tooth peaks, Meskheti (the name for this region) would be tough to defend. It’s the kind of place you grow potatoes, not wage guerilla warfare. (Indeed, the best potatoes in Georgia are in fact grown here.)

near Saro village

The local people devised all sorts of ways to protect themselves, including hollowing out more than 400 rooms spanning 13 stories inside of a cliff. I can only imagine how painstaking and exhausting this work must have been. Yet they continued to chisel away for some 50 years. At its height, 50,000 people called the Vardzia cave complex home.

Alas, an earthquake in 1283 shook loose the outer wall of the cliff into which these caves were built, revealing them to the valley below like a natural dollhouse. Today the site draws tourists like us but is also a working monastery, where a handful of monks still live among the caves and tend the small church hollowed out of the rock.

Varzia cave complex

After an al fresco lunch (including potatoes, yes, and whole smoked trout), we headed up the cliff to scamper among the caves ourselves. Sofia pointed out depressions in the floor of certain rooms that would have served as ovens for baking bread, and hollows in others where they would have buried the qvevris (clay amphora) in which they fermented wine. The beds, I’ll admit, didn’t look very comfortable, but the view? Stunning.

view from Vardzia