PERHAPS it’s unsurprising that from a culinary perspective, Georgia (that’s Georgia, the Eurasian country, not Georgia, the US state) isn’t on our radar. For a start it has a language composed to many dialects and a unique alphabet which makes it pretty impenetrable to outsiders. But also, as Carla Capalbo, author of Tasting Georgia: A Food And Wine Journey In The Caucasus points out, it was part of the Soviet bloc until 1990, had a decade of political turmoil, and only in the last ten or so years has started to attract interest from the rest of the world. And not for the reasons that you might expect.
‘Georgia has the most ancient wine culture in the world,’ Capalbo tells me. ‘It’s at least 8,000 vintages old and there’s been a renewed interest in the way they make wine — using terracotta pots called qvevri that are buried in the ground — especially from organic and biodynamic winemakers.’
It was the wine that took Capalbo there in the first place — she’s been writing for Decanter magazine for years — but it was the food that made her want to write the book. ‘The Georgians see food as a means to bring people together. They love the idea of sharing foods, so you tend to see a mix of small dishes on the table,’ she says.
‘They’ll use buckets of herbs, which gives the food a vibrancy that I haven’t found elsewhere’
And, curiously, the fact that it’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian country makes the sort of food they eat perfect for an era when many of us are having a vegan week, or avoiding dairy.
‘Because the people are quite religious, they will often be fasting, or eating only vegetarian or vegan food, and the mix of dishes on the table accommodates that. It really is the perfect cuisine for our times — to me it felt very modern — both familiar and exotic at the same time.’
The book, packed with Capalbo’s own pictures, is as much a travel guide and cultural romp through the country as it is a recipe book. Capalbo describes Georgia’s cuisine as ‘almost Mediterranean, with lots of fresh veg, but with more herbs than I’ve ever seen used anywhere. Armfuls of dark purple basil, fresh coriander, tarragon and instead of using a few leaves, they’ll use huge bucketfuls in a salad or a stew, which gives food a vibrancy that I haven’t found elsewhere.’
And, as you might expect from a country where many people have had very little for a very long time, the kitchens are simple.
‘The key piece is a pestle and mortar — although if you’ve got a food processor, it makes life easier.’
The pestle and mortar (or food processor) is key for one of Capalbo’s favourite recipes, a herbed walnut paste that blends ground walnuts with spice and some herbs that becomes the basis for ‘all these amazing dishes — you can loosen the paste with water and add to leeks or a salad as a dressing, add it to fried aubergine and roll it up, or mix in with stewed chicken or stewed beans to give them a real richness and depth of flavour.’
And, while the food undoubtedly captured her heart, Capalbo also fell in love with Georgia’s hospitality.
‘Nothing is ever too much trouble — Georgians consider guests a gift from God, so it only makes them happy if someone turns up for lunch or dinner unexpectedly. They see it as an honour to share what they have.
‘You quickly adapt to fact that you’re in a country where the roads are bumpy and full of cows, because what you get back in terms of love and connection is worth its weight in gold.’
Chicken with pomegranate juice
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
■ 1 kg/2lb chicken pieces, with some skin left on
■ flour for dredging
■ 3 tbsp sunflower oil
■ 200g/7oz/1½ cups chopped onion
■ 1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
■ ½ tsp dried summer savory or mild thyme, or 1 tsp fresh
■ 2 bay leaves
■ 240ml/8fl oz /1 cup water
■ 360ml/12fl oz /1½ cups fresh pomegranate juice
■ Seeds of 1 pomegranate
■ Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Dredge chicken lightly in flour, shaking off any excess. Heat the oil in a sauté pan to fit all the chicken in one layer. Brown the chicken on all sides over medium heat, turning once or twice, about 12-15 minutes.
2. Stir in the onion and cook with the chicken for 5 minutes or until the onion starts to soften. Add the coriander seeds, herbs, water and half of the pomegranate juice, stirring well. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, turning the chicken occasionally, until the juice runs clear when a knife is inserted in the thickest part of the chicken.
3. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining pomegranate juice. Sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds and a few leaves of fresh thyme before serving.
Makes: 10 meatballs
Prep: 80 minutes (including rest)
Cook: 15-20 minutes
■ 225g/8oz ground beef
■ 225g/8oz ground pork
■ 1 egg
■ 4g/⅛oz/1 clove garlic, chopped
■ 2 tbsp dried barberries
■ ¼ tsp ground cumin
■ ⅓ tsp coriander seeds, crushed
■ 15g/½oz/⅓ cup finely chopped fresh coriander (including stems)
■ 60g/2oz/½ cup onion, finely chopped
■ 30g/1oz /⅓ cup plain / unseasoned breadcrumbs
■ ½ tsp salt
■ Freshly ground black pepper
■ 10 slices streaky bacon
1. Combine all the ingredients except the bacon in a medium bowl. Mix well, cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
2. Preheat grill / broiler to 270C/500F.
3. Divide the meat mixture into ten. One handful at a time, form them into compact oval balls, squeezing to stop them from crumbling. Thread the balls onto skewers that will fit in your grill / broiler.
4. Wrap one slice of bacon tightly around each ball so the bacon doesn’t overlap, as shown in the image below.
5. Place the skewers about 12cm/5in from the heat source and grill for a total of 14-18 minutes, turning the balls three times (or use your barbecue).
6. Check for doneness: the meat should be cooked through. Serve as part of a supra or alone, with salad and crusty bread.
Beets with spiced walnut paste
Prep: 15 minutes
■ 6 small beetroot/beets, boiled and peeled (about 360g/12oz)
■ 120ml/4fl oz/½ cup spiced
■ Walnut paste (see recipe below)
■ 3 tbsp water
1. Cut each beet in half. Scoop out a small hollow in the cut side of each half.
2. Mix the walnut paste with the water. The sauce should be stiff enough to hold together without running, but not too solid. Add more water if necessary.
3. Spoon the paste into the hollow in each beet half, spreading it evenly.
4. Arrange on a serving dish and serve cool or at room temperature.
Spiced walnut paste
This complex paste flavoured with many delicate spices goes well with beets and other simple vegetables or hard-boiled eggs. Nestan pounds her ingredients using a mortar and pestle, but you can make a quicker version in a food processor.
Makes: About 240ml/8fl oz/1 cup
Prep: 15 minutes
■ 200g/7oz/2 cups walnut halves
■ 8g/¼oz/2 garlic cloves
■ 1 tsp salt
■ ½ tsp coriander seeds, crushed
■ 1 tsp ground marigold petals
■ ½ tsp ground cinnamon
■ ¼ tsp ground chilli / cayenne
■ ½ tsp ground fenugreek
■ ⅛ tsp ground cumin
■ Large pinch of grated nutmeg
■ Pinch of ground cloves
■ 80 ml/2½fl oz/⅓ cup water
1. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor with the water and pulse to obtain a thick paste. Store in the refrigerator for one week covered tightly with plastic wrap to prevent the nuts from oxidizing.
■ Tasting Georgia: A Food And Wine Journey In The Caucasus by Carla Capalbo (Pallas Athene Books, £30)