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Cook books and food writing to read in bed

May 15, 2014

Cook books and food writing to read in bed - www.mycustardpie.comDo cook books end up in more than one place in your home? In my house their permanent place is on some very sturdy bookcases made from old railway sleepers. The teens pull off a tome or two while sitting at the kitchen counter to browse through while snacking; I was a cereal packet reader myself so understand the inability to sit still without my nose in something. A few more are littered around my very messy study/spare room as reference for food writing. Another pile totters beside my bed interleaved with fiction; I try to give my book club title priority but if I’m super dog tired non-fiction soothes me and takes my mind off the day. I dip in and out of food and wine related reading before turfing that selection back downstairs to be replaced with another lot.  Here are a few of the latest ones to preoccupy me. Do you read cook books in bed or for more than cooking? Are there any you’d recommend? We could come up with the ultimate cook book reading list….

Authentic Egyptian Cooking – From the Table of Abou El Sid by Nehal Leheta

The food and drink section in Kinokunya Book World in Dubai Mall is a cook book lovers’ paradise and they have an extensive Middle East selection. Many authors lump the whole of the Middle East into one. Also they often write about a cuisine they have not grown up with – not always a bad thing but it’s the really authentic detail that appeals to me. This is the first book about Egyptian food I’ve seen in there and its author hails from Cairo. With beautiful, dark, moody photography, the image on the cover is, however, of my most detested dishes ever – one of the (if not the) national dishes of Egypt. I’ve spoken about my dislike of slimy vegetables before and this is the king of the gelatinous offenders…. molokheya. The name is a derivative of the mulukiya which means ‘of the kings’ and uses a leaf that’s a bit like spinach (sometimes called Jew’s mallow) but it oozes when cooked (shiver). Part of the recipe gives me hope; it instructs that you heat oil with spices and garlic while you boil the molokheya in chicken stock then “Toss in the hot molokheya, and you will hear “tshhh.” This is known as tasha in Arabic.” I must stress that this dislike is personal preference and many people have raved to me, over the years, about how delicious this is. If I ever visit Cairo again I must try it at Abou El Sid.

Egypt has its own distinct cuisine (many much more appealing to me) as well as variations on dishes common to the Middle East.   Abou El Sid is a famous restaurant in Cairo, established in 2000 but harking back to a golden age with a renowned traditional Egyptian menu and decor. There are over fifty recipes including mahshi (stuffed vegetables), koshari – one of Egypt’s most famous staple dishes -  Circassian chicken with walnut sauce, fuul (fava beans) with tahina sauce, a simple recipe for lentils and a sumptuous one for Om Ali (a type of milk pudding).

At first I thought there were no head notes or introductions at all, but they are written as footnotes under the ingredients list. It’s a rich resource of recipes from a renowned kitchen; I haven’t cooked from it yet but the recipes appear clear, quite short and to the point. I would have liked to read more about the staff, the history of the restaurant and the background to the dishes that are covered here to make it a truly interesting read but it’s a very nice addition to my collection of cook books from the Middle East.

The world’s best spicy food  – Lonely Planet

We’ve discussed reading cook books before traveling to other countries and here is a book that combines both elements. It combines descriptions and recipes for 100 spicy specialities from 52 different countries and regions. There is Lonely Planet style information about the ingredients and origins of the dish as well as traditions behind it and a suggestion about where to eat it. China and the USA have the most recipes attributed to them and the Far East and Asia is well represented.

Machbous (a spicy stew) is mentioned for the Arabian Gulf and states ‘Machbous is a staple anywhere along the coast from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates’ and mentions the Palace Cafe in Dubai as a place to try it.  Having rarely tasted Machboos (as it is known in the UAE) as I can think of less than a handful of places here where you might be able to try it, this is a generalisation. However, I suppose that’s the flaw in this sort of compendium.

For Yemen they’ve chosen shawayuh or spicy grilled meat cooked over a fire (Bedouin style). I would have thought zhoug – a spicy pepper sauce – should also be mentioned; but I guess this could have been a spicy sauce book as there are so many different varieties. There are three recipes for England – mustard, piccalilli and tikka masala.

This book does have the effect of making me want to cook some the recipes at home while longing to eat them in their country of origin. Things I’m tempted by include: Fabada – a Spanish stew with chorizo, Lutenica – a fiery pepper dip from the Balkans, Pica pau which literally means woodpecker but is actually a spicy, pickled pork stew from Portugal, and Sichuan Crescent Dumplings. All of these sound a lot nicer than pig trotter curry from India and a Chinese dish called saliva chicken.

Consider the fork by Bee Wilson

The fact that I read this book from cover to cover, eager to reach the next chapter (be it grind, eat, fire or measure) says a bit about my slight nerdiness about cooking, my fascination with the origins of food and cookery and a lot about Bee Wilson’s ability to write in fascinating detail without a hint of dryness or superfluity. I will never again be able to look at a single implement or piece of kitchenware in the same way after reading it. Why was the fork invented? Why do we need forks? When did it become commonplace in our kitchen drawers? Why don’t some cultures use forks? What impact does the use of a fork have on the foods we cook and eat? This sort of investigative thinking is applied by Bea Wilson to all sorts of items and processes in the kitchen from egg beaters, to the use of ice, to the kitchen itself (and the evolution of the modern cooker). Just why is the spoon shaped the way it is and who came up with the size of a teaspoon? Did you know that Cromwell helped influence the look of our modern spoon?

The byline reads ‘A History of How We Cook and Eat’ – essential reading for anyone remotely interested in either of those topics.

 

A history of food in 100 recipes by William Sitwell

This has taken over from the book above, providing my nightly chapter of food history, painting a vivid picture of how our cooking and eating habits have evolved. William Sitwell knits together various documentary evidence starting with a painting of bread making from the wall of Senet’s tomb in Egypt and ending with ‘meat fruit’ from the menu of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, laced together with an easy narrative style and a heavy serving of wit. He poses such questions as “The Vikings might have bullied their illiterate way around northern Europe, but without them would you be able to seek respite in a plate of smoked herring in an IKEA food court today?

This book helped me see Ancient Rome in a new light, not just the feasting of the rich, but the existence of ingredients inspectors as extravagance in food was frowned upon (although bribery from the wealthy put paid to that), the ingenuity of keen cooks such as Apicus to transform produce that might not have been in the freshest state to something worthy of a banquet, and the role of honey in the cooking of Greece and Rome (partly from a fifteen volume account of dinner party conversations by Athenaeus). We move from Ancient China, how the Normans changed bread in England, the influence of the Crusades on Egyptian cuisine which eventually had a great impact on the court of Henry VIII, French gastronomy, early cook book (cooke booke) pioneers, the British Empire to the growing influence of American innovations on British and world cuisine, the rise of the Michelin starred chef, molecular gastronomy and TV cooking competitions (William is on the tasting panel of Masterchef). I should add that this is a book of quality production, with beautiful end papers, a weighty, linen-textured cover and a wealth of illustrations. A Kindle can’t compete.

I can vouch that William is as entertaining in real life as he is on the page; I bought this book at the Emirates Literature Festival after attending his session where the entire audience were enthralled. As my family are so addicted to watching Masterchef they re-enact it every night when I put dinner on the table, I asked for the following inscription.

For Sally – who – for a fact – cooks better than anyone on Masterchef!!

That should silence them eh?

 

Skin Contact by Alice Feiring

Less a full book, more a short story with chapters, I received this volume by wine writer and natural wine advocate Alice Feiring in Georgia. Reading it was like extending my trip, so many of the characters, terroir, conundrums, delights and cuisine were included. However Alice supplied a more personal and extensive view than was possible from my single visit with an organised group trip. The narrative is simple, she asks questions of the wine, wine makers and Georgia itself along the way. She accrues snippets of tastes, textures, history, traditions, family life and culture and assembles these jigsaw pieces into one whole picture – natural wine making in qvevris is at the heart of Georgian life and vital for its future.

I’ve Googled extensively but I’m not sure where you can obtain this book (apart from the Georgian Wine Agency) however you can read more of Alice Feiring’s wonderfully pithy writing where she goes head to head with convention, on her website and she has two other books you can order (like I have).

Disclosure: Authentic Egyptian Cooking and Spicy Food were both sent to me as review copies – however, my review contains my own thoughts and neither book will be leaving my shelves anytime soon.

What’s on your kitchen counter or bedside table right now?

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Lentil, fennel, orange, chicken and rocket salad

May 10, 2014

There was something missing yesterday. My alarm didn’t go and I stayed in bed until 9am, a feeling of luxury staying under the covers with a cup of tea and my book club book. It’s The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I’ve received much light-hearted abuse by choosing it because it’s as thick as a brick. We’ve even set up a Whats App group to give each other encouragement …. but I digress. My whole weekly shop has now changed because the Farmers’ Market has closed for the season. Higher temperatures mean that the fallow season is approaching and while some produce is still available from greenhouses (air-conditioned to cool them), the choice of local, organic veg is on the wane. I resent going back to the depressing and expensive aisles of the supermarket. There are a few places to buy the dwindling local produce – and I’ll do a round-up of these very soon.

In the meantime, as those pesky temperature start to soar, all I fancy eating is some lightly cooked vegetables or a salad. Here’s one I prepared this week with some beautiful bulbs of fennel and peppery rocket from the last market. I was very indifferent about fennel until I tried something other than the force grown ones from Holland; the memory of this first taste was vivid, at a road-side vegetable stand in Libya, and was like eating this aniseed-flavoured vegetable for the first time. The flavour was freshly invigorating not bitter as the forced stuff can be and more like a fragrant type of celery. I’m not usually prescriptive, but I would use something else if fresh, local fennel isn’t available.

This is a plate salad, a meal in itself. The earthy lentils provide ballast and soak up the slightly sharp, citrussy dressing. Orange and fennel are a great match; shave the fennel really thin on a mandoline or with a very sharp knife.

Lentil, fennel, orange, chicken and rocket salad

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

 Ingredients

  • 80g green lentils (puy or other firm, peppery variety)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 bulb fennel, tough outer layers removed
  • 4 oranges, 2 juiced
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, cut or torn into strips
  • 80g rocket
  • 4 teaspoons whole grain mustard

 Method

  1. Place the lentils in a saucepan and cover with a generous amount of cold water (at least double the volume of lentils). Add the bay leaf, bring to the boil over high heat then reduce to a simmer for 25 minutes or until the lentils are cooked but not mushy.
  2. Slice the fennel vertically from tip to root into paper-thin slices, either on a mandoline or with a very sharp knife. Lay the slices in a shallow dish and pour over juice of two oranges and the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and leave to marinate while the lentils cook.
  3. Using a sharp knife, cut the ends from the top and bottom of two of the orange. Slice the peel and pith away, cutting from top to bottom. Cut between each of the membranes to produce orange segments.
  4. When the lentils are cooked, drain them well.
  5. Remove the fennel from the marinade and whisk the mustard into the remaining liquid. Taste for seasoning. Stir 2 tablespoons of the marinade into the lentils.
  6. Just before eating, toss the lentils, orange segments, fennel, chicken and rocket together, adding extra dressing if required. Garnish with chopped fronds of fennel (optional).

A version of this recipe appeared in Aquarius magazine for a feature about packed lunches. If taking in a lunch box put the lentils in the bottom of the container, then add the oranges and fennel and lay the rocket on top. Take the rest of the dressing in a separate container and dress the salad to taste just before eating, stirring to combine all the layers.

I’m participating in Ren Behan‘s Simple and Season event with this recipe. Pop over to see what other people are cooking with seasonal fruit and veg. Thought I’d join in with Mark of the Javelin Warrior’ Cookin W/ Luv for his Made with Love Mondays too.

Where do you shop for veg and what’s in season in your part of the world? Do you have any vivid ‘first taste of’ memories?

 

 

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Buying booze in the UAE

May 6, 2014
Road to Ras Al Khaimah

The road from Ras Al Khaimah

There’s a slight sense of trepidation as we fill the tank with petrol and set off on this road trip. Anxious in case I take the wrong turning and get swept off on the wrong highway and end up in a maze of industrial zones; apprehensive of the fabled gridlock that can creep up like lightning and rob your day of hours; nervous of the rumoured targeting of female drivers by opportunists who will bump my car and threaten to call the police in the dry Emirate of Sharjah and demand hush money (although I think this is an urban myth). I grip the steering wheel, put my pedal to the metal and head off, with the reassuring company of The Hedonista,  to the Northern Emirates on a mission to buy tax-free booze.

People who have never visited the United Arab Emirates seem to have conflicting perceptions about the country and this is polarised by their views on alcohol. “You get plastered at all-you-can-drink brunches and get jailed for having sex on the beach, don’t you?” or “Isn’t alcohol banned in the UAE as a Muslim country?”. Both views have a grain of truth but it’s far from the whole picture. Alcohol is available to non-Muslims but strictly controlled – however the rules are more tolerant than in some U.S. states. The Emirate of Sharjah is completely dry (and it has stricter laws in terms of dress and modesty).

I live in Dubai and require an alcohol license to go and shop at an off-license. This is reasonably simple to obtain as the two main retailers of booze (MMI and A&E) help you with the process and add incentives for doing so. A maximum pre-tax monthly spending allowance is given calculated on salary and qualifications I believe. We’ve been in the Emirates since 2000 and our limit has never increased so it’s fine for moderate drinking of moderate wines but could blow the whole budget on one bottle of fine wine and it would be useless if throwing a party. 30% tax is added at the till too.

For these reasons, many people drive to the Northern Emirates to visit one of several tax-free warehouses. They don’t demand to see an alcohol license (although it’s important to have one as it’s needed for legal drinking, as well as buying, booze) and there are no limits on how much you can spend. There are conflicting messages about whether its legal to transport your purchases, especially as the road leads through the dry state of Sharjah. A spokesperson for one of the retailers assured me categorically that it’s fine if it’s for personal consumption. Another retailer said the law isn’t clear.

On the journey from RAK

On the journey from RAK

It may seem a little mad (or desperate) to embark on a three-hour round trip, but in Britain people used to take the ferry to France to stock up on cheaper wines and beer.

I’d actually broken the fear factor on an earlier trip and driven off to Ras Al Khaimah on my own. The roads have improved dramatically and now the dreaded ‘National Paints’ road improvements are finished, the journey is straight forward, but considerably more enjoyable with Sarah to chat to. Otherwise I recommend you select some playlists or some good podcasts via the car speaker all the way as it’s quite a boring journey, although I like the colours of the sand and spotting a few camels on the way. Read more here about podcasts, if you want to learn about wine while on your way to buy it.

Most people from Dubai travel to Ras Al Khaimah for their booze-run (MMI and A+E) or Umm Al Qwain (Barracuda), plus there’s a place called The Hole in the Wall in Ajman. My preferred choice is The Cellar, Al Hamra especially when driving alone; here’s what to expect from the couple I’ve visited:

The Cellar – Al Hamra

The Cellar – Al Hamra – Newly extended, run by MMI,  this is really easy to get to; you take the E311 road through Sharjah and go straight until the road ends at a roundabout where you take a left. After a few minutes drive you’ll see it on the right hand side, immediately before the Al Hamra Mall.

Things to go for:

The Le Clos section of fine wine. If, like me,  you don’t travel through the airport very often, this is an oenophiles delight. The wines are stored well at optimum temperatures (bad storage is a criticism I’ve heard levelled at some of the other retailers). There’s a monthly selection of six wines for 600 AED (163 USD) – see picture below for one I bought earlier. They have some seriously high-end vintages and a fine wine specialist John Christenson who will advise you (ring ahead to check when he is there).

wine from al hamra cellar

The new layout is easy to navigate and the revamp shows off the range of wines particularly and there is a special area to guide wine drinkers through various wine styles.

Whisky. From Glen Grant 60 year old special edition, to Kilchoman earlier releases, to Welsh whisky, via Japan and everything in between.

Costa – within the store so you can get a caffeine fix before the journey home.

Wilson. Manager Wilson is super helpful, knowledgeable (he’s traveled to Australia and helped at a wine harvest) and a bit of a legend.

Offers – regular discounts and tax-free, but sign up for the newsletter for the regular weekend promotions when, if you spend over a certain amount, you can walk away with an incentive (drinks fridge, barbecues, Reidel glasses, cases of Champagne and ipads are some of the goodies that have been given away).

Getting there and away. The outward journey as above and on your return, leave the store and go past the Al Hamra Mall up to the roundabout where you take a left. Follow signs to Dubai until you are back on the E311 but exit at the sign to Emirates Road (103?) to avoid Sharjah. When I drove alone I felt less vulnerable leaving MMI as it’s among other buildings and businesses (less exposed than Barracuda) – handy if you believe those urban myths.

Barracuda

Georgian wine

Hooray – I found Georgian wine in the UAE

Barracuda – The one that everyone has heard of out in Umm Al Qwain and it feels a bit like visiting the Wild West as you drive along the approach road with a battered old plane to your left, the distant cement factory on your right. To get there you come from Sharjah as above and exit the E311 at the sign to Dreamland and take a left at the small roundabout. Follow the track through the desert (waving at the camels) until you reach the end and take a right onto a dual carriageway. Take a U-turn at the Aqua Park, then a right straight after it down a single track lane (towards the sea).

Things to go for:

The range – this place is cavernous and a bit mind-boggling. If you are a collector of curios this is for you – go through to the back shelves for wines from Cyprus and Georgia to name a few. You’ll find wines here that the two major retailers don’t offer (and vice versa).  There’s a big range of liqueur chocolates at the till too.

Biodynamic and organic – the shop within a shop, called Rootstock, specialises in some small producers of niche wines, including those made with minimal intervention, at mid-range prices. Sadly no qvevri wines from Georgia….yet?

A quick refuel – There’s a cafe upstairs for your caffeine fix.

Gourmet gifts. Finer Things is a little deli next door and well worth popping into for its range of oils, vinegars, jams, biscuits and excellent artisan French cheeses.

Getting there and away. The outward journey as above (click the Rootstock link for more detail) and you go back the way you came. If you continue straight on after the water park towards Ras Al Khaimah you will reach MMI Al Hamra in less than 10 minutes (and places like the new Waldorf and the Al Hamra Golf Club).

I haven’t visited the A+E branch (near MMI) or the Ajman outlet hence no report.

The Chalet Hilton Al Hamra

The Hedonista and I popped into The Hilton Al Hamra Hotel and Golf resort for a quick lunch before we left. The club sandwich at Le Chalet was fairly average but the view was superb. Relaxed and happy, all worries and anxiety banished, tucking our purchases snugly under a blanket, we set back on the road to Dubai. We breezed home on the Emirates Road (the journey took about 90 minutes), any fears forgotten and looking forward to tasting some of our interesting finds.

This is my entry for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #9.  The theme for this month is:  Fear!

Disclosure: I was allowed to take pictures inside The Cellar as I was invited on a media trip so they were taken on my camera. I worked on a freelance project with MMI a couple of years ago, so I am more familiar with their range and am friends with several employees. I studied for my WSET 3 exam with members of the team from Barracuda and know some of the Rootstock team. This is a personal account of my visits to the Northern Emirates (not the press trip) and my opinions are my own.

Have you ever had wine-buying experiences that have induced fear or trepidation?

 

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Georgia – shopping for food in Tbilisi

May 2, 2014

Yellow chickens, their scaly feet reaching skywards, were the first sight to greet us at the Tbilisi fruit and veg market. They looked like a Nick Park animation, their golden colour enhanced with a strange orange glow cast from the tarpaulin overhead. Visiting a market is always a good way to get to know a place and the contents of these stalls told many tales. Trying not to blink so I wouldn’t miss anything, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.  The vegetables looked fresh and green but they were not in abundance yet this early in the growing season. Apples were wrinkly from over-Wintering; not many imported goods then. Piles of pickled vegetables showed what people relied on through the fallow months. Stalls sold packaged goods – coffee, tea, tins and packets with little price stickers on each designed for people who are watching their money. Bottles of sauces and preserves were decanted into recycled glassware – plum sauce in Pepsi bottles, the honey I bought ladled into an old pickle jar. Fish, dried and fresh in tanks was eclipsed by meat stalls often with a pig’s head at pride of place. People cook from scratch here and prize every morsel.

Just a few hours off the plane in Georgia and I was at the fruit and vegetable market in Tbilisi, a place I’d been longing to visit since I heard of its existence.

Spices for sale in the market in Tbilisi, Georgia

Spices in the market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Coffee

Pyramids of spices and ropes of churchkhela brightened up the aisles like party decorations. As we attempted to buy spices with hand gestures (we relied heavily on our lovely guide Mariam as no-one spoke English) a volley of shouting rang out like machine gun fire. Two women stall holders had fallen out and the disgruntled one shrieked her displeasure for quite some time – then it all calmed down again.

Some people positively encouraged us to take their pictures – including two men at the tobacco kiosk visibly worse for wear at 11am in the morning – others were shy and some very cross if a camera pointed their way. Georgians are warm but there is an old-fashioned reserve about them too – no one seems pushy.

Pickle stall Tbilisi market Georgia - My Custard Pie

Vegetable stallWe threaded our way past hardware stalls and then ducked into a dimly lit hall lined with wheels of cheese on trestle tables down one side and washing lines hanging with offal on the other.

Crowding into a baker’s cramped shop where he was cooking shotapuri (or chotapuri) in a traditional clay oven or tome he quickly stacked the warm loaves on wooden shelves. The people opposite were selling a different kind of bread with pretty crimped edges but popped out of sight like figures in a cuckoo clock as soon as I pointed my lens their way.

Five essential edible things to buy at the market in Tbilisi:

  1. Spices are very intense and freshly ground. Make sure you buy ‘marigold salt’ or khmeli suneli* which is powered dried ground marigold leaves, and ‘blue fenugreek’ if you are planning to recreate any Georgian dishes.
  2. Chuchkhela, the strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must which are eaten as a snack.  They are different colours according to which types of grapes are used. Easy to transport, they last for ages and will amaze everyone who sees (and eats) them.
  3. Sulguni cheese (if your final destination allows it) if you plan to make khachapuri at home. And you will suffer withdrawal symptoms for this baked cheesy bread I promise.
  4. Sour plum sauce to eat with everything.
  5. Honey, although a bit weighty to carry, is well worth packing (carefully – I’d hate to see what a honey spill would do).  I was certain this was raw honey from the way it fell from the ladle into the jar as the stall holder scooped it directly from a churn. Since meeting Riath from Balqees I’ve been educated about honey and only buy raw, unprocessed, unfiltered honey from wild bees (who have not been fed antibiotics or sugar solution). Back in Dubai, he tasted it and agreed; it was naturally very floral in flavour.

Optional purchase for the brave: Sarah May from Antiqua tours is a pickle fanatic and bought pickled garlic which filled her room with its aroma for days.

*Thanks for Foodbridge for this info (see below).

Market in Tbilisi - My Custard Pie

To visit head for the Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube.

Other food shopping in Tbilisi

Khachapuri

Khachapuri – a type with with egg inside and cheese outside

Bakeries, selling the famous khachapuri or cheese bread (there are over  forty different types) were in basements or literally holes in the walls on many streets. Small shops sold strings of Kachapuri and vegetables; ladies queued to buy cheese at a stall in old Tbilisi. I grabbed a cheese and egg khachapuri when out in old Tbilisi – despite being heated in a microwave it was fluffy, salty, satisfying cheesy and warming – like being wrapped in a duvet from the inside out.

Staying in Georgia

As this was an organised tour we were booked into very comfortable hotels throughout our stay. Georgia is changing fast but doesn’t have a large amount of multi-national hotel chains yet. The independent hotels we stayed at were always more than acceptable, comfortable and often very quirky. Apart from Old Telavi, all breakfasts offered a bountiful array of yoghurt, cereals, fruit, cheese, salads, jams (often homemade) and pastries.  If traveling independently I would investigate home-stays but the welcome we received at every place could not have been warmer (with a special mention to the lovely staff at the Marriot in Tbilisi).

We stayed at the Tbilisi Marriot (in Tbilisi),  Old Telavi (in Telavi), Hotel Kvareli Eden (in Kaheti region) and Hotel Kabadoni (in Sighnaghi).

Many thanks to the Georgian National Wine Tourism Administration and National Wine Agency of Georgia for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) who were my hosts. All opinions are my own.

What’s the best or most unusual place you have shopped for food? And how much can you tell about a place from its markets?

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Georgia – a guide to food and feasting

April 26, 2014

On my first day in Georgia, when I arrive at Kala for lunch, a rustic little restaurant tucked away in old Tbilisi, I’m really hungry. This is the last time I will feel that way for over a week.

At that first lunch we ordered all sorts of dishes from the fabric covered menu, far too much, getting excited about the different tastes, combinations of ingredients, the unique flavours. Little did we know that Georgians don’t eat – they feast – at every meal.

Eating is taken very seriously and a supra or feast will stretch on for hours and hours. A tamada is appointed and is the toast master. He will give heartfelt thanks for the food on the table, the company the occasion. Mindfulness for Georgians is a way of life. The toasts are not flippant but involve deep feeling and thought. It’s not about getting drunk (although Georgian’s seem to have a great capacity for drinking) it’s about taking a thought or a philosophical notion and expounding on it. The supra and its ideals is not something that’s arranged for tourists, it’s part of Georgian culture – our guide Geo would not be able to let us sit down for an evening meal without a few words to help us savour the moment.

Georgian’s mythology tells that a stranger to your table might not be all they seem so guests are viewed as potential Gods and treated as such. I was a guest of The Georgian Wine Agency for over a week and no God could have received better treatment (or more food).  In a whirlwind of food, wine, polyphonic singing, scenery contemplating, history and Georgian lessons when I started writing this up new questions about the dishes and ingredients kept arising. A great excuse to return to find out more…but here’s what we ate and what you might encounter on a Georgian table.

Khachapuri

There are at least forty different variations on this filled dough often dictated by region. Usually bread with cheese (sulguni cheese) baked onto it or inside it, there are also bean and egg versions in many shapes too and some are fried. Some are a bit like fluffy pizza, some are buttery and flakier, I had one from a street-side kiosk made with hard-boiled egg and cheese … it was a cold day and I grabbed it with both hands, demolished every cheesy, fluffy mouthful quickly and it soon warmed me up.  Khachapuri was served at every single meal and often after several courses so you were filling up but couldn’t resist a slice…or two.

Khinkali

The national dish of Georgia is filled dumplings.  To eat them you hold the dumpling by the sides or the top-knot and bite carefully, sucking the savoury liquid out of the hole you have made. You can then eat the whole thing (the top knot is often discarded). Strangely we are only served them on two occasions; a comforting smokey potato filled version with fried onions at an incredible foraged feast and the more typical meat and gravy kind at Tabla.

Vegetables and walnuts

Walnuts feature a lot in Georgia cooking and these badrijani nigvzit were on every table without fail. Silky grilled or fried aubergine slices rolled around a subtly spiced paste of walnut and herbs. Sweet grilled peppers were stuffed or just plain.

Pkhali are little balls of puréed vegetables mixed with spices and flecks of walnut and usually shaped into little balls – like shaped dips really. We had spinach, beetroot and aubergine versions – all delicious – and topped with pomegranate seeds. Aren’t they gorgeous.

Bean culture

Lobio is bean stew taken to another level of hearty, tasty, comfort food with dried spices and fresh herbs. It is traditionally baked in the oven in clay pots  – loved the one at Kala. Vegetarians have plenty of choices in Georgia… (unless you have a nut allergy).

Georgia food at Kala - My Custard Pie

Beans or lobio at Kala

There must be meat

…despite the Georgians love of meat in stews and barbecued on skewers on outdoor grills. These mtsvadi can be lamb or chicken but the pork we were served (in many forms including a suckling pig at one supra) is a particular Georgian favourite.

Just when you thought you couldn’t eat another morsel, usually when grilled meats were served, out came a plate of thick, sweet, perfectly cooked chips. All the vegetables in Georgia were full of flavour and the potatoes were no exception.

A steaming bowl of meat stew was always part of our groaning table of dishes. Chicken such as Chakhokhbili in a tomato sauce,  liver with a blackberry sauce and even chicken cooked in milk – rich and creamy – in all the meat tender and melting, the flavours deep, with multi-layered savoury spices. I wish I’d recorded the names of them all but our eating and drinking marathon was too intense. Another reason to go back to Georgia…

Georgian cheeses

Cheese was usually at the start of the meal but sometimes at the end too. Cows milk curd cheese made in the Imereti region or Sulguni from Samegrelo was the most common but there are many other varieties. Chef Gio Rokashvili at Pheasants Tears presented the most interesting cheese board: Sulguni aged in honey, Sulguni aged in Saperavi (red wine), Sulguni cheese rolls with smoked bacon, Cow cheese with spices, Sqibu (sulguni with mint) and Muchly cheese (still researching what this last one was).

Fresh and preserved veg

There’s always a fresh salad on the table, often just unadorned but sometimes with a walnut dressing.

The Georgians love their pickles. I think they are made in a way that harnesses natural fermentation (like their wine-making) as the market stalls have piles of pickles rather than jars.

Georgian bread

You may have gathered that bread is a big part of Georgian cuisine and trational chotis or shotis puri is on every table – a bread cooked in a wood-fired clay oven (a bit like a tandoor) called a tone. Mchadi, a popular cornbread, comes in small oval rounds and is perfect for dunking into lobio.

Fish

Georgians do not eat a lot of fish surprisingly but when they do it’s usually trout or carp – often served with a pomegranate sauce.

Mushrooms (and Racha)

Georgia has five micro-climates and Racha (part of Racha-Lechkhumi and Lower Svaneti) is known for its humidity which is ideal for growing mushrooms. Georgians attribute certain characteristics to the people of each region and the people of Racha are said to be slow at doing things. A movie called “The Fastest People in the World” was made about them. Mushrooms came simply baked,  filled with cheese, or chopped and stewed, laced with large amounts of fresh tarragon.

Veal salad

Veal salad appeared on the table often – and it was probably the only thing that I disliked (other people enjoyed it). After Googling a bit I wonder whether this is a Russian influence rather than a traditional Georgian dish. I’m investigating…. We were served Russian or Easter salad at our supper in Telavi.

Dessert

… in the main there wasn’t one. After all this feasting, it seems that Georgians don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Or if they do it’s not part of a supra. Churchkhela are strings of nuts dipped in thickened grape juice and eaten as a snack. I saw them at the breakfast table but rarely at dinner. Winery Khareba served a  plate of fresh fruit at the end of a quite stupendous supra (where I had no camera juice left) – you’ll see it stacked upon other dishes below. Supra means tablecloth as the dishes at the feast cover the table so densely. Another exception was at Azarpesha when a spectacular fruit and nut stuffed pumpkin was paraded out of the kitchen and served in slices. Gia at Pheasant’s Tears prepared seasonal fruit stewed in red wine served with clotted cream which was demolished so fast there is also no picture.

Other dishes and sauces

Thanks to Tamta for this information about the fried cheese balls: Elarji- ელარჯი, which is a popular dish from Samegrelo region, made from coarse cornmeal, cornflour and Sulguni cheese. Its balls are rolled in Panko Japanese bread crumbs. The sauce is – Bazhe- ბაჟე, made of almonds is also served together with hazelnut sauce.

Sauces whether sour plum, pomegranate or spicy tomato was always somewhere on the Georgian table.

Foraged menu

Our evening at Pheasant’s Tears in Sighnaghi stood out for many reasons – a night of toasts, polyphonic singing, quevri wines, chacha (type of Georgian grappa) and wild folk dancing. The menu created by chef Gia Rokashvili was based on traditional dishes from the region and local, seasonal ingredients with some foraged. The wild baby leeks were harvested from the newly thawed slopes of the mountains and were sweet and tender. See pictures above plus these…

Drink

Gaumarjos – this is Georgian for ‘cheers’ although it actually means ‘victory’ reflecting the country’s history of battling invaders.  Dissecting my account of my visit to Georgia into separate chapters of places, food and wine is probably a complete travesty. It is inconceivable that there wouldn’t be wine on the table and sense of place given by the food, surroundings, singing or philosophical discussions around the table. But wine is so central to Georgians that I had to give it a special focus (following soon) – not to mention the ubiquitous firewater chacha. Georgia also produces some excellent mineral water (I can buy the excellent Borjomi here in Dubai) but there was another beverage on the table that fascinated us by its colour and flavour (an acquired taste to say the least).  Natakhari lemonade comes in many varieties including pomegranate, pear, cream, grape and tarragon – which looks as though it’ll land you a part in Wicked if you drink enough of it.

The diary of feasts

Every meal in Georgia was memorable for its quality and blurred the memory because of its quantity. As guests of The Georgian Wine Agency and International Wine Tourism Conference our itinerary was planned and we visited restaurants where larger parties could be accommodated. When I return….oh yes not if but when… I’d like to seek out some of the smaller places and maybe eat at someone’s home (Georgian’s are famed for inviting strangers to dine with them). As a country coming out of the Russian culture of standardisation, Georgians are promoting their unique and regional cuisines after a century of suppression. This does mean that favourite dishes from all over the place are presented on the table at the same time. Celebrating the special characteristics of each region, whether through food, singing or wine-making is being encouraged by forward thinkers such as Irakli Cholobargia (Georgia Wine Agency) and John Wurdeman (Pheasant’s Tears) to name two. There’s a McDonalds in Tbilisi and one Starbucks kiosk but the invasion of multi-national chains has yet to happen (which could be an even more destructive force on Georgian cuisine than Soviet homogenisation).

Cafe Kala

A quirky place that we chose for lunch, tucked away on a pleasant pedestrianized street full of restaurants in old Tbilisi (our taxi driver hadn’t heard of it). Helpful waiter and embossed cloth-covered menu containing many classic Georgian dishes (as well as international). Next to and runs into KGB, which is owned by the same group.

8/10 Erekle II Street, Tbilisi (+995) 592 79 97 97 Facebook

Vino Underground

More drinking than eating went on here (tasting notes to follow) but this wine bar is underground in more ways than one. A basement serving a massive selection of qvevri and natural wines from around the world by the glass. Local cheese and charcuterie boards provide sustenance. Hang out with wine makers including co-owner Ramazi Nikoladze if you’re lucky.

15 Galaktion Tabidze Street, Tbilisi (+995) 322 30 96 10 Facebook

Azarphesha

Welcomed by proprietor Luarsab Togonidze, imposing in national dress, this was my first introduction to a supra and the start of a week-long supra marathon. Our party filled the whole restaurant which, in addition to the dim lighting and walls clad with ancient wine-making and wine drinking implements, made it very cosy. Course after course of traditional Georgian dishes, spell-binding polyphonic singing, qvevri wines, chacha, toasts drunk from animal horns and antique silver drinking vessels, culminating in the carving of the enormous pumpkin. A night to remember that kick-started the week.

2 Ingorkova St
2 Ingorkova St.,
Tbilisi, Georgia
Tel: +995 579 70 40 80

- See more at: http://www.visitgeo.com/tbilisi/azarphesha-restaurant#sthash.DMpeOTs3.dpuf

2 Ingorkova St.,
Tbilisi, Georgia
Tel: +995 579 70 40 80

- See more at: http://www.visitgeo.com/tbilisi/azarphesha-restaurant#sthash.DMpeOTs3.dpuf

2 Ingorkova St.,
Tbilisi, Georgia
Tel: +995 579 70 40 80

- See more at: http://www.visitgeo.com/tbilisi/azarphesha-restaurant#sthash.DMpeOTs3.dpuf

2 Ingorkova Street, Tbilisi (+995) 579 7040 Facebook

+995 579 70 40 80

+995 579 70 40 80

Georgian Chamber of Wine

After a morning of sparkling wine and brandy tasting the elegant table bathed in natural light was a welcome sight. Located in Mtskheta, the former ancient capital of Georgia – you can spot the Jvevri monastery from the terrace, just one of the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage sites (which include the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the town). The airy interior and excellent food, including grilled meats from the outside barbecue, made this a really enjoyable lunch. At other times there is traditional entertainment, wine tasting and culinary tours plus you can see some qvevri in the basement.

Agmashenebeli 69, Mtskheta (+995) 322 23 77 00 Facebook

Kopala

Arranged on several floors of one building, the major attraction of this restaurant is the absolutely stunning view of Tbilisi lit up at night from the terrace.

8/10 Chekhov Street, Tbilisi (+995) 322 77 55 20 Website

Tbilisi  view from Kopala

View from Kopala of Tbilisi

In the Shadow of Metekhi

There was a fantastic view here too, but the main focus is the entertainment of dramatic, stagey folk dancing in lavish costumes and singers – a bit like Georgian El Divo. Sometimes you have to be in the mood for this, and I wasn’t – however many of our party stayed dancing late into the night and absolutely loved it.

29a Tsamebuli Avenue, Tbilisi (+995) 322 77 93 83 Website

Old Telavi

Leaving Tbilisi after two full on days of the International Wine Tourism Conference we set off on a two and a half hour journey to Telavi. As we had to turn back at the path across the mountains due to icy conditions it took over four and half. Tired and weary it was a subdued feast at Old Telavi although Geo managed to make it into a supra with a least one toast. I can’t remember deciding not to take photos, I just didn’t. The food was of the usual good and plentiful standard, a Russian salad and a plate of fresh fruit adding a different note. The breakfast at the hotel was probably the most limited we’d encountered consisting mainly of bread, cheese, tomatoes and packaged honey. The rooms were clean but furnished with ornate furniture (not to everyone’s taste) and had complicated state of the art showers with countless knobs and sprays which was the main discussion over breakfast.

1 Cholokashvili Street, Telavi (+995) 350 27 07 07

Chateau Mere

I was predisposed not to like Chateau Mere. It sounded all wrong. Why give a Georgian place a French name? It looked all wrong too – is it old or new trying to look old? I never did discover. The dining room is kitsch – jampacked with ornaments, bits and bobs. But it reflected the personality of its owner George Piradashvili who was one of the most hospitable people we’d met – and in Georgia that’s saying something. More to follow about the wines we tasted, before a generous spread of freshly prepared dishes (no surprises apart from a delicious green garlic sauce). Sinking into a comfy sofa, sipping tea in front of a roaring fire was luxurious, with a splendid view of the Caucasus mountains glimpsed from the window. With both camera and iphone battery juice depleted, just one pic, but great memories.

15 Vardisubani, 0145, Kaheti (+995) 595 990399 Website

Saperavi restaurant at Winery Khareba

After a tour of the winery cellars and a tasting we spent the evening at a supra of lavish scale in a banqueting hall with John Wunderman of Pheasant’s Tears as tamada and course after course appearing on our tables including a suckling pig which was wheeled out (literally) sporting fireworks. Probably not somewhere you would go for a cosy lunch although there is a cafe apparently and as it’s up on a hill the views are wonderful. A bit odd this place as it seems to have two names and two websites Winery Khareba and Gvirabi.

Meurneoba District, Kvareli (+995) 32 249 77 70

Schuchmann’s Winery

We’d had the edge taken off our appetite by a some fairly insistent force feeding of grilled pork at Shumi previously (more about this in my wine post) but after a tour of the winery felt up to the task of another multi-course lunch. The restaurant is flanked by long glass windows with a view over the vineyard and distant Caucasus mountains and the floor had glass panels down to a view of qvevri. This was an elegant lunch and the food consisting of the usual suspects was really excellent. A lovely place to while away an afternoon, if you didn’t have another supra to go to….

Kisiskhevi, Telavi District 2200, (+995) 7 90 557045 website

Schuchman’s Winery

How’s that for a view

Pheasant’s Tears

Artist John Wurdeman, born in New Mexico and raised in Virginia, USA, was travelling in Georgia following his passion for singing and recording polyphonic songs, with no intention of setting up a winery. However, his overwhelming passion for Georgia makes it seem inevitable that he would follow that path eventually as wine is so inextricably linked to Georgian life and culture. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see what people take for granted and he’s a great spokesman for the treasures that make Georgia so special. Pheasant’s Tears is in the centre of the historic (and restored) part of Sighnaghi. A slightly rambling building housing John’s artist studio, a carpet shop and an interesting cellar, the food prepared by chef Gia Rokashvili is both authentic but freshly original at the same time, perfectly suiting the wide range of qvevri and natural wines on offer.

18 Baratashvili Street,  Sighnaghi (+995) 355-23-15-56 Website

Pheasants Tears

Preparing to dance at Pheasants Tears

Ambasadori

This was an odd place. A stopping off point on our journey from Sighnaghi back to Tbilisi. A sign of some prosperity for a few in Georgia – new money. A cluster of single storey houses around a golf course which didn’t seem to be open but had an enormous, shining new club house which looked like it hosted banquets. The main building (which was being extended a rapid pace by construction workers) had a pool to one side and crazy golf complete with mini qvevris as a hazard opposite. There were business meetings going on in one section, a children’s play area in another and a very pleasant terrace shaded with flowing curtains where we ate lunch.  The food was excellent and included the chicken in milk dish and vine leaves which we had not had before.

Kachreti 1510 (+995) 32 272 94 17/19 Facebook

Tabla

Tabla is located in the desirable University area of Tbilisi and it shows. The clientele were well-groomed. There was a genteel air of affluence about the place. The varied entertainment of singers was professional and accomplished. The whole atmosphere was extremely pleasant and the food some of the best we had been served, in my opinion.  Amused that the Tabla home catering service is called house wife – read more here.

33 Chavchavadze ave., Tbilisi (+995) 32 2 60 20 15 Facebook

 

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The first tweets of top wine experts

April 20, 2014
tags: ,

Red wine and wine notesDoes the word tweet make you a) listen intently for the sound of birdsong? b) run for cover – what is all that hashtag nonsense anyway? c) realise you haven’t checked your twitter feed for the last five minutes and break out in a cold sweat?

For those of us in the third category it’s often hard to remember how alien it all was when we dipped our toe in the ‘twittersphere’. Little did I know, when I sent my first tweet, that I would forge real friendships around the world, meet people in real life via Twitter which has led to amazing opportunities in business and leisure, and have the most cutting edge information, on topics I hold dear, at my fingertips.

One thing is certain, 140 characters is awfully revealing. The brevity of the message seems to intensify the message. While people may try to portray a certain face to the world, the real person seeps through. You can now find the first tweet of any user and I was interested to see what some people in wine had to say for their first message. It’s very enlightening:

Firstly, the revered Jancis Robinson who is as eloquent and understated as always:

One of my favourite ‘down to earth’ writers gets straight into the wine with an unpretentious food match.

Given the stratospheric heights that Joe Roberts has attained and his absolutely brilliant wine reviews on Twitter (read some here), this is touchingly candid…

Tim Atkin muscles straight in with self-promotion (breaking Twitter golden rule number one)…

But this is nothing on Jay McInerney’s…

Back to more down to earth yet informative stuff with Wine Scribbler

Jounalist, serial blogger and tweeter Fiona Beckett is surprisingly reticent…

And the Drunken Cyclist confesses to something that everyone else does but noone admits to…

If you want to find out your first tweet (or anyone else’s) visit here

This post was a bit outside my usual topic – would appreciate knowing whether you liked it or hated it.  Should I dig out some first tweets of some top foodies? What do you think?

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Georgia – from mountains to monasteries

April 16, 2014

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.”

Alaverdi monastery - Georgia

Alaverdi monastery

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.

Tbilisi

Tbilisi

View of new theatre (under construction) designed by Italian-born Massimiliano Fuksas

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.

Tbilisi at night

Tbilisi at night with a view of the Peace bridge

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie-125

The Bridge of Peace designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie-126

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.

 

Old Tbilisi

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

Tbilisi flea market

Tbilisi flea market

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

Fruit and veg market Tbilisi

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

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie-117

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.

Leaving Tbilisi

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.

Jvari Monastery

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie - Jvari monastery

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.

Alaverdi Monastery

Alaverdi monastery - Georgia

Alaverdi monastery - Georgia

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie-100

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.

Telavi

Telavi - Georgia

Telavi - Georgia

The view from my hotel balcony – Telavi

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.

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi - Georgia

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.

There’s more…

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….

Tbilisi - Georgia

Travel to Georgia- My Custard Pie-65

Old Tbilisi

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….

 

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