Georgia, You're on My Mind
And your luscious ingredients are in my kitchen. From toasted sunflower oil to chewy black wines, everything in Georgia is to savor.
A Road Trip in the Republic of Georgia
I was invited to join my daughter-in-law’s family there on a road trip into the Svaneti region, which boasts the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe, Ushgouli, at more than 7,000 meters. Our goal was to visit monasteries and other points of interest on the way, then wind up in Ushgouli village facing a gorgeous peak that looked like the Matterhorn only more chiselled. So twelve of us, ranging in age from 2-1/2 to 73, piled into a van with driver and negotiated the roads and the cows that range on them through landscape so gorgeous even the Georgians were breathless.
On the Road
On the way we visited the Gelati monastery in Kutaisi, built in the 11th century by David the Builder, responsible for uniting Georgian lands and solidifying it as a Christian region. By chance, we stumbled onto a group of men singing Georgian folk and religious songs, an experience that sends shivers down the spine for its beauty and tradition. We climbed one of the famed towers of the area, where families hid when their land was invaded, a sadly frequent experience all the way up until 2014. The climb was hairy; Georgians are not without courage and strength!
Our ultimate goal with the village of Ushguli, the highest, continuously inhabited village in Europe, in the crux of the Caucases. It hosts not only a clutch of stone-roofed homes and a restaurant, but the still-active and ancient (9th century) monastery of Lamaria, noted for its paintings which were last updated in the 13th century.
Each Meal Along the Way
Every meal was a supra, or feast. It turned out there are few spots in the western part of Georgia where the family we were with DOESN’T know someone. So the red carpet, gastronomically speaking, was laid out at each stop.
We visited the lovely and capacious Diaroni restaurant in the town of Zugdidi, the heart of the Samegrelo region, considered the heart of Georgia’s gastronomic culture.
We were greeted with a meal that didn’t stop, from the gorgeous mchadi, an ethereal blend of fresh cheese and cornmeal, to savory chashuli, a summer beef stew that astonished with its layers of flavors. There were versions of Khatchapouri, bread either filled or topped with the region’s creamy cow’s milk cheese, soulgouni, and baked to a golden bubbling; eggplant folded over coriander-scented walnut paste; mountainous cucumber, hot pepper, and tomato salads; roasted pork with fresh onions; grilled vegetables; chicken in garlic-studded cream.
And There Were More
I thought that was the highlight meal of the trip, but no. Each succeeding meal, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner was a “supra,” too, leading up to my favorite, at a family member’s home where the vegetables were grown in the huge back garden, the meat from a local grower, the love and spices abundantly evident in every mouthful. I discovered pickled Caucasion bladdernut (Staphylea colchica), pepper-macerated quail, red wine and salt basted pork accented with fresh white onions, giant figs fresh from the tree, organ meats spiced with herbs and pepper, tarragon-rich chicken stew, tart green and red plum sauces, strings of dried apples, and perfumed lokum.
...and the Wines
And the wines, oh the wines. Like so many things in this country, this little side dish is a modest thing of incredible beauty. Like the wines. Georgia is considered by most to be the birthplace of wine and wine aging. The wines are rich, ranging from muscular to incredibly delicate, and mostly on the sweet side. Among my favorites: a Saperavi Superieur from Chateau Mukhrani, a Rtvelisi from the Alazani Valley, a gorgeously chewy wine from Giorgi Jimsheladze, a home wine maker (like so many in Georgia) in the village of Kakabeti , and a “pet nat” rosé (natural sparkling wine) from the Vellino winery in the same village, owned by vintner Beka Jimsheladze.
What a country; I cannot wait to return. I will definitely be incorporating some Georgian touches into many of my dishes. It is impossible not to!
I will be publishing some Georgian recipes here too, so please stay tuned!
I wish you all a wonderful rest of July, and I will be back in touch soon.
Chakhokhbili – Georgian Chicken Stew
This dish was, I think, the most delicious thing I tasted in a week of amazing flavors. I was in Georgia with my daughter-in-law’s family on a road trip that can only be imagined! As we dodged cows on the highway going from monastery to monastery, tower to tower, gorgeous rushing river to placid, ice-blue lakes, everything was punctuated by delicious flavors.
This summer chicken stew – which is made year-round but with fresh tomatoes it can only be summer! – was light and deeply perfumed with tarragon, alive with very subtle chile heat, and simply elegantly delicious. I have adapted it a bit, after much discussion with my daughter-in-law because not all of the ingredients the traditional recipe calls for are at my fingertips. This is a very worthy, near-addictive version that I predict you will make over and over again.
2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
One whole chicken (3 pounds;1.5 kg) chicken, cut in serving pieces OR 6 chicken thighs
Coarse or fine sea salt
2 medium onions, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 medium tomatoes, cored, diced
2 bell peppers, diced
1 bunch parsley, the bottom stems removed
1 large bunch fresh tarragon (to give 2 cups leaves, lightly packed)
1 fresh jalapeno, serrano or other spicy pepper, minced
4 large garlic cloves
½ tsp ground coriander
½ teaspoon turmeric
1. Place 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the chicken, season with salt, cover, and cook the chicken for about 20 minutes, turning once after 10 minutes. It will lightly brown.
2. While the chicken is cooking, place 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, stir, and cook until they are translucent, stirring and shaking the pan regularly, about 10 minutes. Add the onions to the chicken, then add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste to the skillet, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook for about a minute, then add the tomatoes, reduce the heat and, stirring, simmer until the tomatoes soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomato mixture to the chicken along with the peppers, stir, and if the pan is dry, add up to ½ cup (125ml) water and stir.
3. Coarsely chop half the bunch of parsley, and half the tarragon leaves add to the chicken along with 1 teaspoon of ajika, if using. Stir, bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat so the mixture is simmering, cover and cook until the chicken falls off the bone, 30 to 40 minutes, turning the chicken occasionally.
4. Just before the chicken is cooked, mince together the remaining parsley, cilantro, and the garlic cloves and add to the chicken, along with the spices. Adjust the seasoning and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.