‘You aren’t a vegetarian, are you?’ enquired my Georgian host as we sat down to lunch in a light airy restaurant on the edge of one of Tbilisi’s parks. I assured him I was not, but discovered in the next ten days that I could have lived well on fruit and vegetables.
A succession of dishes arrived, starting with a variety of salads – chunks cucumber and tomato in a spicy walnut sauce, white cheese with mint, aubergine satsivi – another walnut sauce, this one flavoured with garlic and coloured deep gold by powdered, dried marigold petals, spinach spiked with chilli and red onion, glinting with pomegranate seeds, kidney beans in a sourish plum sauce, a bowl of herbs – watercress, parsley, tiny spring onions, radishes, mild green chillies – and ovals of flat yeasted bread. Then came grilled fish with a coriander sauce, spiced sausages, lamb kebabs and chicken in a tomato and herb sauce. To drink we had a full-bodied off-dry red wine and Borjomi, the local mineral water, renowned for its digestive properties.
Georgia is a beautiful country with wonderful mountain scenery, fertile valleys covered with vineyards, an outstanding country to visit for outdoor activities and for its wonderful cultural heritage. Georgia has a centuries old Eurasian culture, and is the birthplace of wine. Life continues to be difficult for many Georgians, but they are a spirited and cheerful people to whom hospitality comes naturally. They love to show you their culture: charming houses with ornate balconies in old Tbilisi, ancient churches, monasteries, and cathedrals, cave dwellings, fabulous collections of pre-Christian and early Christian gold, the primitive paintings of Pirosmani who captured early 20 th century life so vividly.
Georgians love to eat and drink and to share this passion with guests. Food and wine are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, cafes and restaurants are crowded. Any meal may become a celebration. One of the older men is named tamada or toastmaster, he orchestrates the evening and paces the drinking, guiding the party through a series of toasts – to those who have provided the meal, to fellow guests, to Georgia, to peace, to friendship. The ritual is prescribed, but much depends on the tamada’s eloquence and skill. A guest who is toasted waits until the last drink and may then make a reply. Glasses are filled by one nominated guest and whilst abstemiousness might be frowned upon, drunkenness would not be tolerated.
Abundance on the table is essential, but so are moderation and restraint on the part of the diners as the meal progresses for several hours of talk and laughter, often finishing with polyphonic singing. When guests arrive the table is already laden with dishes to be eaten at room temperature, interspersed with mounds of bread. Other dishes, including those to be eaten hot, are added throughout the meal. Roast suckling pig is often the highlight and the head is presented to the tamada who may offer the brain to a special guest. The meal finishes with fruit, and even in winter there were tiny sweet grapes, tangerines from the Black Sea, apples, pears, medlars, persimmons, quinces and of course pomegranates.
Food in Georgia means well-flavoured ingredients – fresh, dried or preserved. Sauces are devised to enhance, not to mask flavours, increasing the subtlety and variety of dishes. Walnuts, pomegranates, tart plums, delicate spicing and the generous use of fresh hers characterize the cooking. Many sauces are based on walnuts with spices, garlic, onion and pomegranate juice or molasses.
The most common spice mixure, khmeli-suneli, consists of ground coriander, dried fenugreek leaves, dill, mint and summer savory, with fennel seed and cinnamon and dried marigold petals with their musky, bitterish taste. Ingredients are sold separately in markets and blends are made in the kitchen according to the dish to be cooked. Other flavourings to look out for are adjika, a chilli and herb-based paste and Svanuri marili, from the Svaneti mountain region, which is salt mixed with ground spices and crushed garlic.
Processed food is not much appreciated in Georgia, although some fast- food restaurants are trendy meeting places for the young. Georgia has its own excellent fast-food, khachapuri, an open cheese bread, far superior to most commercial pizzas.
The 17 th century traveller Sir John Chardin already praised the abundance of Georgia: ‘Georgia is as fertile a country as any can be imagin’d, where a Man may live both deliciously and very cheap. Their Bread is as good as any in the World, their Fruit is delicious and of all sorts. Their Fowl of all sorts is incomparable…so that we may truly say that there is no country where a Man may have an Opportunity to fare better than in this’.
I’ll drink to that.