Georgia: Cuisine, Culture, Antiquity Tucked Into One Wee Country
My first taste of Georgia was at the table of a Southeast Washington apartment, which I wrote about in this story for The Washington Post. Since then, I’ve become something of a Georgia groupie, attending events where Georgian food or wine are served, meeting many others who are from Georgia or have spent time in the country’s capital, Tbilisi, usually on official assignment. I have yet to meet anyone who’s been to Georgia and then speaks apathetically about it. No, they all become adjunct ambassadors for this yet-to-be-discovered treasured of a country, sandwiched between Turkey to the south and the ever-looming threat of Russia to the north. They wax poetically about its food and scour local stores for its unforgettable wines. They say something about leaving a piece of their heart in Georgia, and you think they’re being a bit dramatic (that is, until you drink the same tannic, qvevri kool-aid).
Knowing that Georgia’s northern neighbor could change its mind about the country’s independence at any moment doesn’t make visiting feel unsafe — but urgent. There’s this go-now-or-you-could-miss-it feeling. And, this month, I gave in to it. I’ll be writing stories about the trip for different publications, but I thought I’d give you a quick window into some of its highlights here (and find an excuse to share some of my photos).
The flight to Tbilisi wasn’t bad, considering how far it actually is. On Turkish Airlines, I had a two-hour layover in Istanbul following a 10-ish-hour overnight flight, long enough to attempt a good night’s sleep or movie binge. Tbilisi is 8 hours ahead of Washington, D.C., so I arrived just in time to eat dinner at the talked-about Puri Puri — and then go to bed again, which I didn’t mind. Even if you day-trip to Tbilisi, try to stay for a nighttime view, when its Funicular hilltop restaurant, Bridge of Peace and other prominent sights are lit.
During the day, the city is just as enthralling. I walked with a guide through the “old city” portions of this historic-doesn’t-quite-cut-it city of 1.2 million on an overcast morning to take these photos.
Tbilisi has been the capital of Georgia since the 4th century, and Christianity arrived soon after to the country that is still dotted with ancient Orthodox churches. Many of them are remakes of the ones that stood before, as the capital city has been burned by conquerors about 30 times in its storied history. Thirty times. Every world power you can think of — the Mongols, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Russians and more — have invaded these lands over history. So it’s easy to see why the 16th century Narikala Fortress that still stands today (providing an expansive view of the city) remains important.
I would have loved to have spent weeks in Tbilisi, but it’s also a good jumping off point to visit the country’s storied winemaking region in Kakheti, just east of the capital. Several of the medium and large-sized wineries are launching “agritourism” programs that allow visitors to not only taste wine but also learn how its made. The Khareba Winery, one of the region’s largest, also offers classes where you can make some of the country’s signature dishes: Georgian bread in a circular oven called tone, the Georgian “snickers” made with walnuts and grape juice called churchkela and the Georgian dumpling (that is not easy to make!) called khinkali.
Another winery called Twins’ Cellar (owned by twin Georgian men) maintains a small museum about Georgia’s qvevri winemaking process. The rotund clay vessels have been used to ferment grapes, along with their stems and seeds, into a wine that is surprising tannic, amber in color and becoming renowned around the world. Just this week, archeologists said they’ve found more evidence that the country’s winemaking tradition is the oldest in the world, dating back to 6,000 BC.
I could spend months in Georgia, but one of the benefits of its small size is that you can see most of the country in just a few short days (with a fast, hired driver and nerves of steel, that is). I was only there five days, if you believe it, but got a taste of several of the country’s iconic regions. I’ll delve into the Kazbegi and Batumi regions (and the drive from one to the other) in the next post.
For now, I’ll leave you with some images of the country’s amazing people and their favorite labor of love: food.