A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Pheasant’s Tears

At the beginning of last October, I arrived in Tbilisi for a month-long culinary sojourn across Georgia. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the many people who made that trip such a memorable and valuable experience. I’ve written about several of them on this blog already, but I let the chronicle fall by the wayside as the flow of life rushed on. I’m picking it back up with this post, one year later.

It seems appropriate, actually, to be writing about these autumn experiences as the season returns. As I type, woodstoves are being lit, persimmons and quince are being plucked from their branches, and grapes are fermenting into machari (slightly alcoholic fizzy grape juice), and then into wine. May that spirit of coming together to create warmth, enjoy the fruits of past labor, and put in the work required to create something new imbue your month as well, wherever you may be.

I left off in Kakheti, Georgia’s easternmost region and the one where the majority of its grapes are grown. My friends Wendy and Erin have come to spend a week traveling with me. We’re in Sighnaghi, a small town that underwent significant renovation within the past 10 years on a Georgian government-sponsored initiative to turn it into a tourist magnet. While the facades do at times feel superficial, the plan worked: thousands of people now visit the town every year.

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

One of the major draws of the town is Pheasant’s Tears, the product of a partnership between Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili and American artist (and shrewd businessman) John Wurdeman. I first visited Pheasant’s Tears in 2010, on a weekend mission to pick grapes and learn how qvevri wines are made while I was teaching English in Batumi. The restaurant and tasting room that were under construction at that time have since opened, and I wanted to come back to see how they’d turned out.

Before sitting down to dinner, we got a brief cooking demonstration from chef Gia Rokashvili, himself a Sighnaghi native whose kitchen is turning out some of the most enticing and creative food I’ve encountered in Georgia. He’s a calm, round man with a glimmer in his eye who sang to his vegetables as he pieced them together on the plate, as if they were his tiny children.

Chef Gia at work

Chef Gia at work

Gia’s love of fresh produce shows through in his dishes, which showcase fruits and vegetables from the kitchen’s garden in simple yet unexpected ways, like a salad combining blanched spinach, caramelized onion, fresh dill and watercress, and scallions with white beans and a dollop of water buffalo yogurt.

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

His cooking is solidly grounded in tradition but manages to surprise with subtle additions and twists that set it apart from more typical fare, like a beet salad marrying roasted, cooled beets with blue fenugreek, coriander, summer savory, garlic, cilantro, and tkemali (a tart plum sauce), garnished with dill. The flavors are all inherently Georgian, and if the beets and herbs were pureed, this would be traditional pkhali, yet there is that smoky fruit tang lingering in the background.

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Dinner involved a series of dishes brought out in succession at pace with six different wines, starting with the lightest (a delicate chinuri) and proceeding to the darkest (a rich saperavi, a red grape so dark its name literally means “dye”). All the wines at Pheasant’s Tears are fermented in qvevri, but not all are fermented along with the grape skins and stems. We tasted two versions of a wine made with the rare red tavkveri grape, one with “skin contact,” one without. The grape skins lend color and tannins to the wine, so whether a vintner chooses to ferment the wine on the skins or not (and for how long the skins remain in the qvevri) profoundly affects its flavor and the way it feels in your mouth. The tavkveri fermented without the skins tasted light, easy-drinking, a little sweet. Skin contact turned it into a chewy, earthy, complex wine crying out for something animal.

The kitchen delivered: out came Gia’s take on kuchmachi, small pieces of chicken liver and ground walnuts tossed in a piquant pomegranate sauce. It’s very easy to overcook liver, which results in tough and unappetizing chunks of iron-flavored flesh. Thankfully, whoever cooked ours hit the sweet spot where the outside of each piece turns crisp and brown while the inside stays soft and creamy. We finished off the meal with a shot of chacha (Georgian grappa) aged in oak, which turns it a dark amber color and helps smooth off any rough edges. We ambled back to the van where our trusty (and sober) driver Beso awaited, stuffed and drunk and sleepy and content, a feeling I was getting increasingly accustomed to after just two weeks of travel.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: How to Make a Kvevri

Zaza Kbiliashvili’s family has been making kvevris (clay vessels for fermenting and storing wine) for six generations. He is carrying on the tradition in Vardisubani, a village in eastern Kakheti, Georgia’s most prolific grape-growing region. A short, attractive guy with salt and pepper hair and a rugged face, Zaza has a predilection for uttering cryptic statements like “The kvevri raises the wine like a mother does a child.” He says he’d be happy to pass his knowledge on to his own son, but notes with a shrug that “the boy is still young, so who knows what path he will choose.”

Zaza Kbiliashvili explains kvevri-making

Zaza makes up to 30 kvevris of varying sizes each year, all by special order for both Georgian and European vintners. There are eight huge unfired kvevris drying in his workshop when we visit. He stands next to one of them, which dwarfs him, as he tells us about the process. These kvevris took him three months to make. The clay goes on in eight layers, from the conical bottom up to the lip at the top. He uses a potters’ wheel to form the pointed base so that the kvevri will be stable and even, but layers on the clay by hand after that.

Once the clay has dried sufficiently (which may take a couple of months, give or take: “When you are meant for this work, the kvevri itself tells you what it needs and when it’s done,” Zaza says), the kvevris are loaded one by one onto a horsecart and carried into the firing “room,” a three-sided brick structure out in the backyard. The fourth wall is then built up with bricks and a wood fire is made just in front of it. The firing process takes a full week and requires three truckloads of wood to keep the fire going constantly. It grows in size and heat over the course of the course of the week. By the end of the seventh day, the temperature inside the “kiln” has grown to approximately 2,200 degrees F (1,200 degrees C) and flames spit out from the vents in the back of the firing room.

kvevri firing room

The fired kvevris cool over the course of two days, as the fourth wall of the firing room is gradually dismantled. The kvevri maker coats the inside of each one with a layer of beeswax while the clay is still warm enough to absorb it. This seals the clay and helps prevent bacteria from entering the wine during fermentation and storage. Finally, most qvevris are coated with a thin layer of cement to protect them from indignities they may suffer once they are buried underground, like earthquakes and encroaching tree roots.

Zaza and Beso pontificate

A group of European filmmakers visited Zaza shortly before we did to capture parts of this process for a documentary they are working on about kvevri wine in Georgia. See photos from their visit here. You can follow the film on Facebook for updates on its progress and related stories.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Iago’s Wine

Leaving the rocky moors of Samtskhe-Javakheti behind, Wendy, Erin, and I traveled up through the central Kartli region near Tbilisi and into the rolling hills of Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country in the east.

If you’re reading this blog, you might already know that Georgia boasts one of the world’s oldest wine-making traditions: people have been fermenting grapes into wine here for nearly 8,000 years. The country is home to 525 (!) native grape varietals that most of us in the US have never heard of. They’ve got colorful names like usakhelouri, “the nameless,” and kindzmarauli, “cilantro vinegar” (which must have been a ruse to deter someone from stealing the grapes, because these grapes produce a delicious blood-red semi-sweet wine that tastes nothing like either of its namesakes). During the Soviet period, Georgia supplied most of the wine for the entire USSR, and quantity took precedence over quality.

Today, things are changing. When Russia placed an embargo on the importation of Georgian wine in 2006, Georgia’s winemakers had to reorient their production for other markets. (Until then, Russia had been purchasing approximately 80% of all the wine Georgia exported.) Wineries revamped their standards to make their wines eligible for sale in Europe, and an increasing number of small producers saw the potential for marketing natural wines fermented in the classic Georgian style, which differs in a few key ways from the wines most Americans and Europeans are used to drinking.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

First of all, Georgian wines are traditionally fermented in huge terracotta vessels called kvevris rather than in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The kvevri is coated with lime outside and lined with beeswax inside to seal the clay, then buried underground where the temperature remains constant. Winemakers who produce “natural wines” don’t spray their grapes with pesticides, rely on the “ambient” yeast present on the grape skins and in the air to generate fermentation rather than adding cultured yeasts, and typically do not add sulfites (which are used as a preservative in most Western wines).

In Georgia, white grapes have traditionally been fermented along with their skins, seeds, and stems (the “pomace”) just like red grapes, whereas European and American vintners ferment white grape juice all by itself. This practice gives some Georgian whites an amber or orange color (from the skin contact) and a tannic, highly savory quality, which allows them to stand up to the bolder flavors most of us would typically pair with red wine, like grilled meat.

Iago Bitarishvili is one of the vintners making internationally renowned kvevri wine in Georgia today. Wendy and I had tasted his delicate 2010 chinuri (which takes its name from a native Georgian white grape) at Oda House in New York a couple of years ago and were thrilled to have the chance to visit his marani (the Georgian term for a place where wine Is made) in Chardakhi, a village about 30 kilometers outside Tbilisi.

Iago Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

Iago Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

Iago is a trim man with kind eyes and a dimpled smile. His easy speech (elegant English) and measured movements seemed to reflect an inner calm that set me right at ease. We had hoped to catch the grape harvest (rtveli) in action, but 2014 was a hot year so the grapes had ripened early, he explained. He walked us through the stages of fermentation while stirring the grapes in one of his open kvevris:

  1. The grapes are picked but not pressed and poured into the kvevris just as they are. Six of Iago’s kvevris are 300 years old! With a product that lasts for centuries, it’s no wonder that kvevri makers are so few and far between. The kvevris are covered loosely with tarps or mesh, so as to keep bugs and dust from getting in while allowing the gases produced during fermentation to escape.
The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape.

The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape. The kvevris in the background are decorative and not representative of the size of those buried.

  1. Within a few days, the grapes are crushed under their own weight and their juice (the “must”) begins to bubble: this signals the release of carbon dioxide as the grapes’ natural sugars are converted into alcohol. The grapes must be punched down and stirred a few times each day as this first stage of fermentation proceeds. Families who make their own wine at home often start drinking the immature wine (called machari) at this stage, when it tastes fizzy and tangy-sweet.
  2. After about 2-3 weeks, when the bubbling dies down, the must is filtered off the lees (the stems and seeds that have sunk to the bottom of the cone-shaped kvevri) and poured into another kvevri, where it is left to age for another 5-8 months under a tightly sealed cap. Many winemakers, including Iago, continue to ferment the lees into chacha, or Georgian grappa.

Sealed qvevris

  1. Finally comes bottling and labeling, both of which Iago does himself on-site. He produces only about 3,000 bottles a year, which he is now exporting to eight countries.

After our tour, we get a lesson in folding khinkali dumplings from Iago’s wife, herself a rare female winemaker, then sat down to eat them along with the other Georgian stand-bys of khachapuri, cucumber and tomato salad, eggplants with walnut sauce, and, of course, plenty of wine.

Iago's Wine

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

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Svaneti

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.)

A side view of Mount Ushba, one of the Caucasus' most notoriously difficult climbs, taken from the road between Etseri and Mestia

A side view of Mount Ushba, one of the Caucasus’ most notoriously difficult climbs, taken from the road between Etseri and Mestia

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.

The view from Hanmer Guesthouse

The view from Hanmer Guesthouse

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.

Cattle Paradise

Cattle Paradise

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.

Homemade Imeretian cheese, ready to be turned into sulguni

Homemade Imeretian cheese, ready to be turned into sulguni

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.

You can see these barrels all over Georgia in the fall, when families make their own wine at home.

You can see these barrels all over Georgia in the fall, when families make their own wine at home.

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.

Nana readies her cupcakes for baking in the wood-burning oven

Nana readies her cupcakes for baking in the wood-burning oven

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.

Nana forms khachapuri

Nana forms khachapuri

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!

Kubdari and khachapuri cool on the counter. Hungry yet?

Kubdari and khachapuri cool on the counter. Hungry yet?

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.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Samegrelo

After a few days in Tbilisi gathering contacts and getting ideas, I set off for my first homestay, in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo. Samegrelo is the home of the Megrelian people, most of whom speak both Georgian and Megrelian, one of the few languages in the world that is related to Georgian. To me, Megrelian sounds to Georgian as Portuguese sounds to Spanish—a little softer and swingier, with rounded corners.

The region is also known for its spicy food. When I asked Oleg (the man with the puppy from my last post, who used to host a travel documentary-style TV show about Georgia) why these people eat spicier food than the rest of the country, he said, “Simple: malaria.” He told me that this area of Georgia is swampy and was once a breeding ground for malarial mosquitos. People who ate loads of hot peppers seemed better-shielded against the blood-sucking buggers, so chilis appear in everything from soups and salads to meat and egg dishes here.

Oleg set me up with a family in Odishi, a village about 15 minutes’ drive outside the regional capital, Zugdidi. Sixteen-year-old Tako Qobalia and her father Beso met me at the train station at 6:30 am, when the stuffy, lumbering overnight train from Tbilisi arrives. The Qobalias have been hosting teachers from English-speaking countries in their home almost continuously since 2010, when the Teach and Learn with Georgia program began. (This is the same Georgian government-sponsored program that brought me to Georgia for the first time, as an English teacher in a public school in Batumi on the Black Sea coast.) As a result, their daughter Tako speaks fluent colloquial English, peppered with her own sly observations and quick wit.

The Qobalia family: Beso, Arleta, and Tako

The Qobalia family: Beso, Arleta, and Tako

The Qobalias live in the home that Beso’s grandfather built around 100 years ago, though hired laborers are at work on a new one they’ve commissioned a few yards away. Outside they keep a small orchard of hazelnut, walnut, and fruit trees, a kitchen garden, and a screened-in box on stilts where they dry their own apples and figs in the sun. Their calf is still too young to milk, but she makes herself heard with a well-timed moo whenever the herd of small dogs that carouse around the yard are getting overly riled up in their competition for the affections of Sausage, the family dachshund.

Tako’s mother, Arleta, is ethnically Megrelian but grew up in Abkhazia, the northwestern-most region of Georgia (at least officially). A devastating war between Abkhazian separatists (with Russian support) and Georgian troops in 1992-1993 forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes. Arleta and her family were among them. Now the place exists for her in memory and in the foods she grew up with.

She starts our lesson by taking two pepper mixes out of the fridge, both called ajika. One is a powdery rub made with dried chili peppers, the other a fiery red paste made with fresh chilis, herbs, garlic and plenty of salt. This paste was what they used in Abkhazia, she tells me. Just smelling it wakes me up. I taste a bit for heat: it makes my lips burn on contact and draws blood to my face, the way a good chili paste should.

We begin with ajika chicken. Arleta stabs a hen carcass with a long fork and holds it directly over the gas flame of her stove to sear off the remaining feathers, then butterflies the chicken to make it lay flat in the pan, smears ajika and salt all over the bird’s skin, and pops it into the oven half of her wood-burning stove to roast.

Searing off chicken feathers over a gas flame

Searing off chicken feathers over a gas flame

As in many Georgian village homes, the wood stove heats the kitchen and living room area throughout the winter (and is often the only source of heat in the house). As Arleta cooks, she continuously tosses new logs into the fire (contained in a box on the left side of the stove) to keep it hot. The oven half is on the right side. Any food cooked there must be turned halfway through to ensure even cooking. The flat top of the stove is used like a modern cooktop, though the cook can only turn down the heat by moving a pan from the side directly over the firebox to the other.

Next we move on to ghomi, the Georgian polenta, which is a staple throughout much of western Georgia. (This dish is called “ghumu” in Megrelian, and in both languages the “gh” is pronounced a lot like a French “r”). Historically, people in western Georgia relied on ghomi and other corn-based dishes as their go-to carbs, while people in the eastern part of the country ate bread.

Arleta takes her own dried corn to the local mill to be ground. She sifts the ground meal through a fine-mesh sieve at home, reserving the finest meal and rinsing the coarser grits ten times to remove any hulls and debris. She pours the grits into a pot of boiling water and lets them heat and thicken while we move on to other dishes. When the water boils, she’ll add some of the fine meal to bind the grits. Just before we eat, she’ll pile a hummock of ghomi onto a small plate for each person at the table, then stick a thick slice of smoked sulguni cheese into the center of each. If you melt cheese directly into the grits, you’ve got elarji, which tastes good with just about everything.

Continuing on with the cheese and carbs theme that runs through Georgian cuisine like a backbone, we prepare the dough for Megrelian khachapuri. (Its contents are self-evident in the name: khacho is one Georgian word for fresh cheese, while puri means bread.) Megrelians typically make this pan-Georgian favorite with an extra layer of cheese mixed with egg and butter or oil slathered on top of the basic cheese-stuffed pie.

Megrelian khachapuri

Megrelian khachapuri

Judging by Arleta’s practiced movements as she cooks and the easy transitions she makes between several dishes in various stages of completion, I get the sense that cooking 4-5 different dishes in one afternoon is nothing new for her. She says she spends half the day cooking, on average. She’s also the director of the pre-school up the road. As I’m pondering how she manages to fit it all in, she plops a plate of sticky black figs in front of me. “From our garden,” she says. “They dried in the sun.” I’m beginning to understand that here, nature is still very much a partner in labor for most people living outside of major cities.

While the khachapuri dough is rising (and the chicken roasting and the grits bubbling…feel like you’re in a nursery rhyme yet?), Arleta gathers the ingredients for another Megrelian specialty, gebzhalia. She presses freshly made sulguni (lightly salted cow’s milk cheese) into a flat rectangle, spreads it with a mild green chili and mint ajika, and rolls it up like a jelly roll. She cuts the roll into bite-size slices and covers them with a garlicky mint-yogurt sauce. I’ve rarely seen this dish on Georgian restaurant menus, but I’d certainly put it on mine if I ran one.

Sulguni cheese spread with mint ajika for gebzhalia, a regional specialty in Samegrelo

Sulguni cheese spread with mint ajika for gebzhalia, a regional specialty in Samegrelo

It’s time to think about dessert. Arleta pours a couple liters of grape juice (pressed from her own grapes, of course) into a pot on the stove, adds sugar and corn flour, and brings it to a boil, stirring constantly as it thickens to a pudding-like texture. Once the flour taste has cooked out, she pours it into flat dishes to cool. This is pelamushi, which is as fun to say as it is to eat. (It’s also known as tatara in parts of eastern Georgia, where it is made with wheat flour).

Finally, we stuff the khachapuri with cheese and bake a few pies in the wood-burning oven. She pulls out the bazhe (garlic-walnut sauce) she made yesterday to accompany the chicken, which she cuts into pieces with kitchen shears. A few chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers make a simple salad. A pitcher of sweetened feijoa juice goes on the table, along with a bottle of Georgian white wine. (Normally the Qobalias drink the wine they make themselves, so uncorking this bottle marks a special occasion.)

Feijoa juice

Feijoa juice

With just about every inch of the table covered with something edible, we sit down to lunch: all this for just Arleta, Tako, and I. There is far more food here than the three of us could eat in three days, but that’s the Georgian way: variety and abundance are the hallmarks of hospitality. It will all appear again on the table over the next several meals, though seven new dishes will be added tomorrow (including two corn dishes, two meat dishes, another type of khachapuri, and two desserts). It will feed not only the family, but also the American teacher couple the Qobalias are hosting this year, the workers who are building their new home next door, and other friends and relatives who may stop by or stay the night. Bones go to the dogs, some vegetable scraps to the cow, used napkins feed the fire.

Lunch for three in Samegrelo

Lunch for three in Samegrelo

We end the day with a surprise midnight birthday celebration for one of the American teachers. Tako pops a balloon filled with confetti she’s made herself, Beso is standing by wine and shots of chacha (Georgian grappa), and Arleta has made a poofy layer cake with two different fillings, a third type of frosting, and more sweetened condensed milk than I care to remember. I’ve come down with a bad cold and should probably be sleeping. The teachers have to be at school early the next morning and should probably be sleeping. Yet we all sit in the kitchen with confetti in our hair, toasting to lofty ideals I can’t remember and giving ourselves a drunken bedtime sugar rush. It feels irresponsible and for that, all the more festive.

I’m generally wary of national stereotypes, but there is one about Georgians that I do support: let it never be said that this is a people who do not know how to party.

Note; Recipes for many of these dishes, adapted for urban kitchens, are forthcoming after I’ve had a chance to test and measure them with American ingredients back home.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Day 1

If you’ve been following my Facebook page, you know that I’m spending the month of October traveling around Georgia, learning to cook regional specialties and traditional dishes from home cooks, and generally soaking up experiences that I can’t have at home in Washington, DC. I arrived in Tbilisi on October 2 with an AirBnB booked for three nights and the phone numbers of several contacts gathered from friends and colleagues. I didn’t plan farther ahead than that because I wanted to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I trusted would arise out of conversations with others: someone would know someone with a walnut grove in Imereti, or a cheesemaker in the mountains, or a particularly talented home cook who was game to show me the ropes. Besides, I thought, even the best-laid plans in Georgia tend to go awry. This is a nation of people who live life by the seat of their pants, and when you’re here, it’s difficult to do differently.

Anchiskhati Church; Tbilisi, Georgia

Washington (the quintessential planned city) attracts super-planners, so when I told people there about my barebones outline for the trip, I felt like maybe my refusal to plan more carefully was really just a cop-out and a reflection of my own weakness in this area (one I never felt I had until I moved to DC). Yet after my first meeting in Tbilisi, over coffee with a contact a colleague had put me in touch with), I knew this had been the right decision. Oleg seemed to have well-placed friends just about everywhere, and after just a few calls made on the spot, he’d found families who were willing to host me in their homes and teach me to cook favorite local dishes in three different regions.


My second meeting, arranged through a member of the Georgian choir who sang at a Georgian dinner several friends and I hosted in late September, led to an opportunity to appear on the cooking segment of a popular national TV program called the Day Show (“Skhva Shuadghe”) the following week. Two points for serendipity.

I stepped out of the café after that second meeting in a heady daze, amazed that all of this had come together so well after only one day in Tbilisi. I wandered down cobbled Shavteli Street and over the architecturally incongruous yet strikingly beautiful Peace Bridge to Rike Park, with its human-scale chessboard and grand piano fit only for giants.

Peace Bridge; Tbilisi, Georgia

This isn’t the only part of the city that makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland. I sense it while walking among the crooked homes that still stand precariously amidst the maze of streets behind Shavteli. They sag at acute angles, their roofs about to slide off, vines about to reclaim them, and yet the sound of dice on a table echoes from an upstairs window, laundry hangs from wires strung between them, lace curtains flutter in a window. In another hangs an advertisement for a spa where I could have tiny fish nibble the dead skin from my feet. I worry for the people inside, lest a gust of wind blow the whole thing over.

Old Tbilisi

I finished off the first night of my trip at Vino Underground, a little wine cave in the heart of the Old City. I stopped in for a taste or two but got caught up in conversation with the wine vendor, who’d come to Tbilisi from Abkhazia as a child refugee in the early 1990s, and with other visitors, many of whom were discovering Georgia for the first time. I left after closing time, well past midnight, with The Beegees “Stayin’ Alive” playing on the stereo. Wonderland, indeed.