A taste of Georgian hospitality
The Georgians have a story.
‘At the beginning of time when God was giving out land to the various nations of the world the Georgians were too busy drinking to attend. Arriving late, God was angry and asked why they had dishonoured him so; there was now no land left to give them. But the Georgians replied that far from dishonouring God they were late simply because they were drinking to His health and this took quite some time. God was pleased by their answer and so gave them the tiny bit of land he had been keeping for himself.’
And after enjoying our first Georgian style lunch at Lake Kvareli the fable is almost believable. Jane and I visited Georgia to sample the food, amazing wine and, best of all, the overwhelming hospitality to be found here. The meal or ‘Supra’ as the Georgian banquet is called is preceded by endless toasts. The head of Supra, the Tamada, conducts highly philosophical toasts, making sure that everyone is enjoying themselves. The meal goes on for hours as a seemingly endless procession of regional foods spreads over the table. Lunch on this occasion included Asian influenced aubergines stuffed with walnut, cheese bread, tarragon salad, barbecued chicken and trout and flat crescent shaped breads made while we watched in a traditional outdoor oven. Various historical regions of Georgia are known for their particular dishes: for example, Khinkali (meat dumplings), from eastern mountainous Georgia, and Khachapuri, (very smilar to the Indian puri) mainly from Imereti, Samegrelo and Adjara. Many of the dishes are Asian influenced, such as the puri above and the stuffed aubergines we ate, reminding us that Georgia has always been a connecting link between Europe and Asia, traversed by many routes including the famous Silk Route.
We had started our Georgian tour in the characterful capital Tbilisi. Architecture in the city is a mix of Georgian, with strong influences of Byzantine, neo-classical European/Russian and Middle Eastern styles. The Old Town on the left bank of the River Mtkvari is picturesque with charming shops and cafes and a walking tour takes in the medieval Narikala Fortress, Mtatsminda Pantheon and the National Gallery.
Looking to immerse ourselves literally in Georgian traditions we headed for Tbilisi’s famous therapeutic sulphur springs and 17th century bathhouses, located in the city's Abanotubani district. The poet Pushkin said he had enjoyed ‘the best bath of his life’ in the blue-tiled Byzantine style baths here. The bad-egg smell is overwhelming, but proved worth it. We hired a private room with bath for about £20 for three and for an extra £4 each enjoyed the skills of a local bathhouse attendant who obligingly beat us with a brush.
Envigored, and to shake off the smell, we took a short drive from Tbilisi to the fresh country air of the Kakheti region of East Georgia, stopping at the 9th century Bodbe Monastery, resting place of St. Nino and the site of healing springs. Signaghi, called The City of Love, is home to a 24 hour wedding chapel. But this is no Las Vegas; the town is a recognized UNESCO world heritage site, with cobble stone streets and terra cotta tile-roofed homes with colourful carved balconies and views of the Alazani Valley and the Great Caucasus Mountains.
Here we stopped at Pheasant’s Tears winery to sample a range of local wines. Kakheti is one of the main areas associated with kvevri winemaking, an ancient technique in which clay containers are buried in the earth to store and mature wine. Grapevine has been cultivated in the fertile valleys of Georgia for about 8000 years. At last Georgian wines are getting the recognition they deserve, with many varieties available in top wine bars and restaurants across the UK.
There is no denying Georgia’s turbulent past - in 1991, Georgia secured its independence after 70 years of Soviet rule and it has had its fair share of unrest.
But these days there is nothing but harmony in the quaint streets and cafes of Tbilisi, the peaceful mountains of Kakheti or the semitropical seaside resort of Batumi, and Georgians are throwing their arms open to tourists.
We discovered that in the space of just a few days here you can ski in the mountains, swim in the Black Sea and embrace an amazing culture in the churches, castles and cave-towns, enjoying delicious cuisine, fabulous wines and overwhelming Georgian hospitality
For further information see The British Georgian Chamber of Commerce www.bgcc.org.uk