My son Bob just returned from Georgia and Moldova. He was part of a team sent by the US Forest Service to help the national parks and forests in those countries with their trails.
In addition to their work, Bob told me they ate lots of very good food. I asked him to share a report.
Traveling in a foreign land is a great opportunity to try local menus. During our time in Georgia, we sought out restaurants that served traditional Georgian foods. Several times we found ourselves in homes where we joined families sitting down to big feasts.
Georgia is situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Russia is to the north, Turkey, Armenia, and Ajerbaijan are to the south. Iran is just a day’s drive away. Over the centuries, many trade routes have passed through Georgia. Travelers brought spices, ingredients, and cooking traditions that continue to influence Georgian cuisine to this day.
Among the foods we most enjoyed was khinkali, a traditional Georgian dumpling. It is filled with ground beef, lamb, or pork and twisted closed to trap the juices. Georgians don’t eat the top “stem” where the dumpling comes together.
As a meal progresses, they can keep track of how many each person has eaten by counting the tops left on the plates. I was good with three or four at a sitting. Some of the Georgians could put away a dozen or more before a meal ended.
Khachapuri is another Georgian tradition. Imagine a boat-shaped piece of hot bread big enough to cover a plate. In the middle is a poached egg floating on a sea of melted cheese and butter. Eat one of those and you won’t be hungry for several days.
Speaking of bread, Georgians sometimes bake theirs in clay ovens that resemble half of a large, open-topped barrel. Long strips of dough are slapped onto the inside wall of the oven where the heat from glowing coals turns them a golden brown.
The baker uses a long tool to loosen each loaf when it is done, then another tool to hook the bread and lift it out of the oven. The result is hot, crusty, and delicious.
Lobio is a simple dish of kidney beans stewed in a clay pot and served with pickles, fresh onion, and corn bread. It is often served alongside salads made of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with a creamy walnut dressing.
Most meals have something made of eggplant, too. Badrijai is prepared by cooking strips of eggplant and then rolling up the strips with a walnut paste inside. Georgian cheeses appear at many meals, too, including Sulguni. It is salty and about the consistency of provolone.
The Georgians say that their region is where wine was invented 5,000 years ago. We saw grapes growing everywhere, both in commercial wineries and in many backyards. Restaurants offered a red wine called Saperavi that was very good.
We were also served wine by families that had made it themselves. With seven centuries of practice, they had figured out how do it pretty well.
Another delicious beverage was compot. It is made by boiling apples, peaches, plums, cherries, and other fruits in a large amount of water, then serving it cold with the fruit in the bottom of the pitcher. It is non-alcoholic and very refreshing.
After meals, Georgians bring out chacha, a homemade liquor. Brewed from grape skins and pulp left after the winemaking process, chacha has a very strong kick.
Of course, there must be toasts as the chacha is served. Someone at the table is the designated tamada, or toastmaster, to give the first toast and then encourage others to follow. He or she also makes sure glasses are kept filled to the brim.
A Georgian toast can go on for many minutes as the toaster salutes the people in the room, those who aren’t, everyone’s ancestors, the mountains, the sky, friendship, love, and whatever else seems at the moment in need of recognition.
There must always be at least three toasts, and with glasses of what is essentially moonshine, that is more than enough to bring meals to a celebratory close.
An appetizer we enjoyed at several Georgian dinners featured mushroom caps baked with local Sulguni cheese. Here’s the basic recipe.
Baked Georgian Mushrooms with Cheese
10 large button mushrooms
2 or more tablespoons butter
6 ounces Sulguni (or provolone) cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh cilantro or parsley for garnish
Wash and dry the mushrooms. Remove stems and place caps topside down in a shallow baking dish. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Add 1/2 teaspoon butter to each mushroom cap. Distribute the grated cheese evenly inside the caps.
Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 - 30 minutes until the cheese begins to brown. Add a sprinkle of garnish and serve immediately.