When God was dividing up the earth he called all the peoples of the world to a meeting. The Georgians arrived about a day too late and smelling of alcohol. God was not amused. “I’ve given all the land away now ” he said. The Georgians looked very sad and turned to go. “We couldn’t leave without giving a feast in your honour and toasting your greatness,” they said. “Well there is one bit of land,” he said. “It has the sea, mountains, plains, a sub-tropical area and beautiful farmland. I was keeping it for myself.”
I’ve heard many people describe their homeland as ‘God’s own country’ but the Georgians believe that theirs was truly given to them by God. With a coastline on the Black Sea, bordered by two mountain ranges, and with five micro-climates it is certainly rich in natural assets for a small country. And no wonder so many rulers coveted it and invaded. Georgia is an ancient civilisation with a chequered history of people trying to conquer them. This may explain why their cultural identity is so strong and resilient – surviving most recently over 70 years of attempted homogenisation by the Soviet Union.
I’d wanted to visit ever since I read blog posts by Kerstin and Helen and finally I was here. These impression are just the tip of the iceberg that this magnificent country has to offer. In addition to the ten wineries and all the restaurants we went to, here are a few sights from along the way.
Taxi-ing in from the airport down George W Bush street, past shabby soviet era concrete blocks of flats I’m slightly nervous about what the capital of the Republic of Georgia will be like. A huge bunch of grapes hangs in the gateway to the airport and we pass a railway terminus that’s like a golden mirrored beetle. Ridged mountains, their Jurassic ripples visible, are a dull backdrop – quite bare and spartan, a huge carved dark Mordor-like tower looms menacingly, part of the sculpture has fallen away exposing the inner metal skeleton. The dawn is breaking revealing women at the edge of the kerbs sweeping the road with straw brooms – odd when the grass verges are full of litter. Many houses are wooden and ramshackle – like Little House on the Prairie without Pa to fix it. But turning a bend a panorama of the city flanking the banks of the river Mtkvari is seen in all its juxtaposed glory. Houses hug the top of the old city wall, literally built on top of it, Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda), Narikala Fortress and Bagrati Cathedral (Kutaisi) watchful above, gleaming organic shapes resembling tubes or pine forests or shells are shiny ultra-modern buildings, pavements are dotted with bronze figurines. The Tbilisi Public Service Hall looks as though its mirrored walls are topped with an array of giant funghi. Sweeping round into Freedom Square, The stately Marriot Courtyard lines one side while a bright golden statue of St George (yes the same patron saint as England) towers over the combination of buildings ranging from Stalin-built stone grandeur to charming wooden ones with bright if peeling paint.
A cable car ferries people up across the river to the highest point ending in a restaurant and telecoms aerial which lights up dramatically at night. McDonalds inhabits a most elegant curved building, its investment rescued and restored the building with an ornate golden arched roof to which it added its own neon version.
We only have time to explore, briefly on two occasions. Restoration has begun on the old town but I take a wrong turning on my first foray out with my camera and plunge directly into the deepest parts of the ‘before’ area. It is dream to photograph, Rowena and I have our cameras permanently attached to our faces, with crooked houses, crumbling facades and intriguing alleyways, but it’s probably not a dream to live in. After this the cleaned up areas seemed too new and clinical – our guide Geo indicates he feels the same and looks forward to a couple of years time when they will have softened with age. Georgia is called the bridge between Europe and Asia and Tbilisi was a hub on the Silk Route. Caravanserai are buildings where travelers could rest consisting of many floors. The basement housed camels and horses with rooms arranged on balconies around a main courtyard and the roof open to the sky. Geo takes us to two caravanserai which shows the contrast between old and new dramatically. We creep in through ancient wooden doors of the first looking up to a washing line strung with clothes and a tacked on corrugated roof. It looks as though the camels have just moved out but in fact houses several families by the look of it. The next one is gleaming with new paint and has been opened as shopping centre with a cafe, wine bar and several galleries.
The church next to where we are staying (The Marriot) sees visitors of all ages popping in and out at most hours of the day. Women cover their heads, people queue at a kiosk outside to buy thin, beige tapers to light with their prayers.
I needn’t have been alarmed. Tbilisi is a charming tableau of a city, its vivid history written large, laced with an optimism similar to the one I sensed on a visit to Krakow in 1998. This hope for the future is not completely carefree though – there is a political settling in and all with a watchful eye on what Putin will do next.
Tbilisi flea market
Otherwise known at the Dry Bridge Market as paintings line the road adjacent to the eponymous bridge on the edge of a small park. Behind the artworks and along the bridge are stalls, or rather blankets on the ground where sellers display their wares. The main market is on a Saturday but some are there everyday. It’s a food styling prop dream with tarnished sets of cutlery, chipped enamel, and odd china tea cups much reflecting soviet era taste. Everything else is there too, from musical instruments to old weapons. I am sorely tempted to lug home ancient-looking iron pots which look as though they’ve just been pulled from the hook of a medieval kitchen fire. After a bit of good-natured haggling (in sign language) a little enamel jug and some cross-stitched Georgian hats go home in my bag.
Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube
Stalls full of fruits and vegetables, spices and churchkhela, chickens and preserves, a hall filled of cheese and offal, butt up against electronics and hardware supplies. A labyrinthine feast for the senses in all manner of ways – more to follow soon in a post about Georgian food.
National Museum of Georgia
After a wonderful week, my brain is over-stimulated and can’t take any more information. I don’t want to visit the museum but would rather wander through the streets breathing in the crisp air. Geo suggests we go straight to the treasury on the top floor and work our way down. I drag my heels a bit but obey – and meet an elegant room of illuminated cabinets with an impressive amount of beautifully made gold implements and jewellery. It’s a demonstration of how old and how sophisticated early Georgian society was. Many of the items look contemporary they’re so fine and well-made. I’m restless and leave the group to go at my own pace through the other floors. Exquisite paintings, beautiful kimonos and collections of hand-scribed books of The Knight in the Panther skin keep my interest. Turning from the light airy rooms I enter the dark wing dedicated to a new exhibition called Soviet Occupation 1921 – 1991. A wooden railway carriage shot through with holes greets me, black and white images of families who were assassinated, statistics and letters tell the story and extent of atrocities committed including transporting people to Siberia (from where few would return). I’m angry and upset, not least because my own father and his family were displaced from their homeland by the Russians (in an area which is now in the Ukraine) and my Grandfather died in Siberia. The museum reminds, once again on this trip, how resilient and richly resourceful this nation is.
There were so many things left to do in Tbilisi – visit the sulphur baths, take a cable car to the highest point, see inside the Nariqala fortress and the many, many churches and cathedrals, walk to Mother Georgia….. but we had a lot of wine to taste. The rural areas are a contrast to city with its gleaming shafts of modernisation , the villages are poor and ramshackle but dedicated to the land and every centimetre is planted with something. We see huge flocks of sheep tended by shepherds, sometimes spilling across the road. There are horses and carts, and haystacks scythed by hand. Dogs are everywhere in the city, towns and villages – some have seen better days but all look well fed. It’s all very poor but there is a sense of Georgians understanding where real riches lie.
We stop for lunch in Mtshkheta – the former capital of Georgia – and can see this 6th Century monastery on top of a high hill. On our winding journey there it looks down on us as we climb higher and higher. There are few visitors, souvenir stalls camp out the gate with a few beggars lining the steep path up. There is a magnificent view over a sweeping bend in the Aragvi river. Inside this cruciform church (in the shape of a cross) it is calm, cool and dark with a towering ceiling. The stillness and simplicity of the place is beautiful and we are allowed to try to capture this on our cameras without flash. Suddenly the peace is broken by angry shouting. I am appalled that one of our party has taken a photo of the black clad, bearded Georgian monk without permission and using flash. He is unconcerned and seems to think it’s his right. Once a place of pilgrimage as St Nino, credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia (a former name for Georgia) to Christianity erected a wooden cross on this site; it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site just in the nick of time due to erosion, by the sound of it.
Ikalto church, monastery and wine academy
The sun on the stone of this 12th century collection of buildings makes them glow, the sky a brilliant blue and then I realise my camera battery has run out. Right at the beginning of a day of stunning sights. Taking a deep breath I decide to live in the moment and thank my iphone for taking the strain. The walls of the church are hung with icons; women have to cover our heads to enter. The attractive ruins and collection of qvevri (traditional clay wine-making vessels that were buried in the ground) are the focus of many lenses. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place surrounded by trees and bird song.
This peaceful place originally dated from the 6th century although, as everything in Georgia, bore the brunt of one of a litany of invaders – in was completely devastated in 1616 by the Persians. Beautifully restored, the walls of the inside of the monastery glow with icons.
The first picture is from the coach hence the reflections – but the whole place is so magical. The cathedral itself towers high above our heads inside and the ban on photography means we have to just concentrate on seeing the place and drinking in the atmosphere. Polished stone slabs from earlier era show that Georgia’s alphabet has changed a few times. Right at the end I glimpse a view through a crack in the screen and see a kaleidoscope of colour around the inner altar; a stark contrast to this cool stone interior. We walk past vines trained in heart-shapes and then meet Father Gerasim who shows us the wine making process, answers questions and leads a tasting with lunch… but that’s for another time. And this place does seem like it’s from another time.
The mountain road was closed due to icy conditions so our 2 hours from Tbilisi to the capital of the Kaheti region became a mind-numbing four-hour coach journey. The town centre square was lit up, pristine and soul-less – Geo explained these were Stalin-era buildings that had been restored. We faced another ‘supra-like’ feast and then crawled into our rooms with strange ornate furniture and hi-tech showers that had a nozzle for every part of your body. I headed out through the town early morning and noticed that the restoration didn’t extend very far and enjoyed the fresh air and stunning mountain views. The part signposted ‘old town’ has been restored to within an inch of its life. There seems to be no middle ground here. Telavi is the perfect base for seeing the wineries and sights of the Kaheti region (which is exactly what we did including the above); the Batonistsikhe Castle glimpsed from the coach on arrival, looked worth further inspection.
Set in high above the Alazani valley flanked by a breath-taking view of the Caucasus which have been a backdrop to our journeys but never looked so stunning as from this pretty town. Here the balconied houses have been restored but keep their charm. There is a character to the town. A bas-relief plays homage to the dead – a sight we’ve seen in many forms in many towns. A parade of men clad in bright military red coats laugh and joke as the climb up the steep hill. A market is glimpsed through the door of a hall, jars of pickles stacked along side fresh vegetables and piles of clothing. A supra (feast) with polyphonic singing, folk dancing and of course wine drinking and toasts is our main purpose but we get time to steal away to the Bodbe convent the next morning. It’s another calm, gentle place and silent nuns clean the painted frescoes of this place of pilgrimage – St Nino is buried here in a beautiful tomb. Cypress trees tower over us as we gaze once more at another view of the valley to the sound of birdsong.
This is a disparate list of places and only tells a part of the story as our main focus was with eating and drinking – as guests of the Georgian National Wine Tourism Administration and National Wine Agency of Georgia for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC). It’s impossible to separate food and wine from any trip to Georgia so those chapters will follow soon.
I travelled to Tbilisi from Dubai on Fly Dubai and the flight time is only 3 1/2 hours.
In the meantime….
I can’t remember a more authentic and undiscovered place that I’ve travelled to. Have I tempted you to go? Love to hear in the comments….
There’s a delicious build up to travel; the long term planning, the considered purchases, the mounting excitement, the last minute shopping and, for me, a part of that process is reading. As well as factual travel guides online and in print, I like to read something else about the place and find fiction helps me understand a place in a different way to the guides; for example In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar before I went to Libya, Amin Malouf and Khalil Gibran prior to Lebanon, or titles like Midnight’s Children and The White Tiger paving the way to India. It was too late to order the national poem of Georgia – The Knight in the Panther’s Skin – and I couldn’t find anything else relevant (although now intrigued by these titles), so turned to my shelves of cookery books to see if there was something that could provide more context, without much hope it must be said:
Feast – Nigella Lawson
Who would have thought that Nigella would provide a the first clues to the country and cuisine, and she ate her one and only Georgian meal in St Petersburg! She recreates a Georgian feast in Feast, with a caveat about its claim to authenticity and that she’d “certainly cringe at the thought of presenting it as such to someone who came for Georgia.” The menu contains melon with hot pepper relish (adzhika), a plate of herbs, stuffed chicken, beetroot puree, green beans in yoghurt and some walnut crescents. In hindsight it’s an approximation of some of the dishes we were served there but hints at the flavour combinations and the size of the feasts that we ate every single time we sat down to eat. She also gives a recipe and fantastic step by step photographs for Nana’s Hachapuri – stuffed cheese bread – which we came to know as Khachapuri while in Georgia. Is it authentic? It certainly looks like one of the many different versions we tasted (there are over forty varients). As for the walnut crescents – after eating MANY different Georgian feasts – I would say these are the least authentic. Dessert seems to be an alien concept in Georgia.
The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean – Paula Wolfert
Cook book author and culinary anthropologist justifies her inclusion “the Republic of Georgia, a country that, although it has no Mediterranean shore, is Mediterranean in spirit and agriculture.” She mentions the use of red pepper pastes “I often felt I was meandering down a ‘pepper trail’ from the Syrian coastal village of Latakia to the bustling Georgian capital, Tbilisi” and states “I found a core simplicity of approach that, in my opinion, is the mark of culinary sophistication.” A myriad Georgian recipes are sprinkled throughout the book including Georgian beef pie in the style of Svaneti, Georgian dumplings with cracked black pepper (khikali), Caucasian marinated pork kabobs, eggplants stuffed with walnuts, Georgian chicken Tabaka with a walnut sauce (badza) and blackberry sauce (isrim makvali), sour plum sauce (tkemali) and of course, Georgian home-style cheese bread pie (khachapuri). What she also conveys is the exceptional hospitality offered by the Georgians as she was welcomed into their homes (in the mid 1980′s when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union).
Footnote: I was sad to read that Paula Wolfert has been diagnosed as in the early stages of dementia but very interested to hear how she is coping through amending her diet and by cooking.
Jerusalem – Ottolenghi and Tamimi
Trust Ottolenghi to be spot on the zeitgeist! There’s a whole page dedicated Georgia noting some similarities between dishes from Syria and Palestine and acknowledging the settlers impact on local food in the city of Jerusalem. A recipe for spicy beetroot, leek and walnut salad pays homage to this impact and there’s a very detailed description of how to make Acharuli khachapuri. This is the Georgian cheese bread with an egg baked in it – and apparently “one of the dishes most readily associated with the city’s Georgian Jewish community.
The Jews still living in Georgia make up one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world probably settling there in around 586 BC and there are two synagogues in Tbilisi. Muslims make up almost 10% of the population and the majority are (very devout) Orthodox Christians. Our guide in Georgia told us there was no religious discrimination (since independence) and I certainly got the impression of religious tolerance whilst there.
Anyway….cheese bread with an egg on top anyone? Top of the ‘to bake’ list.
Diana Henry writes meticulous recipes plus she is an instinctive cook who is excited by and understands brilliant flavour combinations. Perhaps her books didn’t tell me much about Georgia but the recipes I found are a great resource and the dishes would sit beautifully on a Georgian table. Georgian chicken in walnut sauce with hot grated beetroot is found in her newest book A Change of Appetite and Georgian plum sauce in Salt Sugar Smoke. I’m going to attempt a Georgian feast (on St George’s day of course) and I’m starting here.
I’d planned to finish this post before I went to Georgia, but as mentioned before, something happened that eclipsed everything. There were a few Georgian cookbooks for sale in the Tbilisi museum shop but none looked tempting enough to ditch another bottle of wine for in my suitcase (baggage allowance). The book that everyone seems to refer to is The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein although there are mixed reviews. That there are few others is an indication of how incredible undiscovered Georgia, its culture, people and land, really is.
So have I whetted your appetite? More about Georgia, the place, the wine, the food and the people follows s-oooooo-n.
If you want to know more, these (food-centric) posts are worth browsing:
- Recipes: Khachapuri/Georgian pizza (marmitelover.blogspot.com)
- Svanetian Khachapuri With Cheese and Green Onions (georgianrecipes.net)
- Georgian grilled pork recipe (helengraves.co.uk)
- Cookies and the Caucasus (cookiesandthecaucasus.wordpress.com/
Have you tasted Georgian food or found any good sources of recipes along the way?
You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a year-long food festival in Dubai so much goes on in the culinary calendar. But a new initiative was launched this year to group some of the major events together under the title Dubai Food Festival adding in some additional and quirky things to show off this city’s diverse food scene to the max. It all came about very quickly and some things worked better than others. But all in all it was a whirlwind month of food-centric fun with many highlights; it all started at the end of February with:
Dubai Food Carnival
About: Aimed at a wider family audience it had a mix of entertainment and low to mid range food stalls. I managed to say yes to being on a discussion panel and felt very exposed up on the big stage discussing the importance of service versus food in restaurants. I took a visitor from Scotland’s Inner Hebrides with me and it was great to see the event though her eyes. Unlike me, for instance, she was astonished to be greeted by a group of stilt walking dancers as we arrived.
Good things: Eating martabak telor fresh from the pan at Wok it, seeing the Weber barbecue challenge pitting teams against each other, a glimpse of John Torode, the fenced off bit where alcohol was served (much smarter than TOD – see below), My Dad can cook (father and offspring cooking together), veg growing competitions in schools, Ghaf kitchen (Dubai’s first food truck) and Silvena Rowe‘s pop up using local, organic veg.
Could do better: Could do with a few more unusual eating experiences (and less fast food style vendors); the family entertainment (apart from the sumo wrestling bizarrely) was a bit grating – but then again it wasn’t aimed at me.
About: Pop up restaurants on three beaches, with a range of foods and live music.
Good things: Kite beach location was really chilled and lovely with some nice stalls and great music. It felt like you could be anywhere in the world, a great hub frequented by a range of nationalities and would be great on this beach as a permanent fixture.
Could do better: Last minute notice and very few people seemed aware of it – especially Russian beach and sunset beach canteens. The one on sunset beach was plonked in the middle – difficult for atmosphere. The mix of stands was a bit odd. And at all places the food was too expensive.
Greg Malouf media lunch at Nawwara
Greg Malouf is famous in Australia and has been involved at getting Petersham Nurseries in Richmond back on its feet after the departure of Skye Gyngell. My only knowledge of him was as co-author with his (ex) wife on the cover of some gorgeous coffee table cookery and travel books on the Middle East. I had this impression that he was tricky by the revered whispers his name was breathed. So I was expecting something fancy for a media lunch at Nawwara in JW Marriot Marquis. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The interior of the restaurant was light-filled, elegant and modern with traditional touches such as the full length fountain trickling gently down the centre. When Greg spoke he was understated and self-effacing patently still much happier in the kitchen than in front of a crowd. His praise of Youssef Issa the head chef of Nawarra and the other staff seemed warm and genuine. And the food…. you could have knocked me down with a feather. Nothing unusual, Lebanese staples such as hummus, tabbouleh, fatoush, muhammara and mutabal graced the table served traditionally but immaculately. Anyone who says you can make good hummus by whizzing up a tin of chickpeas in a blender hasn’t lived in the Middle East – the test of a good restaurant is its hummus. This was soft like butter, creamy, smooth, balanced, elegant and this immaculate execution of a simple dish was carried throughout.
Two more salads followed, one from Greg’s grandmother’s recipe ‘Tata’s Salad’. A type of chard pie with chickpeas wooed us by its ‘hand of Fatima’ decoration and savoury leaves encased in crumbly crust. Up until now we’d eaten no meat at all but there were no complaints. Duck tagine accompanied with stuffed vegetables was the most homely but satisfyingly good and accompanied by the most delicious couscous I have ever eaten…ever. How can couscous be that note-worthy? Apparently the traditional (i.e. arduous and time-consuming) method of preparing couscous is very different to the instant packet stuff. Remembering it makes me want to eat it again right now. Greg provided the playful dessert of camel biscuits and Chef Youssef one made of frozen clotted cream, Ethiopian raw honey, berries and nuts; it was superb. An absolutely exquisite lunch and a very clever way to show that Dubai’s five stars aren’t just style over substance to the world’s media while firmly rooted in the Middle East.
Gourmet Trail Guide
Six local food experts (i.e. eminent food bloggers) were asked to create a Dubai Food Festival Gourmet Trail Guide. They picked five foodie trails, to highlight the diverse selection of cuisine and dining experiences available throughout Dubai.
- Ultimate Dining Experiences – gourmet or 5-star dining outlets
- Best Kept Secrets – little known eateries and restaurants
- Arabian Inspirations – the very best of Emirati, GCC and Levant cuisines
- Around the world – the very best of cuisine from around the globe available in Dubai
- Best Cheap Eats – the best dining or snacks for under 20 AED per person
Even though I read all these blogs and know many of the bloggers well, there were still lots of surprises among the trails. A great resource to dip into even after the festival is over.
In previous years I’d avoided going to this huge trade show which attracts exhibitors and visitors from all over the world. I was afraid that it would represent everything I stand against – industrialised, highly processed foods and fancy imported goods. This year I decided to go with an open mind and see if my preconceptions were right and in the main they were. It was absolutely overwhelming too – vast halls of stalls, the outside areas packed, mainly with men in suits dragging wheelie computer bags who were chain smoking. I didn’t even find the food demonstration section with the chefs (including Tom Kitchin), being totally exhausted after navigating my way round the very confusing halls of enormous stands representing different countries. It amused me to see the types of products that represented each nation. The UK was dominated by crisps and cheese, Germany drinks and coffee, Spain dulce de leche and olives. Meeting up with England Preserves and GabyMachel redeemed my visit and I wish I’d begged for a bag of some excellent Cradoc’s savoury biscuits made with fresh vegetables. The highlight was sitting at the front of the metro on the journey home with a lovely view of the sun going down over Dubai.
Good things: The country stalls give small producers the chance to reach a wider audience. Gulfood also demonstrated what an important business hub Dubai is not only in the region but worldwide. As a place to network for the food industry, there must be few rivals.
Could do better: Sad to see a country like Poland represented by a stand crammed full of highly processed foods in boxes. Is this seen as progress from a land so rich with good ingredients and delicious cuisine? The numbering of the stands was completely baffling too; even though I downloaded the app it was hard to navigate your way round.
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
This wonderful annual event got scooped up under the Dubai Festival banner too and quite rightly so as there is always an excellent food contingent. I thought there were less demos this year (thoroughly enjoyed some in the past from Madhur Jaffrey, Ariana Bundy and Rachel Allen). I’ve met some of my absolute food heroes there in previous years too (Claudia Roden, Anissa Helou) and been entertained by stories from Ken Hom and Willie Harcourt-Cooze among others. There were so many wonderful sessions for non-foodie authors this year that I only managed to sit in on one session but it was one of the most interesting I attended. William Sitwell kept us all engaged and chuckling with his quick wit and The History of Food in 100 recipes is compelling bedside reading. My main coup this year was to interview Prue Leith. Mark your diary for 3-7 March 2015.
Taste of Dubai 2014
About: The most popular and well-known food event in Dubai’s calendar where you can eat small portions of signature dishes from a wide range of upper-end restaurants as well as food demos, cookery classes and competitions.
Good things: As always the big draw is that you can eat a range of nice food and drink (alcohol) in the lovely Media City amphitheatre and listen to live music. The cookery competition run by Crate and Barrel and BBC Good Food Magazine was exceptional. Contestants were pitched one against the other for a cook off. These local amateur keen cooks were superb and created some amazing dishes from a given basket of ingredients against the clock. The set up was good – individual kitchens almost like Masterchef, the compère professional and credible panel of judges. Nice to see some smaller set ups there too like Boon Coffee and I tasted finger limes for the first time at Lafayette Gourmet. The fun tasting at the MMI beverage theatre (a bit like call my bluff with wine) took an even funnier twist as the heavens opened and we all had to huddle in the pouring area. Good to see Le Clos there this year and to taste some wine fine too. Eric Lanlard had a few hearts fluttering this year although not when I visited.
Could do better: Perhaps I’m becoming jaded with the event or maybe it’s reached it’s peak but I was slightly underwhelmed this year. I had hoped that Gary Rhodes wouldn’t be repeating his same menu including white tomato soup yet again, but was disappointed to see that none of the Starwood group restaurants (including Toro Toro, Rhodes Mezzanine and Indego by Vineet) were not there this year. Neither were the Atlantis restaurants (so no Nobu or Ronda Locatelli) or JW Marriot Marquise or Mango Tree or Carluccio’s. Given all the new openings this year, it was a shame that nothing really exciting replaced them either; I did sample some food from La Porte des Indes, one of few new kids on the block, but the highlight was tucking into very good fish and chips from Rivington Grill – delicious but not pushing any culinary boundaries!
Fortnum and Mason Dubai opening
Not part of the Dubai Food Festival but hot on its heels chronologically – and a significant new addition to the Dubai food scene in my opinion.
Good things: The best combination of afternoon tea with a view of the Burj Khalifa, The Dubai Fountains and an outside terrace: their Welsh Rarebit is TO DIE FOR; lovely array of teas, biscuits, preserves, very posh candles and hampers; an ice cream parlour on the top floor (with mega view). They’ve made an effort to source a lot of produce locally too. Free valet parking if you visit F&M too – just enter by the Address Hotel and go straight at the roundabout.
Could do better: Nothing to add here, I think the concept has been done really well; a visit for tea and a review is firmly on the cards.
Verdict on the Dubai Food Festival
This festival is a sign of Dubai coming of age and a sign that the powers that be are waking up to the fact that people aren’t just interested in five star fine dining.
Good things: Great to have a platform for the huge diversity of cultures and their cuisines on offer in Dubai.
Could do better: Tenuous food entertainment such as dancing cutlery in malls. Forget it. More focus on the great ingredients available in Dubai and more authentic street food being given a platform (not just those who can afford to invest). It was all a bit last minute too so with a bit more planning could be something really special.
Conclusion: Great imaginative initiative can’t wait to see what they do next year.
A quick peek in my kitchen as I staggered back from Georgia with a bulging suitcase so lots of new things to share with you this month.
The first place I wanted to visit when I got to Tbilisi was the market – and I wasn’t disappointed. Strolling through a labyrinthine arrangement of food stalls piled high with fresh vegetables, pickles, spices, sauces, meat, bread butted up against collections of ironmongery, car parts and an eclectic mix of other random items, I was in foodie heaven. Most stalls were outside under flimsy covers but we entered one dimly lit hall which had piles of cheese on one side and tables of offal on the other. But enough …. a market post to follow soon.
The way this honey thickly trickled into the jar, ladled from the churn, makes me confident that it is raw honey direct from the hives (transported in a pickle jar).
Not salami or candles. These churchkhela (pronounced church-ah-la) are strings of nuts dipped in reduced grape must. A great way to preserve and reduce waste at the same time. The different colours are due to different grape varieties used. Slices were served for breakfast and sometimes at the end of meals when were in Georgia. It’s not too sweet, just fruity – I love how the stallholder seems to have used some Maths homework sheets to wrap them up.
A feature of Georgian cuisine is the fruit and nuts used copiously. Plum sauce is used as a condiment and to cook meat in. Some stalls used old Pepsi bottles for their sauce but I like this one. Not sure why I brought home miniatures of Georgian brandy – but I visited the place where it is made and got carried away.
Not quite in my kitchen (the worst place to store wine) but the Georgian wines I brought home had to be included. Several are qvevri wines – made in large clay pots buried underground and left in prolonged contact with the grape skins, seeds and stalks. The ManDili wine is the first from two female Georgian winemakers – I met the delightful Tea Melanashvili, one half of the duo. Other natural winemakers producing small quantities of lovingly made qvevri wines are Ramaz Nikoladze (his wine is second from the left) and twins Gia and Gela Gamtkisulashvilis of Twins Wine Cellar - we drank wine straight from a newly opened qvevri there. Sadly the five bottle import limit into Dubai meant I had to leave a lot behind (including wine bottles with my name on and the rather lethal ‘chacha’, a kind of grappa); OK so I forgot how to count when packing. Much more about this experience…soon…
The tiny purple flowers on this
thyme summer savoury bought at the Farmers’ Market decorate my kitchen and will scent a roast chicken….
The newly opened Fortnum and Mason next to Dubai Mall with a fabulous view of the Dubai fountains is top of my list of places to visit next for afternoon tea. The goodie bags ran out at the media launch so I nearly fell off my chair when they gave me a hamper. Yes I know how lucky I am.
Another feature of Dubai (expat) life is that people move a lot and when clearing out their cupboards often think “Sally’s into food she’d like the contents of our pantry”! This enormous tin of Halal confit duck came to me that way; thinking of cassoulet even though the temperatures have soared here, you can’t beat a bit of bean-laden, sausagey comfort food (very un-Halal).
Elder teen asked me to make a jar of lemon curd for her friend’s birthday present (he loves it) before I left. Luckily the recipe makes two jars (and I kept the one in the pretty Pelagonia jar).
Something awful happened before I left for Georgia – I’m not ready, and may never be, to share it in this space – but I did some comfort shopping and with me it’s always in the cook book section of Kinokuniya. Diana Henry’s latest is about lighter, healthier foods and after feasting in Georgia it’ll be used A LOT.
This pot of red wine vinegar is a permanent fixture in my kitchen. It contains a “Mother” and I feed it with any left over red wine so that none goes to waste. For those who comprehend the concept of left over wine, more details about how to make your own here…
That’s all for now. Pop over to see what’s in Celia’s kitchen (at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial) as well as links to a whole host of other kitchens.
What’s in your kitchen this April?
Nowadays starters are non-starters. Hors d’oeuvre are no longer de rigueur. Who has the time, resources and energy to make more than a main course and pudding when friends come over? Some crisps, dips and a few crudités will do won’t they? And yet don’t you think that secretly everyone likes a starter? Whether it’s a big communal platter that everyone can dig into or individual scoops, slices or spoonfuls in a dish or bowl; the word appetiser is apposite.
If you’ve ever visited my house for supper over the past couple of decades, you are likely to have been served these Piedmontese peppers at some point. They’re easy to make ahead, you can warm them up or serve at room temp (just not icy cold). Use the best peppers and tomatoes you can – mine are fragrant and full of flavour from the farmers market and I love the complementary colours of the yellow and purple tomatoes. Serve one half per person or put them in a big dish in the middle of the table. Fresh, crusty bread to mop up the sweet, sour, herby, garlicy juices is essential.
If you haven’t fallen for the charms of a starter they make a good side dish with lamb too. Turn them into a vegetarian main course with the addition of some cheese – make it a sharp but bland creamy cheese – perhaps mozzarella, slivers of halloumi or even feta. Add other things you like too – black olives, an anchovy or two, a sliver of salami or change the herbs (although I love the sweet medicinal taste of rosemary in contrast to the honey).
I’ve been tucking into these for lunch with juices soaked up with olive focaccia from Baker and Spice, also bought at the market.
- 4 peppers (capsicums)
- 450 – 500g cherry tomatoes
- 60ml extra virgin olive oil plus extra for brushing
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 tablespoon raw honey
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest, grated,
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (smoked if possible)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Flat leaved parsley, chopped roughly
- Preheat the oven to 220 C
- Cut the peppers in half lengthways, through the stalk. Cut out and discard the core, seeds and membrane.
- Place the pepper halves in a roasting tin and drizzle or brush with a little olive oil. Place the roasting tin near the top of the oven and roast for 25 minutes.
- Put the remaining ingredients except the parsley into a bowl and stir to combine.
- Remove the peppers from the oven and spoon the tomato mixture into the cavities.
- Return to the oven for about 25 minutes until the peppers are beginning to blacken at the edges and the tomatoes are soft.
- Serve warm or at room temperature with the parsley scattered over the top.
Apparently there is a restaurant in LA which has a soft box set up so that people who want to take gorgeous pics of their food can do so away from the dodgy lighting and rolling eyes of their friends at the table. This kind of “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” attitude is in contrast to some restaurants who have now banned cameras. I can understand their pain. It’s the chef equivalent of cooking supper for your family, trying to get everything nice and hot and ready to eat at the same time. You call them, nothing happens, and when they eventually appear you do that “I’ve slaved over a hot stove to make nice food for you” routine and they stare back blankly.
In chef land, you’ve been chopping up bones to make stock, simmering sauces, preparing everything in pursuit of satisfying your diners. You time your dish to the last second. Rare ingredients may have been flown in from halfway round the world, the market has been trawled for the best produce available and kept on ice, you have been perfecting this signature dish for ten years; the plates are dispatched by waiters. The hand-picked garnishes quiver on gleaming sauces, heat releases tantalising aromas, it looks like art. Then some foodie whips out their brick of a DSLR set on auto, the other guests are blinded by the flash and the resulting image is the food equivalent of a paparazzi pic of Lindsey Lohan falling out of a nightclub.
So I’m going to get my excuse in quick; it was expected of me. Invited for a media preview of Atul Kochhar‘s nine-course degustation menu at Rang Mahal in the JW Marriot Marquis I’m wandering around camera in hand. The interior is mysterious and beautiful. I survey the scene as I sip a Mubai Mohito, breathing in the addictive earthy scent of curry leaves. The brightly lit bar shines like a suspended rectangle, gargantuan carved pillars are overlooked by deities of Brobdingnagian proportions, chefs wield huge skewers of kebabs in the open kitchen. I’m loving my mood setting pics but everything is orange. Seated at our long table with a solitary tea light we can hardly see the food let alone photograph it.
So here’s where it gets silly. Fresh out of a workshop that weekend about smart phone photography conducted by legendary photographer and blogger Matt Armendariz, I suggest a few things. Seconds later someone is holding up an iphone with the torch function enabled, wrapped in a linen napkin. Another is holding the menu as a reflector. The journalists at the other end of our table seem appalled and disown us. Thankfully we are a great distance from other diners (probably deliberate). Orange grainy food pics aside, I am astonished that the lighting is so low that the colours of the foods are barely visible to the naked eye. The darkness does lend a sense of atmosphere and privacy but this is at the expense of enjoying the full sensory experience of the food. The tastes are superb and the arrangements delicate but surely visual impact is part of the dining experience (as I discovered when dining without sight).
As the dishes arrive we probe our companions for their reaction. I want to know whether my Indian friends think the tastes are balanced and authentic. Do they like it? They want to know whether the spice levels are too much for us (they aren’t). The problem with posh Indian food is that they don’t feel they want to go out and pay a lot of money for something they can cook well at home. For us, we love the inexpensive home-cooking style and are sceptical that a fancy version will improve it. I nervously mention Ashas (our favourite curry with booze option) and they approve. Phew. Quite a feat then when Atul Kochhar’s Navratan menu pleases us all – and that’s an understatement.
Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor of India in the 16th Century, had nine advisors chosen for their artistry or intellect and known as the Navaratnas (Navratan is the Hindu world for nine jewels):
Chaat is the name for an Indian snack, usually served by street food vendors and Chowk Kee Aloo Chaat is a potato cake with yoghurt, tamarind chutney and grated radish. The first sip of Jal Jeera, a traditional drink made with lemon and cumin, makes me wrinkle my nose. It’s almost like the sharp water in a pani puri. But then it improves, the saltiness making it moreish (or maybe that’s the vodka in it). I hoover down the next course of aubergines and burrata although feel this is the most out of keeping on the menu (and suffers most from not being able to see it properly). Scallops are only really good if fished out of the sea that morning otherwise they are just a vehicle for flavours as they are here. Balanced, sweet, creamy flavours of garlic and cauliflower though and good with the floral Yalumba Viognier.
Soft flakes of sea bass smothered in a creamy turmeric and coconut curry sauce, Meen Moilley is Atul’s signature dish, and rightly so; I could eat this over again. It overshadows the next course of local prawn in a green korma sauce but the wine match of Dr Loosen Reisling is excellent. The soft fruit and vanilla flavours of Oregon Pinot Noir aren’t the best match for the spices in the Tandoori Murgh (marinated chicken breast). The wine seems to amplify the intensity of spice on your tongue afterwards, but then the next high point arrives. Lamb braised until soft and melting topped with a crust of coconut, crispy fried shallots and fennel matched with Sula Shiraz from India; this is clever, relevant food, flavours and texture and finally some warm, fluffy bread arrives so I can clean my plate of every last morsel.
Not all the wine matches are spot on and we are surprised that there is no sommelier. A group of men descend on the chef’s table in front of us and a whole leg of lamb is carved for them. Our courses keep coming and they pay their bill long before we’ve finished our homemade berry sorbet and plate of desserts. This is a leisurely degustation and it’s after midnight when we get up from the table.
Atul emerges once more from the back kitchen (the open one is for certain dishes only). He’s been happy to pose for pictures but was slightly vague when I started to quiz him about the source of his ingredients. On pine nuts “we get them from the local market, they’re probably from Iran,” and when there is mention of GM crops he says “thankfully we don’t have those in India.” I cannot disguise that I’m aghast that he is not aware of the controversy over negative effect of GM crops on the land and farmers in India and the actions of the big chemical giants like Monsanto, Bayer and BASF to target Indian politicians. He is, however, interested in coming to meet local farmers at the Farmers Market (if his PR schedule allows). Postscript: I am pleased to be proved wrong here and that Atul Kochhar does have a strong and informed view on GM crops and was motivated enough by his interest in them to leave a comment to this effect. Please see below
The next morning, KP eyes the menu and announces that he’d eat everything on it; I have an excuse to return soon (dreaming of the Meen Moilley and that lamb). The grazing menu contains several of the dishes we tried and is 550 AED per head with paired wines. The full nine course Navratan menu can be ordered daily before 9pm and costs 350 AED and 650 AED paired with a wine selection.
So in conclusion Indian fine dining can be a real success in the right hands – but a small torch might come in handy!
Do you have an opinion about lighting in restaurants, taking pics of your food or Indian fine dining? Would love to hear what you think in the comments section below.
P.S. Read a wry but ridiculously accurate look at smart phone usage in this region by Annabel Kantaria here.