This time last week I was having my last full day in Georgia. And it was truly full, for I was whisked east to wine country by Irakli Nikolashvili and his friends to visit the vineyard he has with his uncle and cousin, and then to eat a remarkable and of course delicious Georgian feast at his aunt and uncle’s house. Imagine skewers of veal grilled over vine clippings, several pkhalis (like a vegetable pate, but more wonderful), stacks of khachapuri, tkhemali sauce, pickles of various kinds, and more, all washed down with local wines…
I’d been in the Telavi and Gurjani area ten days earlier, but then it had been cold and rainy: The flowers were beautiful and the landscape green, the colours popped in the grey, but it was very cold and the mountains, the mighty Caucasus mountains that frame the north side of the valley, were entirely hidden by heavy clouds.
This time there they were, the mountains, wreathed in tendrils of cloud and majestically tall, snow-covered, a true barrier. Behind them lies Dagestan and slightly farther west is Chechnya. The rich fertile valleys of Georgia are like a paradise in comparison with the harsh high-altutude mountain gorges and heights of the Greater Caucasus. Those mountains also mark the border between Europe and Asia. Russia is Europe and Georgia is Asia.
It’s hard to take in, for Tbilisi’s downtown has the graciousness and the esthetics of a European capital. And the Greeks were at the Black Sea coast in ancient times. Wine-making and wine traditions go back millenia in Georgia.
And yet there is no olive oil, no olives in the traditional cuisine. And very little lamb is eaten, except in the mountains, and little rice. There are leavened flatbreads, baked in a tandoor, or cheese-filled and baked in a home oven or on the stove-top even. And there are corn breads as well as gomi, which is a little like polenta. There is a Garden of Eden's-worth of fruits and nuts, especially walnuts and hazelnuts. And there is a huge array of distinctive inventive foods and flavour combinations.
I’ve been thinking about this question of distinctiveness. It’s much more familiar in the settled cultures of Europe and Asia than in places of immigration and mixing such as Canada and the US. On the other hand, Georgia, like many small countries that lie between major powers, has been invaded and controlled by many different rulers.
How is it then that the people have retained a sense of who they are? There’s pride in the language, yes, with its many local variations; and there’s of course the Georgian Orthodox church, which is a marker of culture and gives a strong sense of identity and belonging. (Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century; before that people were a mix of animist and Zoroastrian. The Jewish community in Georgia also dates from long ago.)
All this complexity and all these lovely local mysteries and histories are fascinating to me. I feel lucky to be able to delve and to try to understand, with the help of friends and of chance-met strangers too.
The other day I was in Javaheti (in southern Georgia near the Turkish and Armenian borders), in the town of Akhalkalaki. While the friends I was staying with were it church (it was Orthodox Palm Sunday) I went wandering around the town. The population is mostly Armenian with a fair sprinkling of Russians and very few Georgians. Street signs and all other signs were in three languages, three different scripts: Russian, Georgian, and Armenian. A beautiful massive snow-covered mountain filled the eastern horizon. In town all buildings were low, one-story houses mostly of stone, a little sombre. When I started exploring the bazaar was not yet open and there were few people out in the streets. The wind whistled along them and the bright sun made sharp shadows in the clear high-altitude air (the town is at over 1700 metres).
But I came on the sign for a bakery, so I headed down a flight of stairs into a cavernous basement area. At the far end the baker and her assitants were getting ready bake the next batch of loaves. She was Armenian and spoke excellent English. She was making not lavash (there was a stack of lavash that she’d made the previous day) but instead a version of Georgian “puri” or leavened flatbread, that is distinctively from Javakheti region. The dough had been shaped into rounds which had risen into soft mounds. She made a hole in the centre of some of them. Others she brushed with water and then she and her assistant used their cupped hands to make a circular dent in the centre of each mound, which they then cross-cut with the edge of one hand to make three more deep dents.
The pierced loaves were then stretched to make a large oval doughnut shape, slipped onto a peel and into the oven. The dented breads were one by one stretched over the back of their hands into a long oval, placed on a floured peel, and slid it into the hot stack oven. I’d never seen that particular shaping technique, which gave the breads a distinctive pitted central surface, nor could I have guessed how they achieved it without having seen them work.
I felt so lucky to have come on them just as they were shaping the breads. It’s these small accumulations of good luck that I rely on when I travel. They slowly add up, piece by piece, to make a picture of a place, a culture, a tradition. Later I met another baker, a village woman who was Georgian and who told me that the doughnut breads were known as kokora while the Georgians call the pitted flatbreads lavashi
And so now, home from my first trip for my next project, I feel well launched on it. The Persian World is my working title for an exploration of the culinary cultures that have been influenced by Persian traditions, cultures where there are traves of the Persian legacy.
I am thrilled to be reconnecting with the cross-currents and complexities of Central and West Asia and the Caucasus. I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about breads, pulaus vegetable dishes, and the brilliant ways in which fruit and nuts are incorporated into the cuisines in the region. In the coming two years I am hoping to be able to travel to Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, as well as to several places that, like Georgia, I visited long ago in 1989, when doing research for the Flatbreads book.
Please pass along any suggestions you may have about books and other resources you think might be useful. I will need all the help and insight I can get, as well as traveller’s luck of course.