Tuesday, April 30, 2013


After a full two weeks in Georgia I am more aware than ever of how much I have to learn, how rich and deep this country’s food culture is. And of course I should write in the plural, for though there’s a shared pan-Georgian approach to feasting and hospitality and a respect for good food, there are also very different dishes and ideas about what to serve when and how, in the many different regions of this small country.

Still that diversity is not where I’m headed with this post. Talk of specifics will have to wait until I have digested my experiences here, pun intended and very appropriate. Meantime I want to talk about living generously. And also about appearances and assumptions…

Late this afternoon I went with Tamar to the apartment of a family that we both had met only last week. They are all friends of the remarkable cheese-maker Ana. We’d met them at Ana’s farm just outside Tbilisi, a place she is working to transform into a kind of food Eden. (She’s well on her way: the south-sloping terrain is green-grassed, with ploughed patches that are her vegetbale plots. There are several walnut trees, apple and plum trees, hazelnuts, etc. And the soil is rich and clean.)

Today, though, we were far from idyllic green fields and fertile soil. We were in the Tbilisi suburbs, in a tall apartment-block landscape like that of many ex-Soviet towns. The blocks are charmless on the outside, access is usually through a cement entryway that leads to a chipped concrete staircase, and perhaps also to an elevator that may or may not work. Today’s place was like that.

We traveled up to the fourth floor and then walked into the apartment of our hosts. It wasn’t luxurious or flashy, no, but the difference once we were through the door was spectacular. There was warmth and charm. The table had been set with plates and glasses and clay ewers of Georgian wine, as well as with many of the dishes that were to be part of our meal: Emereti khachapuri (cheese-filled flatbreads made of leavened slow-rise dough filled in this case with cheese made by Ana); plain puri (long Khaketi-style bread batons); two kinds of Mingrelian adjika (condiment sauce that is an intense hit of flavor) red and green; leafy green salad dressed Khaketian-style; chicken roasted with coriander and garlic…

Warm late afternoon light came pouring in the windows, as our hosts brought more dishes to the table. Then we all sat down and began eating. A Georgian feasting meal is called a supra. This one was a mix of dishes from Khaheti in eastern Georgia and from Mingrelia, in western Georgia. The adjikas and also an unbelievalbly delicious pork dish made with various organ meats cut small and braised in a little oil flavored with red adjika, were from Mingrelia, home of Irma, one of the women who had cooked the feast.

Gia was tamada, or table-host, and he proposed the first toast of the evening, the classic opener, to God. And we went on from there to eat and drink and tell stories. Several late arrivals were specially toasted in welcome. And as they were still eating the singing began. It was not Georgian polyphonal music but instead Georgian popular songs, accompanied first by Gia’s guitar and then by Tina at the pinao. The music, the joking, the food explanations (translated for me by Tamar), the pleasurable moving from one rhythm to another during the meal, were all unselfconscious. The room was warm with ease and an in-the-moment delight.

Nothing about the outside of that apartment block, or its neighbours and cousins all around the outskirts of Tbilii, gives any hint of the warmth and beauty that each apartment may contain. Perhaps there’s extra inner warmth espceially because of the bleakness of the outside?

And as we travelled back home in a taxi I thought too about the unhurriedness of the meal and the evening. It wasn’t happening in furtherance of some goal or ambition, it was just itself, a gathering of people for a meal and the warmth that it would give.

So often in North America it seems to me we are rushing on to the next thing, rather than taking our time. It’s true not ony of many dinners but other social engagements as well. I am certainly part of the rushedness, impatient to get on to the next thing.

Here in Georgia I don’t get that sense at all. An enormous effort goes into preparing food and laying a generous table for friends and family and occasional strangers from afar like me. Even there, though the work (almost all of it done by women) is long, it happens not in a rush but with a kind of easy stamina. It will be finished and supper will be ready when it’s ready, not at some exact pre-appointed time. The waiting time will pass with conversation and joking around. It’s all part of a kind of rolling-with-the-punches unstructuredness that I find relaxing and welcoming.

And so the externals become less and less important. People dress with care and a great sense of fashion. The centre of the city is elegant, reminds me of Paris. But they don’t worry about the grey look of their apartment buildings or the dreariness of the entryways to home. What matters is the genuine warmth of the heart that people bring to the table. And that has a radiant glow to it.

Happy May 1 tomorrow everyone…

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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Once again I’m teetering on the brink of the known-to-me world. I’m in the airport in Toronto, waiting for my Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. I’ll have an overnight and a morning and then will head back to the airport to catch a flight to Tbilisi. It all feels so exciting.

But I am out of touch. To most people these days who travel at all, Turkey and Georgia seem fairly ordinary, an extension of Europe. They skype and FB and tweet about being here or there, and none of it seems momentous or difficult.

After years of travels to Burma for my BURMA book, a place where there was no ATM machine or accessible-to-me cel phone to the outside world, and very limited internet access, I feel I’ve jumped into a new generation of travel. I’m not used to modernity in travel and feel like an old-fashioned person catapulted into a new travel generation. All this has happened in the last five or six years…

The above was written yesterday, in Toronto. Now I’m in the lounge in Istanbul airport, sipping a very good double espresso and waiting until it’s time to head to the gate for my flight to Tiflis, as Tbilisi is known in Turkish.

Yesterday’s arrival here was a short course in the international-hub nature of Istanbul, a real wow. This is the gateway to Central Asia and also has a foot, and more, firmly in Europe. It’s an enticing combo. But to go back to the arrivals, as a Canadian I needed to get a visa. There are 37 countries listed as needing a visa, including Norway, USA, Yemen…an eclectic list. But Sweden and France get a by, and so does Brazil. It cost me $60 and is a ninety day multiple entry visa, which will allow me to come back through here on May 1.

After the visa line came the passport control, divided into Turkish and “all other countries” lines, snaking through barriers. The line moved very quickly, at a continuous walking pace, and was a snapshot of the people that stream into this country these days. There was a whole batch of Turcomen women, in long dresses, all rich blues and wine-reds with small-flower patterns and embroidered borders. They had the gold and steel teeth of the ex-USSR, and headscarves that bared the beautiful bone structure of their faces as well as their ears, all with gold earrings. Then there were Russian speakers, the women in lipstick and tight trousers or elegant skirts with patterned stockings, the men tall and imposing. Among these were scattered Europeans, mostly older prosperous looking couples from Norway, France, Germany. And then of course there were a lot of people I could only guess at.

The passport control was quick and amiable, and then the rest was easy: a taxi to my small hotel, and I was done.

The rainy streets last night were full of hurrying people, stopping in to the green-grocer for green almonds (slightly furry little green ovals) or fresh fruit (so much on display) or tomatoes, or into the butcher for a cut of meat for the night. The woman who cleans the hotel I was at took me in hand and pointed out several small fish restaurants nearby as she was on her way home from work. I picked the liveliest looking one. Grilled sea bream was my choice of main. It came with half a lemon for squeezing on. And I ordered a salad. It was large, enormous and beautiful in a glass bowl and was not tossed but left for me to toss or taste as I wished. It had everything in it: parsley, basil, dill, and tomatoes, grated carrot, cabbage of two colours, and a little shredded lettuce, as well as slices of cucumber and carrot at the side. The server drizzled on olive oil and pomegranate syrup and then as I ate I squeezed on lemon juice and added a little salt.

I like eating alone in a new place. It gives time to reflect, and to digest - pardon the pun – all those first impressions, or at least some of them. I know I’ll forget this newness as I return here on more trips into the region. Certain things, from airport layout to how taxis work, become habitual and we cease to notice them. This first beginner’s mind time is precious.

And so today in the pouring rain I walked the few blocks to look at the Sea of Marmora, grey in the dim light, and yet still magical as an idea… I don’t want to lose the sense of magic that these places steeped in myth and history - yet very much alive and modern right now - evoke in me.

I guess my version of a traveller’s prayer is, “let me never take anything for granted, and may I always have a sense of wonder”.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


What is going on? I ask myself, as I realise that once again I have been absent from this blog for two weeks. The answer is busy-ness. Why should that stop me writing? After all, one can always make time for things, even if it takes extra effort.

The answer is I think that writing, communicating ideas, requires first some clear time to develop the ideas. In other words, I am not making enough time for reflection.

And the result is a little sad. Not only am I not getting renewed enough to write here, but I am also a little scattered and disorganised in other areas.

All of which, in turn, makes me understand that good memory, good travel, good writing, and good relationships all require the same thing: enough time and consideration, reflection and attention. When I am rushing around (most recently to give a talk at Cornell, then to write a couple of small articles, then travel to San Francisco for the IACP conference and to give a BURMA demo; then travel back to Toronto to be on a panel at the Terroir conference; then give an interview and two BURMA talks this week), I have no "still pool" in my head or heart for reflecting, assessing, contextualising. This is not only not good, I think it is dangerous in some way.

For without time to reflect and remember, it is too easy to lose track of what is important. I find I am rushing to meet my commitment to give a public talk or whatever, and thereby neglecting friends or failing to tune in to them.

But I firmly believe that it is our relationships with family, friends, and even casually met strangers, which are the most valuable contributions we make to ourselves and our society. And so if I am so focussed on the next task that I fail to lift my eyes or turn my attention to the human landscape, I am failing in some important way.

As I write now, I am fighting back intrusive thoughts and anxieties about my "to-do" list. "Get down!" I say to it in my mind, as I might to an importunate leaping puppy. "Let me be present to these thoughts and not distracted!" It's a bit of a struggle, for sure.

And now, to yield for a moment to thoughts of the to-do list: It includes the small bits and pieces I need to take care of before I leave on Sunday evening to go to Georgia, that is, the Caucasus. I fly in to Istanbul, then the following day to Tbilisi. Can't wait.

And I sure hope, as I spend my two weeks there eating and looking and photographing, and engaging with people, that I can retrieve a sense of focus, so that I can give the trip, and the people I meet, the honour and attention they deserve.

Please wish me luck.

AND A NOTE ON BURMA: The Burma book was honoured with the "best culinary travel book" at the IACP awards this week in San Francisco. I am thrilled. It has been nominated for a James BEard award too. That result we'll hear in early May, in New York. The other two nominees are remarkable solid popular books: Maricel Presilla's Gran Cocina Latina; and Yotam Ottolenghi's book Jerusalem. It's an honour to be nominated with them.