Reviving Diversity in The Republic of Georgia
ONE of the wonderful benefits of being a culinary ambassador for the U.S. Department of State is getting the chance to travel around the world to places I might never have imagined experiencing. I’m definitely attracted to that gypsy/nomadic-parts-from-the-unknown thing, where adventures and cuisines collide. His inclination for exploration was what attracted me to the life of a chef in the first place.
A latest trip of mine was to the Republic of Georgia, a small and breathtaking country in the Southern Caucasus known for its wine, feasting and hospitality.
Centuries of cultural fortitude have been sustained in Georgia despite countless incursions by invaders. Today, the country is in the midst of a rebirth following Sovietrule as Georgians transition, socially and economically, to stand on their own as a nation yet again. While invading cultures have influenced Georgia, their true culture, cuisine and winemaking practices have stood the test of time.
Our first encounter with these Georgian traditions came with our introduction to John Wurdeman, an expat artist, restaurateur and winemaker. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Wurdeman is so passionate about his adopted country that he is consistently referred to by Georgians as being more Georgian than most Georgians.
We met at Azarphesha, a wine restaurant where John and his business partner, Luarsab Togenidze, combined their common passion for traditional Georgian culture, polyphony music, and the artisanal wines that showcase the diversity of Georgia’s grape varieties.
After a short introduction to the traditional Georgian winemaking method of fermenting wine in clay pots called qvevri, we were introduced to John’s wife, Ketevan, who had prepared the meal.
We were escorted to a large table already full of new friends and covered in traditional Georgian dishes and opened bottles of wine, where Wurdeman served as the tamada, a sort of Georgian toastmaster whose duty is to keep the conversation owing as freely as the wine. The first wine was one from John’s own winery, Pheasant’s Tears, a delicate white called Chinuri. Raising his glass to family and friendship, he made his first of many toasts, explaining that Georgians consider anyone who shares the table to be both family and friend.
The spread on the table showed off Ketevan’s passion for fresh, locally grown and foraged ingredients. One dish was Mtsvane pomidori nigvzit, which is made with fermented green tomatoes dressed in a walnut sauce and nished with a scattering of bright red pomegranate seeds. Another was Lobiani, a beloved traditional Georgian dish that consists of mashed beans wrapped in dough and baked in a wood oven. Then there was Jonjoli, which is made of pickled ower buds formed into cakes with wild fenugreek and served with a yoghurt sauce. All of these dishes were on the table alongside others with as much color. Ketevan’s dishes, while grounded in tradition, still managed to surprise us with subtle additions that were all inherently Georgian but with a twist that set them apart from more typical Georgian dishes.
In between moments of spontaneous songs and storytelling, we received a little history lesson. As Wurdeman explained to us, after 80 years of Soviet occupation and trade dependence, Georgian vineyards ourished economically but at the cost of grape varieties that wine lovers cherish.
“If it couldn’t be made in huge factories, then they would be rendered useless,” Wurdeman told us. “If it wasn’t easy to grow them with little effort in large amounts, then very little attention was paid to it.”
In a country with a more than 8,000-year history of wine making, and a soil and mix of microclimates capable of supporting over 500 grape varieties, what was left was four commercially grown varieties. The resulting mass-produced wines weren’t very good and none were produced using the qvevri.
Wurdeman’s next toast, this one to the fortitude of the Georgian people, was done with a golden amber wine called Rkatsiteli. Truly unusual and pleasing, and with a hint of almond and apricot, it transcends the classification of a red or white wine in the most agreeable way.
Wurdeman’s next pour was a rich Saperavi, a red grape so dark its name literally means “dye.”
He went on to explain how Georgia is seeing a resurgence in the traditional varietals. “In Soviet times, people kept growing the old grape varieties in their backyards. It wasn’t brought back with knowledge found in literatures of any kinds. It was brought back based on the living traditions found in remote villages and backyards where the old ways laid hidden during a time of Russian dominance.”
We finished off the meal with a shot of Chacha, a sort of Georgian grape aged in oak that turns it into a dark amber color and helps smooth off any rough edges.
Stuffed, imbibed and content, it was time for us to leave.
Georgian wines are hip and relevant in a world hungry for something different. By resurrecting Old World wine traditions under the guise of modern-day wine makers, the world could seem up for the experience. tj
- 1 lb. of kidney beans or another red bean, pinto, etc.
- 1/2 lb. of smooked ham
- 1/4 cup of butter
- 5 bay leaves
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 onion, diced
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 6 cups off all-purpsoe flour
- 1 oz. dry active yeast
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup of warm water
Soak the beans overnight.
Drain the beans and rinse gently.
Transfer the beans to a Dutch oven or another heavy cooking pot. Then add the ham, bay leaves, onions, kosher salt and garlic.
Cover the beans with an inch of water. Let it boil over medium-high heat.
Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and bring the beans to a very gentle simmer.
Cook the beans for an hour and then begin checking doneness.
Add salt when the beans are just barely tender. Continue simmering until the beans are tender.
Drain the beans, keeping the liquid to add to the beans if you want to thin them out a little. Keep the ham and discard the bay leaves.
Finely chop the ham and add back to the beans.
Transfer the beans and butter to a mixing bowl and mash thoroughly. While mashing, adjust the seasoning with kosher salt.
Preparation (Dough – to be served hot)
Add 5 cups of flour, yeast, sugar, kosher salt and eggs to a mixing bowl.
Add the warm water.
Mix by hand until you have formed a ball of dough.
Cover the dough and leave it in a warm place for 1 hour. Allow the dough to rise.
Add 1 cup of our and kneed the dough until it is fairly firm. Dust a work surface with flour and divide the dough into 4 balls.
Flatten each ball with your hands to make a half- thick circular shape.
Divide the filling evenly between the 4 dough circles.
Wrap the edges of the dough around the mixture to seal it in.
Carefully flatten the dough, spreading the mixture to within a half inch of the edge.
Bake it in the oven on low-medium heat for 15-20 minutes.
After baking, grease the top with butter or a fatty piece of ham. This will give it some color and also prevent it from becoming hard.
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.