A food tour of Georgia wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I’m not a foodie, and didn’t want to join a group of pretentious food snobs. When no other tour met my needs, I contacted Eating Adventures, a small tour company run by two Kiwi women, who run a food tour in Georgia outlining my position.
Why I joined a Food Tour of Georgia
The reply was refreshing and generous. It explained that tour aims “… to get to the heart of a country and its people through discovering how and what they eat” and that Georgian food is “peasant food” mainly “bread and cheese.” And if I decided not to do their tour, they provided other options and links to more information. Who does that these days?
I was sold. We joined the ten-day, nine-night tour in May, and had a wonderful experience. No one on the tour was pretentious. While one person has a high profile role, everyone was down to earth and eager to learn about Georgia through its food.
Our guides, Sue Dempsey and Janice Kirkwood know and love their food. They have thoroughly researched restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries and menus to enable them to share their knowledge with their guests. As one of our guests quipped “You must hate your job!”
Eating Georgia is the third of their Eating tours. The others are Eating Tokyo and Eating Lima. Here are some highlights of our Food Tour of Georgia.
Introducing the Supra
The Georgian supra is usually a celebratory feast. A table groaning with a variety of dishes to which more are constantly added. We enjoy a supra for almost every lunch and dinner over the course of the tour. Janice and Sue want us to experience as much as we can. They have tasted and carefully chosen each and every menu item to showcase the huge range of local dishes.
While it’s exciting to try so many different foods with strange names and unusual textures and flavours, it’s difficult not to overeat. At first, I do. Too late, I learn to pace myself. To serve myself small portions and not go for “just a bit more” of the first yummy dish placed in front of me. There will be many more to come.
Georgian Salad and Plenty of Bread
Typically, a Georgian salad accompanies each meal. Basically, a salad of tomato and cucumber, the combinations seem endless. It may come with a nut dressing, with walnuts or cheese, with parsley or purple basil.
There is always bread, and plenty of it. Shoti is a typical Georgian bread baked on the inside wall of a clay tone (pronounced “toe nay”), a bit like a tandoor. Other traditional breads are flat, a bit like a pizza. The soft pastry-like rounds are filled with cheese (kachapuri), beans (lobiani), meat (kubdari) or even potato.
I struggle to keep pace with all the new names and the different ingredients. A tkemali plum sauce lifts a plain beetroot salad. Jonjoli is a pickled caper-like plant. We eat plenty of cheese. Sulguni cheese fills kachapuri, is added to salads or rolled thinly and wrapped around curd.
Other dishes look familiar, but taste different. There are thinly sliced eggplant rolls with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, types of beef or lamb kebabs and delicious dolma. We’re taught how to eat Georgian dumplings (khinkali) without spilling the soupy broth which surrounds the meat ball. There’s lots of slurping involved. Like locals, we now know not to eat the stalk!
One meal is definitely not a supra. It fittingly comes after a visit to the Stalin Museum in Gori. The Soviet meal of rissoles (Gori Kutleti) comes with mashed potato. The thick sausage rissole is tasty, particularly when washed down with local beer.
Wine Factory Number 1
If you’ve read “Stalin’s Wine Cellar” by John Baker and Nick Place, you may remember Wine Factory Number 1. It’s where Stalin had his wine cellar. The shelves of rare wines were first once owned by Nicholas ⅠⅠ. Stalin took ownership of the wine after the Russian Revolution.
One night we dined in a restaurant in the Wine Factory Number 1. Like all other meals, dinner was varied and tasty. We ate Georgian salad, bread with a cheese and spinach filling, balls of something fried (sorry, missed that one!) and beetroot salad. There was beef cooked in wine with a cheesy potato mash and chicken with a white nut sauce and sausages.
Stalin’s Wine Cellar
Then Janice disappeared. When she returned, she suggested we follow her. We walked to the end of the long dining area to a set of heavy wooden doors. When Janice led the way through the doors and down a spiral staircase, we had an inkling that we were doing something special and excitedly followed her. We were about to see Stalin’s Wine Cellar.
Holding onto the metal railing we descended the brick lined stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs, we huddled around two large old wooden doors. Set into an archway entrance, they were padlocked closed. Attempts to strip the old dark green paint revealed bare wood and patches of blue and white.
Taking turns, we peered through a gap in the door. In the bare room beyond, the lights shone brightly highlighting the clean brick walls. What was once Stalin’s Wine Cellar is now an empty cavernous room. The shelves and expensive bottles of wine have long gone.
Another Memorable Meal
Dinner in Maia Kezevadze’s 170-year-old house, with its original walls and decorations was particularly special. We entered the small dwelling warmed by a raging fire. A table in the centre of the room was already covered with plates of bread and salad. But first we had to bake more bread.
We gathered round Maia to watch her prepare and cook corn bread in terracotta bowls that had been heating in the open fire. Then it was our turn. Following instructions, I flattened a ball of dough into a round. After placing a ball of soft cheese the size of a tennis ball, in the centre, I folded the sides of the dough over the cheese and flattened the dough.
Maia placed the Imeruli khachapuri into a heated terracotta dish which she then put on a stand in front of the fire. She covered the first dish with another heated one. The bread was ready in minutes.
Jaba, our driver commented that his grandmother used to make khachapuri in this way.
Everything we ate and drank that night was home made in the traditional way.
A Khinkali Masterclass
Khinkali are Georgian dumplings, larger than the Chinese dumpling. The dough is pleated around the filling and eaten by holding the ‘stalk’. After donning red aprons and chef hats we sat around a large table to learn how to make khinkali.
The Georgian chef measured each ingredient precisely. Allan commented that the measurements (28g of salt to 1litre of water) was “very precise for a peasant recipe.” Then chef shook 2g into the mix without measuring. Go figure!
After adding spices and cold water to the minced meat, he mixed the ingredients up by hand. Then he demonstrated his skill. Using his thumb and index finger he folded the dough around the meat ball, explaining that the more pleats, the more beautiful the result.
He added the finished khinkali to swirling boiling water to prevent them sinking. They rose to the surface in just over a minute and when they ‘blew up’ after about ten minutes, were ready.
A Fresh Food Market
When on a food tour, a visit to a fresh food market is a must. In Tbilisi, this market is the Dezerter Market. It got its name because in the 1920s, deserting soldiers sold their possessions here.
The market is busy and we’re in the way. I quickly learn how to say “bodishi” or “sorry” as I follow our group from one stall to another. Old men push trolleys through narrow lanes between tables laden with every variety of seasonable fruit and vegetable. Toothless women wearing hats and carrying baskets or trays approach us to buy homegrown mandarins, lemons, socks, pens, serviettes and plastic bags.
Piles of fresh green herbs, parsley, coriander, dill and beetroot fill one table. Buckets of cherries, green plums, mushrooms and tanks of live fish sit on tables and on the ground. Rounds of sulguni cheese, plain and smoked are stacked one on top of another. Bottles of green and red tkemali sauce stand in rows. We inspect the pyramids of nuts and learn about the spices including ajika and Georgian saffron which is powdered and dried marigolds.
What look like candles are actually churchkhela, a Georgian sweet made with grape juice and walnuts. Jenny spies something she enjoyed in Armenia. A slightly shrivelled brown capsicum-shaped fruit it’s white outside and brown inside. The dried persimmon as the soft texture of a plump date and is sweet and delicious.
Discovering Georgian Wine
Georgia, with 8000 years of winemaking history has been described as the “Cradle of Wine”. Daria, a Ukrainian who has lived in Georgia for ten years knows her wine. A wine ambassador for Georgia, she leads us on a wine tasting journey.
“How nerdy should I be?” she asks. Not very!
We taste five quite different wines. Most are “skin contact wine”, made by fermenting the grapes with their skins in qvevri, the traditional clay vessels. White wines made this way are amber in colour, some darker than others depending on how long they have been fermenting.
Daria says that Georgians don’t have a history of cellaring wine. Wine is made to drink. I’ll drink to that. “Gaumarjos!” or “Cheers!”
A Qvevri Maker
Buried in the ground, a clay qvevri breathes and regulates the temperature naturally. We visited Zaza Kbilashvi, one of the few master qvevri makers in Georgia. He digs the clay for his qvevri himself and takes three months to create about eight 2000 litre clay vessels. Every 2-3 days he adds around 10cm. When finished, they are 2.4 metres high. Relying on his hands and his eyes, each vessel is unique.
After showing us around his workshop and kiln, Zaza shares some of his wine and chacha (homemade spirit) with us. He exclaims that “Bad wine doesn’t exist just good and the best.”
A winetasting and lunch with Andro Barnovi, an ex-politician turned winemaker is another highlight. The sign on the gate warns “Caution drunk people.” As the gate opens, large dogs friendly greet us tails wagging.
A small winery, it prides itself on making natural wines with no additives. The fermenting process begins in qvevri, after which the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks. For the first time, we see qvevri in the ground and learn how the narrow-necked vessels are cleaned and stored. Each year, Andro produces 6-8 blended wines.
We end the wine tasting and tour of the winery with a supra. More delicious food accompanied by just as delicious wine.
Other Highlights of our Food Tour of Georgia
While I don’t recall what we ate at Sisters in Kutaisi, I won’t forget the experience. A balding man with a long thin face sat down at a small square table. Three other bearded men, one with a guitar joined him. Their hands resting on the bare wooden table, they began to sing. Conversations around the room stopped. The sweet melodious sounds of polyphonic singing captivated us all.
While the tour of the Stalin Museum highlighted Stalin’s life with only a brief mention of the pain he inflicted on the population, none of us will forget our guide. A severe woman with long black hair, she wore a belted beige trench coat over red trousers and shirt. After greeting us she said in true Soviet style “I am your guide and you must follow me. You have no choice.”
One afternoon, we took a drive out to the fascinating spa town of Tskaltubo. An impromptu walk through one of the few still operating spa resorts revealed a bath specially made for Stalin. The ruins of another spa resort are a favourite place for photo shoots. There we met students celebrating their graduation posing for the camera. There is much more to this story, and I’ll write more later.
Tours Worth Doing
Jana runs Gori Free Tours. She took us on a wonderful discovery of the other side of Gori. We each had a turn riding in one of two Lada’s and a Volga. We climbed through a fence to see an oversize statue of Stalin, face down in the grass behind some administrative buildings. I’ll write more about this tour separately.
Another tour I’ve written about separately is the walking tour with Baia of Red Fedora Diaries. She took us behind the scenes in Sololaki in Tbilisi, giving us a peak into the lives of merchants and businessmen before the Soviet era.
A Great Way to Experience Georgia
Georgia is an exciting place to visit. Sue and Janice smoothed the way with their Eating Georgia Tour.