Friday, April 19, 2013


Of course I’m referring to Georgia in the Caucasus, remarkable country of great history, distinctive cuisine, rich agricultural and vinicultural traditions, and complex linguistic and cultural roots.

Twenty-four years ago I came here for the first time to learn about flatbreads. I was very ignorant. And so I was astonished, was completely blown away, by all the rest of the food, as well as by the breads. Now at last I’m back, and able to take a few more baby steps into the wonders and mysteries of Georgia.

I’ve now been in Tbilisi, the capital city, for two days, eating and asking questions and taking photographs, and asking more questions. It’s just after mid-April, the trees are in leaf and some, like the quince I saw yesterday, and the chestnut outside my window, are in flower, but it is bone-chillingly cold, with rain and cloud and low temperatures too.  It’s hard to feel loose-limbed in a damp wind. On the other hand, there are a lot of warming winter dishes that feel exactly right for these temperatures. I’ve been eating my way through them since I arrived.

On my first day here I went with friends to visit the cathedral in Mtskheta, not far from Tbilisi. On the way we stopped at one of the restaurants that serve the very traditional Georgian dish lobio, cooked kidney beans in a clay pot, accompanied by mchadi, corn breads. It sounds like plain fare, and it is, delicious, satisfying, and warming.

We had cheese with our mchadi and lobio, but many in the restaurant did not, for right now it’s Lent here. Most Georguan Christians are Orthodox, and Easter for the Eastern rite this year is Sunday May 5. Many people fast during Lent. In the Orthodox tradition that means not eating meat, fish, milk products of any kind, or eggs. The Ethiopians, whose church is also part of the Orthodox tradition, have the same approach to fasting. In Orthodox Christianity, for those who are strict, there are oveer 200 fasting days in the year.

I know of many of the Ethiopian dishes that inventive cooks have come up with for the fasting days. But I hadn’t really thought much about the Georgian approach to fasting, and which dishes might have resulted. Now I’m learning, little by little.

The basics are easy, for Georgia is rich in wheat and nuts, and fruit too. A person can go a long way on various combinations of those, perhaps helped by a little honey. A small agriculture- and food-focussed Georgian NGO called Elkana that started in 1994 has published a booklet of recipes of traditional foods, using traditional ingredients. Many of them turn out to be fasting dishes. They start with wheat berries, for example, toast them, or soak them, or just boil them until soft, with a variety of flavorings. Almond milk is permittd, and so it has a big role, as do walnuts, a Georgian staple. They’re both a delicious and satisfying alternative to cheese and milk or yogurt.

Other of the recipes in the booklet use lentils or other dried peas – old staples, many of which are no longer easilly available here - as a base and add oil, aromatics, nuts, and vegetables. Elkana is interested in promoting traditional crops, many of them what Elkana calls "forgotten crops" - to help with agricultural sustainability as well as cultural rebuilding (years of Russian occupation, as well as revolution and war, have had destructive effects on many deep-rooted Geeorgian traditions). Religion was of course discouraged under the Soviets. It has experienced a resurgence, especially among the people of the “lost generation” (now aged 50 to 70). 

But many who are now fasting for Lent are not relying on traditional recipes and foods but instead on manufactured “fasting foods”. The grocery stores are full of substitutes for butter and cream, all made with oils. It’s rather like vegetarians buying “vegetarian hotdogs” I suppose, but a little sadder in a way, for it’s a loss of traditional attitude as well as of knowledge.

After all, there is a notion in fasting, surely, that it’s about deprivation leading to mindfulness. You live and eat more plainly for the fasting period. But now in modern Georgia, with more properity and a more open society, people are of course making new choices. They are fasting, but in a modern way, buying cakes and other treats made specially for Lent that resemble in looks and texture the cakes of the rest of the year.

And this drives traditionalists a little crazy, I gather.

Yesterday I spent a late afternoon with a remarkable woman in her mid-eighties named Eteri. She had a distinguished career in chemical engineering and is also a fabulous thoughtful cook who has deep roots in Khaketi, a food-rich region of Eastern Georgia. Every year she makes a huge array of preserves and sauces, fortified wines, fruit juices, and more, all put up in jars and stored in her cold room. It was in talking with her that I realised how aggravating the new “fasting foods” are for those who care about Georgian traditions.

My time with her, tasting (her adjika, tkhemali sauce, fresh tomato sauce, quince juice, wine, cognac, lobio, and more) and talking, as well as my conversations with wonderful food-focussed Tamar, with whom I’m staying, are immediate reminders of just how rich and inventive the Georgian culinary culture is. I am just beginning to get a glimpse of what’s here… 

A day after I posted this, I now have a clearer sense of Elkana, for I spent a good part of the early afternoon with the plant scientist who now heads it, and man named Taiul Berishvili. He told me about Dika and Sori wheat, both of them endemic to, or landraces of Georgia, and he gave me a small sample of each. I'd like to take them to Steve Jones at the University of Washington, when I go to the Kneading Conference West, just in case he isn't familiar with them. 

It is extraordinary to be this close to the "cradle of civilization", the place where wheat evolved from simple einkorn and emmer into durum and also varieties of triticum aestivum. Georgia has a lot of food heritage to protect and nourish. The country has already had a fight with Monsanto...

Today I also met a remarkable cheese-maker. But I'll write about her in another post. She has already sent a link to my Facebook page, a short video that shows the amazing process of making the local strong cheese, a treasure she is reviving.

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