Georgia, nestling on the Black Sea’s south-eastern shore and blessed with a Mediterranean climate, is home to some of the world’s finest organic produce as well as original food traditions. The cuisine is one of the most exciting you can find, still pervaded by the influence of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.
The Jews are credited with bringing in exotic outside influences because for more than 1,000 years they maintained close links with their brethren in neighbouring countries. One legend says the community is descended from a people in eastern Turkey whose king converted to Judaism in the eight century; another that they are one of the Lost Tribes.
A typical Georgian menu might start with a spread of cold dishes, many involving walnut paste, either used to stuff slices of grilled aubergine and courgette, or added with marigold and other unfamiliar herbs to pounded red beans.
These might be followed by pan-fried river trout in a ruby-red pomegranate coulis, poached chicken submerged in a thin but rich and garlicky ground walnut sauce, succulent cubes of lamb shoulder baked with sour plums and generous amounts of tarragon.
Perhaps Georgia’s most famous dish is khachapuri, a bread most often baked into a round pie and stuffed to the gills with gooey, melting cheese and served sliced, like a fat double-crust pizza. Claudia Roden’s recipe from a Georgian source she met during her research for The Book of Jewish Food uses a mix of gruyere and feta. In the west of the country they shape the crust like a boat, pooling cheese in the middle to mix with butter and a runny egg which poaches in the hot cheese as it comes to the table.
“In our Black Sea resorts we call this Georgian breakfast,” says Tamara Lordkipanidze, owner of the Tamada restaurant in St John’s Wood, north-west London, a favourite of the Georgian ambassador. “In Georgia people break off the bits of dough which form the points of the gondola to dip into the runny cheese, which is how we encourage our guests to eat it.”
The cooks of this nation use more walnuts than any other on earth, and spend half their life grinding them till they are so fine you can extract the oil and reserve it for a garnish. The ground nuts are used in sauces like bage, which is served as a condiment or poured over poached chicken, fish or vegetables as a main course. It is thought it was the Jews living in eastern Georgia (bordering Iran) who first introduced walnuts to the country’s cuisine.
A speciality in the capital Tblisi, which remains home to an estimated third of the 13,000 Jews living in Georgia, is lobio, a Tuscan-style soupy broth made with red beans. Claudia Roden also supplies a recipe for this signature Georgian dish in her book. She writes that Jews are believed to have brought it with them when they arrived from eastern Turkey. Jews are also credited with introducing sour plums, another staple and a chief ingredient of chakapuli — see the recipe below.
Jewish influences have so merged into mainstream Georgian cuisine, that, as Roden observes, the dishes — and the feasting traditions — are one and the same. Dishes served in the capital’s kosher restaurant are very similar to those found in the non-kosher eateries with only small twists in flavourings.
Londoners are lucky enough to have five or six Georgian restaurants to choose from, although there is none yet listed outside the capital. It is worth visiting Tamada to try the adjaruli, as the boat-shaped cheese bread is called, or Little Georgia in Islington, whose round Tbilisi-style version is superb.
Georgia also gave the world wine 8,000 years ago and it is still made by artisan winemakers in the same type of ancient clay pots where grapes get their first fermentation with skins, stems and pips for several months.
This artisan wine, unusual compared to western-style wine but delicious, is starting to be available in Britain, and a good premium label to look for is Pheasant’s Tears.