Georgia is strategically located at a significant crossroads; where Asia and Europe meet. Georgia is considered to be a transcontinental nation, with territory on each continent. The mighty Caucasus Mountains form a natural border with Russia. These mountains house hidden villages that hold the stuff of legend. In Greek mythology the Caucasus Mountains were one of the pillars holding up the world. Situated on the Black Sea, Georgia’s other neighbors are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran and Turkey. The people call their country, Sakartvelo and call themselves, Kartveli. Sometime around the Middle Ages, the British called the country Georgia. It is believed this stems from a Greek word, “Georgios,” meaning “farmer” or “tiller of the land.” In addition, for centuries the country has been associated with the Roman Soldier (and Christian martyr) named Saint George. A golden statue of Saint George slaying a dragon is a central feature in Tbilisi’s square, within their capital city of Tbilisi.
The Eastern Kingdom of Iberia (a region of Georgia) was one of the first states in the world to convert to Christianity, way back in the fourth century. Today, over 80 percent of the population say they belong to the Orthodox Church. Patriarch Ilia, ll, (the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church) is by far one of the most respected public figures in the country, with an approval rating of over 90 percent. The church has played a significant role in preserving Georgia’s sense of independence by keeping her ancient musical roots and other important traditions alive during the Soviet Era. There are many significant cathedrals, monasteries and monuments in the country that are UNESCO world heritage sites. For example the Gelati Monastery, a masterpiece of the Georgian Golden Age, was built in 1106 by King David IV and was one of the main cultural and intellectual centers in Georgia throughout the Middle Ages.
The glory days for Georgia were during the Medieval era, when she had her own kingdom. The height of the kingdom’s reign was between the 10th and 13th centuries. Since then, Georgia has dealt with long periods of foreign domination. The Turks were followed by the Persians, who were followed by the Russians, who annexed Georgia in the early 19th Century. Georgia had a brief period of independence from 1918-1921, but then became officially part of the Soviet Union. Georgia finally gained her independence on April 9, 1991, during the breakup of the communist’s regime. Today there are a couple of territories that are still in a land dispute with Russia and have been areas of instability. The Georgian government is trying everything possible to resolve the dispute peacefully so that the correct borders can be restored and the people in those areas can live in peace.
The ethnic population of Georgia is made up mostly of Georgians. However, some Armenians, Russians and Azeris also call Georgia home. Georgia has a total population of about five million people and a literacy rate of 99.8 percent. The official language is Georgian and it is like no other language you will ever hear. The Georgians have their own 33 letter alphabet that is believed to be based on Aramaic, spoken in the time of Jesus. The written script is beautiful and a huge part of the Georgian cultural heritage. The script is so impressive, it has been nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO’s intangible list.
Another UNESCO cultural heritage treasure is their ancient wine-making technique. This is a tradition dating back 8000 years. They make their wine in huge clay pots called Kvevris, which are lined with beeswax and buried in the earth. Wine-making itself, is believed to have originated in Georgia. They have over 500 indigenous vines that are the most sought after varieties for wine-making around the world. Aside from the ancient method of making wine, they now make many wines using modern techniques. Using these new methods allows them to make quantities needed to export their wines to other countries. Georgia’s excellent soil and climate are ideal for wine production. Over 100,000 tons of grapes are used by private individuals to make wines for home consumption. Nearly everyone makes their own wine and many locals pride themselves on their special vintages. Needless to say, wine is very important to Georgia’s growing economy and their future looks bright.
Georgia’s other exports include machinery, chemicals, citrus fruits, nuts and tea. A relatively new oil and gas pipeline to Turkey has also given Georgia new found energy independence from Russia and has significantly helped their economic outlook. They are also making great strides in hydro-electric power. Amazing new architectural glass structures have been erected as public buildings, bridges and police stations. It is the country’s statement for being transparent as they embrace democracy.
As we look into the cuisine of this ancient country, it is clear that they have their own unique style. However, there are signs of European, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and even Western Asian influences in their cooking. The country also has many specialties that come from the mountainous villages and rural regions of the country. In general, western Georgia tends to serve more vegetarian meals and in the east they include meats, especially mutton and pork. In both regions, their recipes are made exceptional with a distinct mix of Georgina herbs and spices. Nuts, especially walnuts, are used in most of their signature dishes.
Georgian restaurants popped up all over Russia during the 20th century, as Joseph Stalin (known to the Georgians as “Uncle Joe”) who was in fact an ethnic Georgian, promoted his homeland’s cuisine. Georgians have mixed emotions about “Uncle Joe.” Some feel he was a tyrant, responsible for the brutality of his own people, while others feel he was a strong leader who helped to defeat Hitler. After independence, many Stalin statues were taken down by the Georgian government but now some are returning to the town squares. Whatever one may think of Stalin, he was a Georgian and is an integral part of their history.
Georgians love monuments, in 1958 in honor of Tbilisi, the capital city’s 1500th Anniversary, a 20 meter aluminum statue was erected on top of Sololaki hill. Kartvis Deda “mother of a Georgian” was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli. Here a figure in traditional Georgian garb, symbolizes the strong character of Georgia. In her left hand, she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, and in her right hand a sword for those who come as enemies.
Georgians have a saying that a guest is a “gift from God.” The importance of food and drink is paramount to Georgians and their culture. This is best showcased during a feast called “supra.” A huge assortment of dishes are prepared and served with copious amounts of wine. This feast lasts for hours. There is always a “tamada” (toastmaster) assigned to the supra, which is an honored position. The tamada takes the lead in toasting throughout the supra. Toasts are made to health, friendship, prosperity and ancestors; always referencing the past, present and future. The chosen tamada must be quick witted, eloquent and intelligent, as the guests will often try to say something more clever or emotional than the previous toast. When the toast is made, everyone drinks quickly in unison.
So let’s enjoy a supra!
The Supra Menu
Khachapuri (Cheese bread)
We set the table with the colors and symbol of the Georgian flag; red and white and the sacred cross. We decorated with their coat of arms, a Borjgali, a symbol of the sun, which represents eternity and the flow of time. This symbol is used on IDs and passports, as well as on their currency, called Lari. It is also the logo for the Georgian Rugby Union, as rugby is a very popular sport in Georgia. We used an old, wooden wine glass and grapes to represent their ancient wine-making history. Walnuts were also added to the décor’, as they are used in so many of their famous dishes. It is customary to eat continental style, fork in the left hand, tines down and knife in the right. The oldest or most honored guest is always served first.
We began with a common toast “gagimarjot,” “cheers” and the tomada gave thanks for the food, drink and friends with which we were to share the feast.
The cheese bread, or Khachapuri, was heavenly. We enjoyed one called Imeruli, that is circular and has the cheese baked inside. This comes from the region of Imereti and is the most popular type. There are two other types of Kahchapuri; one is called Ajaruli, from Ajara where the dough is shaped like a gondola stuffed with cheese with a raw egg and butter served on top. The other is called Megruli, which comes from Samegrelo. It is also circular but the cheese is melted on top of the bread. I look forward to making these other two types of Khachapuri! A lovely fresh Georgian salad, made from purple basil, parsley, tomato, onion, cucumber and peppers, with a simple walnut dressing, was the perfect accompaniment with the cheese bread.
Badrijani, a side dish of fried eggplant stuffed with walnuts and garlic, was scrumptious. It would make a wonderful appetizer for any occasion. I love how their dishes have just the right amount of spice, a nice kick but not too hot.
For the main course, we prepared an ancient and rare recipe, sent to me by our Georgian friend, named Maka, from Tbilisi. This dish, called Satsivi, is extremely popular and made with turkey, especially around Christmas time. It is also made with chicken and served throughout the year, which is how we enjoyed this unusual and delicious dish. Satsivi is served cold and the flavors are enhanced with time. It is basically a complex, walnut sauce made from the broth of the chicken (or turkey) and served with the meat. It is a unique and lovely meal that is quintessential Georgian. Thank you Maka, for this incredible recipe!
We also enjoyed Khinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings, which originated in the mountainous regions but its popularity has spread across the country. They are usually made with a mix of minced beef and pork but sometimes made with lamb, mushrooms, potatoes or cheese instead of meat. Ours were made the traditional way, with beef and pork. What delicious little treasures. The dough is pleated with a knob at the top of the Khinkali, which is not eaten. The knobs are saved on the plate to see who ate the most at the end of the supra!
For dessert, we had churchkhela. These are walnuts, strung on a string and dipped into the grape, candy mixture and hung to dry. They are sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers,” as the taste somewhat resembles a Snickers bar. This provided a sweet end to our Georgian meal, with of course, a final toast to this most fascinating country.
A country whose people believe guests are “gifts from God”, who pride themselves on food and wine, who count their success in life based on the number friends they have, not their possessions, is a place I would truly love to experience.
As we say goodbye, we do so with the mystery solved of the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece that has always been associated with Georgia. It’s one of the best known tales in Greek mythology, but scholars have struggled to make sense of what the golden fleece could symbolize, or have been inspired by. It turns out that in the Svaneti region, the rivers that snake down the sides of the mountains contain tiny particles of gold that have worn off the edges of the rocks. The locals for thousands of years and still today, have been using sheepskin to extract those gold particles, ah, “The Golden Fleece”!
Until next week,