Arriving in the old quarter of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I was struck by the skyline immediately. During the day Narikala fortress rises above the landscape like a sharp teeth protruding into the open sky. At night the fortress is lit up with a warm glow, turning this bastion of Georgian pride into a beautiful backdrop with a myriad scintillating lights. The culture of Georgia is one that is characterized by resilience – these people have been invaded countless times, often rebuilding their capital from scratch after particularly nasty sieges on the citadel. Each time, the invaders brought to a piece of their culture with them. It so happens that many of these invaders also brought a large amount of influence on the local food! Situated at the crossroads of East and West, this has compounded into a paradise for foodies with a tangible aspect of Asian flavours laid upon of foundation of Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Persian influences.
Exploring the wandering alleys of the old quarter, these influences are felt stronger than anywhere else. The markets teem with colour and spices, herbs and vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Countless cheese shops line the larger streets and provide a glimpse into the rural life most Georgians endure. Livestock is a big part of the farm here, providing base materials for the hundreds of variations on cheese, curds, sour cream and other dairy delicacies. Personally, the small balls of Tushetian ewe’s milk cheese, resembling Parmesan really struck a chord. Made within sheep’s stomach casings, it is a robust and powerful experience, leaving my mouth tickly from the salt. Even in the capital, the influence of the farmers on daily life can really be felt. While the elite and the expatriate Russians drive around in Bentleys and Rolls Royce, the majority of the inhabitants of Tbilisi come from much more rural, agrarian roots and they drive the Soviet era Ladas – quite far removed from the luxury of a Bentley but practically indestructible. A lot of Georgians live in the countryside in summer and come to the capital in winter to sell their wine, cheese, figs or dates. This way, you can always be sure to meet someone fresh from the farm with delicious wine or fruits, freshly made or picked to enjoy street-side. Which brings me on to one of the big draws for tourists in Georgia. The food, is ridiculous. Ridiculously good. From savory lamb shashlik kebabs to sweet fruit churchkhela the Georgian cuisine covers all aspects of the dining experience with an inimitable style. The concept of Supra is uniquely Georgian. Supras are feasts, sometimes incorporating as many as thirty dishes in one sitting. They revolve around the Georgian tradition of wine, incarnated in the form of a toast master, who interrupts the frenzied feasting with regular speeches, toasting everything from the purity of the spring water, the honour of his guests to the beauty of the Georgian landscape and people. Wine flows freely and copiously from the massive jugs, you must be careful if you are to make it home after a supra!
Wine is an integral part of Georgian culture, the pride of Georgia so to speak. The people speak of their wine with such passion and poetry that it is hard not to share in their appreciation for it. Wine shops dot the back-streets and main thoroughfares, the choice of grape varieties and styles numbers in the hundreds, with each shop plainly representing either a specific region or catering towards tourists with a premium selection, sourced from the entirety of Georgia’s vineyards. Some of the most popular styles include Orange wine; a unique style of white wine which is made like red wine. That is, the wine is macerated with the skins and stems in order to extract a whole host of flavours that we, as non-Georgians are not used to. In general, white wine is made with only the pulp of the grapes, in order to provide it with fresh, crisp flavours. Orange wine however, is deep amber in colour, with a huge body and a lot tannins. Otherwise, you could sample the unique semi-sweet red wines, so favoured by Stalin, himself a native of Georgia. Whichever avenue you chose to follow, be confident that within Georgia’s 450 grape varieties and countless styles, there is the perfect beverage to sip with your quail, cooked in a clay pot with dried pomegranate and sumac.
Tbilisi hosts a whole range of fine restaurants, one of which is highly recommended in particular– Azarphesha. The restaurant is a concept brought to Tbilisi by Georgian by adoption, John Wurdeman. John came to Georgia in 1995 to document the unique Georgian tradition of Polyphonic singing. Fast forwards twenty years or so and he is firmly embedded into the local food scene with seven restaurants in Tbilisi and a whole host of side projects ranging from a world renowned winery; Pheasant’s Tears to a small Eco-tourism business in the quiet village of Signaghi. Azarphesha, the restaurant I would like to bring to your attention is a real gem in the local scene. It boasts several top chefs, regularly featured on Georgian TV whom John has groomed from a young age to be the incredible chefs they are today. The menu focuses on farm to table ingredients, as most restaurants in Tbilisi do with a tenacity unrivaled in the local scene. Quirky interpretations of time-honored Georgian dishes regularly appear on the menu side by side with someone’s grandmothers recipe in a format that is beautifully evocative of the Georgian seasonal fare. Not only that but the menu chooses to focus squarely on local dishes from particular regions, changing as the seasons do. The wine list is a sommeliers nightmare, too many good wines, all of them incredibly well priced to make a reasonable choice, I found myself ordering 3 bottles for a meal of two, simply because I wanted to taste all of the offerings. Rest assured, we did not finish them all ourselves as we were joined at the table by John’s American sommelier Brian, who not only provided us with excellent recommendations but also with good banter and an insight into the scene when we invited him to our table after hours. It is precisely this sort of intimate feel that is so beautiful about Georgia, not many high end restaurants are casual enough to allow their sommelier time to sit down with the guests and give pointers on local sights, tips on how to haggle in Georgian or even where to buy a truly great bottle of wine, cheaper than on his own wine list.
Normally not the most exciting part of the meal, depending on where you are, in Georgia, they are very proud of their bread. With good reason, in France, families normally fight over who gets the crust or who gets the soft part. In Georgia they have pioneered a strange looking baguette that is thin and flat on one side of its length, and round and soft on the other. Genius, now there is a part to suit everyones taste. Amongst Georgia’s baking innovations stands the Khachapuri, a wondrous delight consisting of a boat shaped piece of bread, still warm from the oven, upon which incredible amounts of butter, egg and especially cheese are heaped upon. Definitely not one for the calorie counters but hey, thats Georgia for you. Over-the-top, extravagant and sumptuous are all words that fit well in this pristine corner of the Caucasus. There’s a flavour to suit anyone, that’s for sure.
I found Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi to be one of the most food orientated cities that I have ever visited, whether you are vegetarian, vegan or fussy there is food for you. However as a committed omnivore, Georgia served up some of the most incredible grilled meats this side of Isfahan, so be sure to ask the locals, check out the market and tuck in! Don’t forget to swing past Azarphesha at 2 Ingorokva Street, Tbilisi 0105, Georgia.