The markets of Georgia

Have you ever considered visiting Georgia? I’m talking the country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia here, not the American state.

Nope, I hadn’t either. I barely had any idea where to stab my finger on a map, let alone any knowledge of the food, the people, the wine; all of which, I found out last week, are very loveable indeed.

The Georgians are remarkable characters, famous for their hospitality; warm, open and generous, their eyes sparkle and their laughter flows. My first real encounter with the locals was in the food market we visited in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The Georgians are not yet so used to tourists that they have become jaded; they welcome you to their stalls to taste food, without any expectations that you will buy. In fact when we did want to buy something, we occasionally had a hard time getting them to take our money. They willingly pose for photographs, tapping their friends on the shoulders to turn around and join in with cheesy grins. Can you imagine that happening in Borough Market?

The market in Tbilisi made me tingle with excitement. You can really feel the distance from Western Europe. I stumbled through each ramshackle pathway, ducking through doorways and underneath swinging bulbs, eager as a kid in a sweetshop to see what new discoveries lurked in every nook and cranny. There were many:

The Georgians are into pickles, which of course endeared me to their cuisine immediately. My favourite and fortuitously the most ubiquitous was this tall tangle of what seemed to be pickled flower stems; the comparison with capers (being pickled flower buds) was a natural one and the flavour was quite similar.

Walnuts are grown in Georgia and therefore appear frequently in sauces, soups, salads and most famously, in churchkhela (above); strings of walnuts (and sometimes hazelnuts) are dipped repeatedly in grape must, which is thickened with flour so that it coats the nuts in a slightly sweet, chewy casing.

We stumble across a ‘cheese room’ in the market, stacked with sheep’s and goat’s cheeses, both similar in flavour with an additional, heavily smoked variety. The texture is crumbly like feta, and the flavour, incredibly salty – more so even than halloumi. It is addictive, just as anything very salty always is.

We later visit a cheese maker who tells us that the saltiness is for preservation purposes. We have some fun trying to translate the technicalities of cheese production from Georgian to English but the gist is that they use rennet from the stomachs of their 500 sheep, mixed with milk and nettles, the latter helping to clean the mixture by catching impurities. The cheese was once stored in shaved sheep skins but is now kept in plastic bags (for obvious practical reasons), where it spends a year before reaching maturity.

In typical Georgian fashion we are greeted with refreshments – a plate of the cheese, plus bread and plenty of wine to wash it down. The wine is most definitely what one would describe as rustic, the kind of wine that a teenager would love; very sweet indeed but somehow absolutely perfect in that time and place, the sweetness perfectly balancing the super salty cheese. We glug down several glasses.

Back in the market, carrier bags bulge with heady spices and seeds. Cumin and coriander seem prevalent and I spot nigella seeds, too; unmistakeable black studs nestled amongst the fiery reds of a dozen different chilli powders. The chilli flakes look Turkish so I buy some of those – they come wrapped in a small newspaper cone like fish and chips – plus I take some of the Georgian spice blend which graces the table as a seasoning and tastes like a turbo charged celery salt.

Chickens are bright yellow and clearly corn-fed. The other meat we see hangs in a remote market; every stall holder equipped with the kind of axe one would expect to see furnishing the arm of Gimli in Lord of The Rings. The Georgians seem rather partial to offal, too; brains, tripe, snouts, the lot. In my delicate state (read: disgracefully hungover having spent 8 hours the previous day necking wine and grappa-like spirits), I find my usual ox-like constitution compromised and scurry away.

Honey is scooped from buckets in huge amber globs, then smeared into old jam jars. Pots of honeycomb are also available, which marked the first but not the last time I cursed my decision to bring a tiny suitcase.

Empty soft drink bottles are filled with Georgian table sauce, made from mirabelle plums. The green sauce is sour, while the red sauce, made from riper plums, is more sweet. Both are made by boiling then pureeing the fruit, before adding garlic, coriander, dill and chilli amongst other ingredients. Both are quite delicious, appearing at several meals we enjoy over the course of our stay; the flavour is unique and I’m rather excited at the prospect of attempting to re-create it.

Everywhere we look there are buckets, platters and boxes of ingredients:

Baby leek-like strands of wild garlic…

Platters of tiny fish are metallic flashes in the corner of the eye…

Sugar dusted dried fruits yield squidgy and soft within; dates, figs and persimmons (sharon fruit)

This is a picture of a Georgian cat because it is very pretty. No other reason. Not for eating.

We later visit the flea market in Tbilisi, which proves just as exciting for the cook; silver cutlery, crystal glasses, china and all manner of curious kitchenalia are laid out on the pavements. I once again curse the suitcase, passing up many opportunities to feed my obsession with plates and cutlery. At almost 3 lari to the pound, there were some bargains to be had.

I fell in love with the markets of Georgia. Well, I fell in love with a lot of things about Georgia. I’ll write next about the Georgian supra (feast), how the market ingredients are used in the kitchen and how the hospitality of the Georgian people is legendary. I’m even going to have a go at writing about the wine. Brace yourselves…

My visit to Georgia was led by ‘that crazy French woman’, Isabelle Legeron who organises the RAW artisan wine fair in May. Tickets available here.

 

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38 thoughts on “The markets of Georgia

  1. My friend just posted this online and I assume she foudn it while researching our upcoming trip to Georgia. Any group of people that loves pickled food is a group of people I’d like to get to know.

  2. Delightful blog with some mouth watering pictures.

    I would like to introduce a new community for foodies and food lovers. Consumers are able to discover, share and purchase the best artisan produce from around the UK. There are also regular updates, discussions and recipes.

    http://www.foodisan.com “Taste Something New”

  3. Oooh I have long been curious about Georgia and its cuisine, and really enjoyed this post. Great pictures – love the one with the granny and her bucket of honey. Reminds me a little bit of Romania which I went to as a student – it felt a million miles away from Western Europe and the experience was really mindblowing; however, I think the cuisine we experienced there at the time was much less appetising than what you sampled in Georgia – my friend swears he was served deep fried dog at a terrifying Dracula theme restaurant…eeek…

  4. if you’re interested in a good Georgian cookbook i highly recommend The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein: http://www.amazon.com/The-Georgian-Feast-Vibrant-Republic/dp/0520219295/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334755661&sr=8-1

    This is practically my cooking bible here in Tennessee. Unfortunately, so difficult to find authentic Georgian ingredients but Ms. Goldstein uses western substitute ingredients.

    Have you tried kuchmachi in Georgia? Here is the recipe:
    http://byebyesoccermom.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-georgia-monday-kuchmachi-recipe.html

    xx
    maya

  5. Hi there! I have commented here but not sure what happened, it did not post.
    I was just saying thank you for this post. My mouth is watering just seeing photos. Especially that pile of jonjoli which I think is leaves and flowers of Staphylea pinnata.
    I blog from U.S. but am orignally from Georgia.
    xx
    Maya byebyesoccermom.blogspot.com

    p.s. Are you still in Tbilisi?

  6. It looks like you had so much fun. When I was in Thailand I wanted a thai bbq and went to the market armed with only a piece of paper with the thai words on. It was loads of fun, especially when no-one speaks the same language!

  7. I really enjoyed this post, Melon – (that’s not to say I don’t enjoy all the others, but you know) – and like you I had to look up Georgia on the map. I have no experience of Eastern Europe, bar a jaunt around Budapest but it looks fascinating.

    1. Hi Wendy. It was organised by Isabelle Legeron who does the RAW fair (link at bottom of post). We spent time visiting the RAW (natural wine) producers. I’m going to attempt to write about the wine, too. Crazy!

  8. Sounds intriguing… I’m unlikely to go there but I can enjoy it through your posts. I love flea markets and it’s nice to see an area untouched by mass tourism.

  9. Fab, isn’t it? I visited both of those markets too and loved them.

    I was also gutted to not be able to bring anything home from the flea market, will bring an empty suitcase when I return! Such a lovely place.

  10. I really enjoyed this post – it reminded me of my brief trip to Romania last year which gave me a similar sense of discovery and distance (going on holiday to western Europe is great but it’s good to be reminded that there’s more to the world). I’m keen to go back there and explore further, but it looks as if Georgia should also go on my ‘places to go one day soon’ list.

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