Put down those weapons!” Jarji, our guide, said urgently. Weapons? All I had in my hands was a knife and a fork. Which I put down, worried I had broken some unknown (to me) Georgian dinner table etiquette.
I breathed easy when Jarji explained. There were two fat, steaming hot dumplings on my plate which I should pick up with my fingers and take a small bite.
That was easy; in any case, to a Pune person, those dumplings looked exactly like ‘ukadi che modak’ (steamed dumplings stuffed with a coconut-jaggery mix and drowned in ghee) which perforce have to be eaten using one’s fingers.
Here, in Georgia, the difference was that the dumplings were savoury, in this case with a mince filling. I gingerly picked up one, and on the guide’s instructions, took a small bite. After this, he instructed me to suck the juice, not let it go waste which is what would have happened if I had used those ‘weapons’. Now I understood his anguish!
This was a part of the meal at a small, family-run winery where we had first seen the ‘works’ and then sat down to a hearty, three course traditional Georgian meal.
This wasn’t our first traditional Georgian meal: we’d been in the country all of three days but had several traditional meals, from sun up to sun down.
Along the way, I had fallen in love with the ‘khachapuri’, a cheese filled, plate-sized puri. Each region has its own version, mostly with cheese. If the filling is kheema, then it’s called ‘kubdari’.
Our 15-day holiday in Georgia began from Tbilisi, the capital city. Language was no barrier especially since English and Russian are both spoken widely. Plus there’s always sign language - the universal language of food.
Our first evening in Tbilisi began with a cultural show: dance, music and food. Which means lots of wine. Because the wine tradition is 8,000 years old in Georgia, everyone will tell you.
Lots of cheese but also lots of fresh salad, enormous tomatoes and equally large slices of cucumber garnished with coriander and seasoned with a rock salt-spice mixture.
There’s slices of fried egg plant stuffed with walnuts, an unusual combo, and more salad, all comprising the first course. Along with the traditional dry wines, white and red and their special, chacha, a vodka-like fiery drink made from the dregs of the grape left over from the wine making.
More courses followed: a mtsvadi (sheesh kabab), a chicken and onion dish, mushrooms… oh, boy, were we full. This in spite of a walk around the ‘old city’, the parts of Tbilisi which have cobbled, narrow steep streets full of shops selling souvenirs and yes, cafes wine, cheese and traditional food.
Being early October, the days were mild, with a strong sun in the daytime and evenings cool to cold, depending where you were. In the Greater Caucasus Mountains, in northern Georgia, the days are pleasant with evenings and nights turning cold. The snow-capped mountains, the glaciers which are retreating, the hilltop fortresses and churches all are great walks.
At Mestia, in the Svenati region of north Georgia, we dropped into a café for a bite, winding up with a clay bowl full of lobiani (rajma, not our lobia) into which we dipped pieces of a hard corn bread. Almost like ‘makke di roti te rajma’ (corn bread with rajma), kind of staple north Indian fare.
Those snow-capped mountains are the source of the water that is available everywhere. As we criss-crossed the country, we’d stop at a mountain stream which had been conveniently channeled either into a tap or a pipe to drink mountain fresh water, cupping our hands like school children.
Despite having no distinct food to mark its presence, Burjomi won my heart. It’s a hill station with sulphur springs the Russian Tsars flocked to. High up in the mountains, it has shaded walks, a river running through the city and a very touristy flavour.
Each region has its specialty with eastern Georgia, known as the Khaketi region, famous for its wines. While looking for a Khaketi region wine look for the word `qvaveri’ (clay pot). A tour to a winery near Telavi, the big city of this region, revealed the way they make it traditionally, versus the 'European’ method.
The latter is well known; it is the former, using the `qvaveri’ (clay pot with a pointed bottom which gives its name to the method of wine-making) wine which is potent. Only men are allowed to crush the grapes (women crushing will mean the wine will be weak!) and then this crushed mass of skin, seed and juice is fermented in the qvaveri.
Once ready, the wine is taken out by special clay ladles with long handles. The dregs are then made into chacha, that strong vodka-like drink. Which, like vodka, has to be drunk as a shot. Remember to eat a large slice of tomato immediately. It helps.
At the Black Sea resort of Batumi, on the western edge of the country is the Adjara region, we tried the Adjari khachapuri. I would prefer to call it death by cheese because it’s an enormous boat-shaped pastry loaded with a variety of cheeses and an egg in the centre.
Ideally, several people can make a full meal of this. Imagine our plight: just the two of us not-so-young folks at the end of a day walking in the botanical gardens trying to finish this giant dish.
A full meal requires a dessert to round it off. Across the country, we found that a dessert is often skipped and you head straight for the Turkish coffee. Occasionally, there’s a slice of cake to go with the hot, strong Turkish coffee. I fell for the coffee, bidding a temporary goodbye to my filter special from Chikmaglur.
I looked around to buy some cheese to take home, which led us to the local Agricultural Market in Kutaisi, the gateway to the Imereti region in north-west Georgia and famous for its cheese.
The first time we went, our guide was our interpreter. The next time we felt bold enough to step out on our own and all one had to say not ‘cheese’ but ‘khachapuri cheese’.
Oh, those days of wine and cheese.