Georgians have kept their culture despite millennia of invasion and occupation by overlapping empiresby Wendell Steavenson / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
France taught me to cook, but Georgia taught me to eat. I lived in Tbilisi for two years at the end of the last century. It was during the dark years of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s post-Soviet era: electricity down to four hours a day; no heat in the winter. Economic flatline. The country fell back to subsistence. Georgia had no intensive farming, no food processing industry and no supermarkets. There was no money for chemical pesticides or packaging; bunches of herbs were tied with onion fronds, homemade vinegar was sold in plastic coke bottles. Every day I went to the market, and it was here—piled up on tarpaulins laid on the sidewalk or pouring out of the back of an old Lada—that I discovered the true splendour of the original ingredient. Tomatoes were soft and pulpy and delicious with thin skins that split with a fingernail push. When strawberries came into season I would take glass jars to the market: they were so perfectly ripe that if you put them in a plastic bag they would be jam before you got home.
I learned that real food (produce that has not been picked unripe, irradiated with argon, genetically engineered) is fragile and lasts no more than a day or two before it wilts. But oh how real food tastes! It tastes! How can I describe the shock and compound delight of the delicate, flowery scent of an unwaxed lemon, the bitter coffee cream aftertaste of walnuts that a wizened grandmother has been extracting with a hammer and a pair of nail scissors all morning, the honeyspicemusk of a really truly ripe apricot?
The Georgian feast, or supra, must be, according to the traditions of Caucasian hospitality, abundant. The table is piled high with multiple dishes: skewers of pork, plum sauce with garlic and dill and coriander, spiced kebabs, spinach pounded with walnuts, fried cornbread, slices of salty cheese, lamb stew with tarragon and sour green spring plums, roasted suckling pig. Glasses of wine are raised as the toasts roll over one another. Ever since Georgia I have avoided the three stages of the dinner party: starter, main, pudding. Now I put dishes on the table all at the same time and everyone digs in.
But while the Georgian table is wonderful and…