Category: Georgia


Georgian Spinach Pkhali

April 9th, 2013 — 10:23am

Life has been a whirlwind recently. Aside from writing a book, doing my normal job and studying, I thought it would be a great idea to move house. Totally sensible.

Of course, I had flu at the same time as packing up the entirety of my belongings and shifting them from one place to another, which then evolved into suspected malaria (I’d been to Ethiopia). I haven’t told my mum that yet so when she reads this she’ll kill me. Anyway mum it turned out I don’t have it, because some things are actually, sometimes, genuinely, too dramatic to happen to me.

The point is that I’ve moved to Camberwell. I have betrayed Peckham. Well, sort of. If I walk about ten paces to the left then I am still actually in Peckham so I’ve decided I now live on the Peckham/Camberwell borders/badlands and I am entitled to enjoy the best of both worlds. There are several awesome things about the new world however. The first is that I am spitting distance from Silk Road and F M Mangal. Dangerous. The second is that I have discovered the Turkish Food Centre on Camberwell New Road where I basically just went mental, flinging money about and grabbing stuff off the shelves like a crazed, food-shopping-starved dervish which, essentially, I have been. I bought lots of things to go with spinach, which I’ve been obsessing about. I think it’s part of needing to get some vitamins in. Not being settled in one place can really balls up your eating, by which I mean there’s been a lot of eating out, buying crap or just not being organised or happy enough to even consider making anything like a decent packed lunch.

So, the spinach. As you will know (because I keep banging on about it), I went to Georgia and properly fell in love with the country and the food. I’ve therefore been thinking about making these little spinach and walnut balls, called pkhali, for yonks. This month’s issue of Saveur had a 4 or 5 page spread on Georgia (all of a sudden the food is getting attention) and they had a recipe so I gave it a whirl.

I have to say, it tasted pretty authentic, although there are a couple of amendments which I’d say are pretty crucial to consider. Firstly, they advise puréeing the spinach which I’d strongly suggest you don’t do. All the pkhali I ate in Georgia had a very satisfying coarse texture. I’d also say it is essential to let the mixture rest overnight in the fridge. Other than that, the recipe is pretty spot on. The final result is a lovely punchy vegetable spread, with a richness from the ground walnuts and plenty of flavour from the herbs, coriander and tarragon (very Georgian) and the ground fenugreek.

You can make pkhali with any vegetables really, and the Georgians also commonly use beets, which make a lovely colour contrast against the spinach if you’re planning your own supra.

This mixture improves the longer you leave it in the fridge and I’d say it will keep for up to a week.

Georgian Spinach Pkhali (adapted from Saveur)

600g spinach (the proper, big ballsy stuff; I’m done with baby spinach)
180g shelled walnuts
1 generous handful coriander leaves
1 generous handful tarragon leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek (I crushed the seeds in a pestle and mortar)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 spring onions
1 heaped teaspoon chilli flakes (I used Turkish)
1 pomegranate, for garnish

Chop the stalks off the spinach and then wash the leaves really well. Chuck it into a large pan while it is still wet, put a lid on and set it over a low heat. Let it slowly wilt down, stirring every now and then, until it is all wilted. Allow it to cool completely (the easiest way to do this is to spread it out on a plate). When cool, squeeze out as much water from the spinach as possible. You will be amazed at the amount of water that has come out and by how much the spinach is now reduced in size. I went from a pile of spinach that covered this whole board to this ball you see below…

Pound the walnuts in a pestle and mortar until they are more or less all crushed to a powder (a few chunks here and there are fine). Mix the walnuts with the spinach and all the other ingredients, plus plenty of salt (more than you think necessary) and pepper.

Mix really well, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, shape into balls about the size of a golf ball and make a small indent in the top of each one with your fingertip. Place a pomegranate seed in each. Serve with bread or toast for spreading. Ideally khachapuri.

21 comments » | Georgia, Nibbles, Snacks, Starters, Vegan, Vegetables

Georgia, I Adore Ya

February 2nd, 2013 — 1:23am

Last year I went to Georgia; a country I would never have considered visiting had I not been invited. As is often the way when one doesn’t expect these things, I completely fell in love with the place; the people, the culture, the wine and most of all, the food. Since then it’s been a mission to try and perfect recipes and also to seek out Georgian food in London. On the cooking front, khachapuri has been something of an obsession; it’s basically a cheese-stuffed bread, made with an incredibly salty Georgian cheese – we’re talking more salty than halloumi; being a complete and utter salt whore, I adored it. I lugged 6 khachapuri back on the plane with me and ate them, cold, for several days after my return, mourning their diminishing number with every bite.

Khachapuri in Georgia 

Also on the Georgia trip with me was Kerstin Rodgers, who took a similar liking to this supremely comforting  bread. We tried cooking a recipe from The Georgian Feast, an award winning cook book, but it just wasn’t right at all. We didn’t have the correct cheese but it wasn’t just that. Not the kind of people to give up, we got together recently to give khachapuri another try, using Ottolenghi’s recipe from Jerusalem. It worked a treat. I even managed to find sulguni in a Russian deli in Queensway (Kalinka), which I believe is one of the only if not the only place in London that sells it. They also sell Armenian cognac in bottles shaped like AK47s. One of those got bought, obviously; the last in the shop. When we requested to buy it the lady behind the counter got her walkie talkie out and started speaking frantically in Russian.

Oh how we feasted. Ottolenghi also includes a substitute cheese filling, and that also tastes really quite authentic. Read Kerstin’s post about our khachapuri making evening here; we tried just about every type of random cheese London had to offer (you’ll also get a story about my love life while you’re over there).

Sulguni cheese

Magnificent ‘Ajarian’ (boat shaped) khachapuri cooked in Kerstin’s Aga (and served on a very beautiful tray…)

‘Megruli’ (circular, stuffed) khachapuri, again cooked in the Aga

I also had great success cooking a recipe for BBQ pork and plum sauce in the summer; these spice rubbed skewers was everywhere in Georgia, grilled over hot coals in a pit in the ground and served with sliced raw shallots and a sour/sweet, dill heavy plum sauce. I was amazed at how authentic my plum sauce tasted; although our plums are completely different, the unripe ones we get in the supermarkets are perfect as they’re just as sour. A use for unripe supermarket fruit. Who knew?

Pork grilling in Georgia

The finished pork in Georgia

My Georgian BBQ pork

My Georgian plum sauce

Seeking out authentic tasting Georgian food in London has been much more hit and miss. First I visited Colchis, which is a kind of poshed up Georgian restaurant in Notting Hill;  each to their own, but having visited the country, that’s just the most bizarre concept and it didn’t sit well or indeed taste particularly good. My next experience was completely unexpected, coming as it did from the Pasha Hotel in Camberwell, where I spotted khachapuri on the menu in their Kazakh Kyrgyz restaurant. It was nothing at all like the examples I tasted in Georgia, made from a flaky pastry rather than a bread. It did taste rather nice however and I liked the idea of serving it with raw onion.

And so to my best restaurant experience yet: The Georgian in Clapham South. During the day it’s a somewhat run of the mill cafe serving the usual sandwiches and hot drinks but during the evening they serve Georgian food. I’ll be honest, they seemed surprised to see me when I walked in at 6.30 and a woman initially tried to speak to me in Georgian.

All the classics were there on the menu and I was properly excited. The khachapuri was rather good; nowhere near as oily as the real  thing (I really liked the supreme unhealthiness of the oil) but very tasty nonetheless. The best I’ve had in a restaurant by miles.

Pkhali are pureed vegetables mixed with walnuts, which are abundant in Georgia; we chose spinach and beetroot. They’re like a rich vegetable spread, intense with garlic and dotted with pomegranate seeds. In Georgia each ball is always studded with just one pomegranate seed, like a little jewel nestling in the top.

We stuffed ourselves full of traditional Georgian dumplings, called khinkali, which have very thick and rustic casings, filled with minced meats and their juices and heavily flavoured with black pepper. They take some careful eating; the way to do it is to hold them by the nipple at the top and carefully bite in. We ate them with a green chilli sauce, which was really fierce.

Dumplings with green chilli sauce at The Georgian

The Georgian is the best Georgian place I’ve been to in London so far and I want more people to visit because we were the only evening diners. At the moment they’re clearly frequented more for coffee and cakes which is sad, they ought to be serving many more of their excellent Georgian dishes.

I’ll continue working my way around London’s Georgian restaurants however; I’ve heard that Little Georgia is good. Does anyone have any favourite places?

33 comments » | Bread, Georgia, Restaurant Reviews

Georgia: The Wine

April 16th, 2012 — 8:06am

You’re scared, aren’t you? I can tell. You’re scared because you’ve read the title of this post and you know I’m going to have another bash at writing about wine. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, I’ve spent some time thinking about the answer to that question and I’ve come up with several possibilities:

1. I will look like a total idiot.

2. You’re not interested because you come here for the food stuff and you don’t know that much about wine.

3. I will look like a total idiot.

Putting options 1 and 3 aside for a moment, let’s deal with number 2. You’re into food, so you’re probably into drinking wine. If you’re anything like me, you drink the stuff like a fish but you find the world of wine frankly terrifying. Why so scary, wine world? Hmm? There are lots of reasons why I personally find it scary, which include but are not limited to: the fact that there is so much to know and I know so little of it but, mainly, the fact that many people I have met in the wine world are terribly pompous, condescending snobs who use their chosen subject area as a passport to twatsville. Apparently, not knowing everything there is to know about wine makes you a total LOSER. Who knew? These people are the equivalent of school bullies; they use their advantage (be it strength, popularity or in this case, wine knowledge) to make other people feel stupid because they are ultimately insecure about their own self-worth. Deep breaths, deeeep breaths.

Anyway my point is that it is coming into contact with those sorts of people that destroyed my confidence from the very beginning and I therefore just gave up. There’s too much to learn! I can’t possibly taste anything properly! What if I say the wrong thing? FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE WHICH WORD ON THIS BOTTLE IS THE NAME OF THE GRAPE?!

I’ve since taken 3 ‘school of wine’ courses at my local (amazing) wine shop, Green and Blue in East Dulwich which, quite honestly, brought me back from the brink. Kate Thal (the joint owner) runs them and she is the most down to Earth, non-snobby wine person one could hope to meet. She saved me, man. So, I know a lot more about wine than I did before. I’m still scared, though. Nothing puts the shivers up my spine like the thud of an enormous list on white linen. That’s the point where I start frantically looking for the sommelier then beg him/her not to rob me blind.

So, as I wrote before, I got invited on a wine trip to Georgia recently. They invited two food bloggers amongst the (very lovely and brilliant and the opposite of those above) wine people, I imagine because they understand the divide too and they want to bridge it. I actually know quite a lot of wine people nowadays and they are the complete polar opposite of those crusty old men (I’m sorry, but it always seems to be men); the people I know now just tell me things like, ‘it’s all down to personal taste’, ‘you can’t get it wrong’ (slight lie, that one, trust me), and ‘just because someone else gets fear and insecurity on the nose, it doesn’t mean you have to’.

Anyway, the wine. So the wine in Georgia is natural, right. Do you know what that means? Natural wine sends the wine world a bit loopy, basically. They get well wound up about it. The idea with natural wine is to intervene as little as possible during the wine making process, with the ultimate aim of producing something that is much more representative of the place in which it was grown (there’s a word for that last bit which escapes me…cheeky grin). It’s supposed to be more, um, expressive.

Apparently, Georgia was the first country to start making wine; they’ve been doing it for 8000 years. The way they do it is really interesting, though. No barrels for them. They get these massive clay pots called qvevri, and they bury them in the ground. Then they whack everything (juice, skins, stems) in there, seal it up with clay and let it all separate out. The wine is then drawn off the top very carefully using a special jug on a stick. They use a really old grape variety called Rkatsiteli which comes out freakin’ orange! Then there’s another one, which is red and called Saperavi. They’re both native to Georgia. The first time I tasted the orange wine, I was quite taken aback; that stuff is just totally unlike any wine I’ve ever tasted; kinda funky but, you know what? I got into it. By the end of that trip I think we were all a bit Georgian.

Georgia is a post-Soviet state and its people are trying to re-build their country. Part of this means re-discovering traditional methods of producing wine. I found it fascinating, even despite my insecurity telling me I couldn’t possibly be as interested in the wine as I was in the food. I urge you to seek out some Georgian wine, because that stuff will make you have a good old think about natural wine and wine making, if you’re at all interested. The RAW natural wine fair is happening on May 20th and 21st in London (buy tickets here). I’m going to be there. If you see me, come and say hi. Just don’t ask me anything too technical…

 

35 comments » | Georgia, Travel, Wine

Georgian Food Part 1: Markets

April 9th, 2012 — 2:21pm

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.

 

38 comments » | Georgia, Markets, Travel

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