Wining and dining

Cildir, 02.08.2019

One of the oldest know wine producing regions in the world is in Georgia, dating back to over 8000 years ago. I knew little about Georgian wine beyond the heavy Saperavi red wines that can be found in Georgian restaurants abroad and a short culinary discovery in 2013 while passing through the country. On the culinary side, Georgia was a highlight on this journey, its elaborate and varied cuisine standing out among the scarcity of the last countries visited. From Steinbeck’s “Russian Journal” I remember he and Capa were sick most of the time because they had to constantly eat delicious food and drink wine and spirits in huge quantities while visiting the ever-toasting and feasting Georgians. The “few appetizers” I had ordered with the wine on my first night were enough to feed four people easily. Everything was delicious: the cheeses and nuts with light crispy bread fresh from the oven, the eggplant rolls filled with walnut and pomegranate cream, the khachapuri with cheese. It was just too much. My grandparents had taught me to never leave food on the plate, and to only put on it what I could eat. Well, Georgia is a very tough place for that mindset.

After a short morning visit to the Alaverdi monastery, where a woman at the entrance made me put on some XXXXL nylon pants in the heat (dress code!), I visited a winery to learn about the “qvevry” wine making technique used around here. Instead of the barrels I knew from Europe, here big terracotta containers in the shape of an egg are used. After six months in the qvevry the wine is bottled. Vineyards have started to also produce wine “European style”, in inox containers. The qvevry version is higher on alcohol and more intense in taste and smell. And one other thing stood out, the contrast between smell and taste. Most of the time a wine would smell sweet, like liquor, but then be dry and with a different aroma on the tongue than in the nose. The whites are darker in color than back home, and the reds are very heavy. And, guess the size of the “small snack” that came with the tasting? Correct, oversize. I was very happy I didn’t order lunch separately, as the platter of pickled vegetables, cheese, bread and grilled meats was impossible to finish for me. I rolled out of the winery with a happy stomach, a case of wine and several other edible souvenirs. To digest lunch I took a tour of the valley around Telavi and over the mountains at Sighnaghi. The wine route leads through many villages in a state of slow and patchy reconstruction, with many Soviet ruins and scars around. The yellow gas pipes, the oversized official buildings, many of them now empty and decaying, old abandoned factories, vehicles of all sized rotting on the road side – or blocking traffic if they still drive around. The sad thing in all ex-Soviet countries is the inertia of the people. Driving past the houses and ruins I thought that would I own one of them, even if I had no money I’d clean the place up, fix what’s broken, make the best out of it. Here I saw a lot of people sitting around, not doing anything, while their environment falls to pieces. Like a beautiful small castle on the side of the road somewhere around Kachreti, surrounded by a vast orchard, overlooking a valley, in ruins. The place would have been a splendid museum, or hotel.

As I reached the suburbs of Tbilisi, rain started to fall, in very thick drops. The Mini had layers of Central Asian dirt on it, and the rain only made it worse by mixing them all up. Traffic became Naples-style, and the last few km to the hotel took forever. In 2013 I had seen a hotel just under the fortress that I remembered for its clean architecture, terrace with a view and location on a very steep street. It was steeper than I remembered as the Mini sped up in first gear. And the beer on the terrace overlooking the city had an extremely relaxing effect. I got a lot of stuff out of the Mini into my room, and headed to Fabrika, where I met Olya, a friend from SF spending some time in the city to work. What a remarkable place to meet again, by coincidence. It started to rain as a movie began on the rooftop terrace, so we decided to go for dinner. Again great Georgian fare. Driving through town off the tourist highlights made me see a different Tbilisi than I would normally have. As the next morning, when I first dropped 20kg of laundry at a very rare laundromat in a residential area, and then drove the Mini to get checked up at the local BMW dealer. Several hours later the verdict was: all good to go, and a list of non critical parts to replace once I’m back in Europe. The Mini got washed too, inside and outside. I had to unload all my remaining stuff, and while I was watching the bags and boxes in the heat on the road, the cars driving by in the traffic, a Bavarian restaurant across the street kept me thinking about a huge cold beer. I couldn’t resist it. I also ordered what I thought was the smallest appetizer on the menu. A monster plate of sausages, cole salad and mashed potatoes arrived… I was sick all afternoon. At a very well stocked wine shop cum restaurant (no more food pls!) I tasted some delicious white wines, and walked out with more souvenirs, before stocking up on drinks and food for the road at a supermarket nearby. By the time I made it back to the hotel, with all the freshly washed clothes, food and wine, I needed a cold shower, and fell asleep minutes after laying down on the bed overlooking Tbilisi, a fresh breeze blowing through the open windows. When I woke up it was dark already. I watched the clock and realized I was late for drinks at Olya’s place, where I met Matt, an English writer from LA. We went for dinner at a place that reminded me of some restaurants in Barcelona that are situated in belle etage apartments, mixing the charm of a private home with a very curated cuisine. Great night, interesting conversation. Thank you Olya and Matt, hope to see you soon, who knows where!

The next morning, before leaving town, I had another very interesting morning meeting with Nika, a friend of a friend from Europe. After so many months disconnected from my work life, the etiquette and discipline of a breakfast meeting felt very good again. I had to be on time, something that while on the road is quite difficult to achieve, as so many things can happen all the time. I had to dress decently, luckily my clothes were all washed again. And I had to activate my business brain again, as our conversation turned from places to see in Georgia to tech. Nika, it was fantastic to meet you, I hope we’ll reconnect after the summer when my life switches back to business.

Less than an hour out of Tbilisi I stopped at Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities of Georgia. Steinbeck and Capa had described another food and alcohol fest there, and I was eager to avoid thinking about food in that town at all cost. The many tourists made that task very easy, as I left shortly after a speed visit. About an hour later I entered Gori from the southern side, from where the road took me straight to the Stalin museum. I had been here in 2013, finding the museum closed. This time I made it inside. After seeing first timid attempts in Moscow, Perm, and Kazakhstan to process the Gulag history, I had expected some reflections on the life of one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. Wrong, not a single mention of the millions of people killed, not to speak of the deported, repressed, incarcerated, exiled. I couldn’t believe that in 2019 this was still possible. Thinking about this total lack of processing of history, I left town heading west. From 2013 I remembered people sold brown bread along the road at a certain place in the mountains, and I passed the same spot again. Back then traffic had been horrible, this time I had more luck. Close to Baghdati I tried to find a specific winery I had gotten recommended, but today my luck deserted me. As it was still early in the day, I decided to try the road over the mountains through the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park. As Google maps seemed to indicate dirt tracks, I stopped at a police station to enquire about the state of the roads. “No problem, straight ahead” the officer told me, so I headed up into a valley looking forward to some great Mini driving. It started to rain quite heavily very soon. At Sairme I passed some thermal baths and waterfalls. And then the tarred road ended, followed by a gravel track. I thought “this must be just a small stretch, the policeman said it was OK”, and drove on, and on, and on, higher and higher, crossing 2300m altitude, surrounded by cows, welcomed by shepherds’ dogs as I got out to take some pics of the valleys around me. Temperature dropped under 10C and my shorts and t-shirt outfit felt a bit light. After crossing the highest point, thick fog surrounded me, reducing visibility to just a few meters with all lights on. Cows suddenly appeared and disappeared, staring at me with an incredulous look. Fortunately I crossed no vehicles up there. But what I did cross further down were plenty of construction vehicles, as the road converted to a sand and rock and mud track, heavily worked by trucks, excavators and tractors. I spent about two hours in first gear until I reached a normal road again. The Mini was all covered in dust, inside and outside. As the sun started its descent for the day, I left the mountains, heading for the border with Turkey.

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