Many people know the love I had for Anthony Bourdain. I was gutted by his death this past June. I adored everything about the man from his passion for world food and culture to his story telling ability. Now in May of 2016, Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown, featured the Republic of Georgia. Even before the show aired, I had already begun planning my trip to Georgia as part of my sabbatical, but there was one portion of the show that piqued my interest. Tony sat down and had lunch with Paul Rimple, who is the Tbilisi bureau chief for Culinary Backstreets. Now I was curious … what was Culinary Backstreets? So I did a bit of research and it turns out that Culinary Backstreets, conduct, among another things, food tours in Tbilisi. That was good enough for me. So I reworked my Georgia schedule a bit so that I could fit in a full day walking food tour of Tbilisi with Culinary Backstreets and all I can say is …. WOW! Maybe one of the best food tours (actually tours in general) ever.
I met my guide, Kristo, at 9:30 a.m. in front of the Tbilisi History Museum (and right next to the Sioni Church) about a 5 minute walk from my hotel. Now I had walked past the Sioni Church (and into the Church on my tour on Monday) no less than 5 times. So it came as a complete surprise to me that our first stop of the day was to a bakery directly across the little narrow road from the Sioni Church. Huh? I had never seen a bakery anywhere near the church. It turns out, however, that in Tbilisi there are are these hidden bakeries down in the basement of buildings. And directly across from the from the Sioni Church was a seminary school with a bakery down a flight of stairs. The stairs were clearly visible from the road, but I never thought there would be a bakery downstairs., and of course there was no sign.
Anyway, we walked down the stairs to the bakery
where Kristo ordered the bread. The bread was put on the counter and it actually looked like a big flat fish. We each pulled a piece off the bread and it as absolutely fantastic. The bread was cooked in a big tandoori like oven and served piping hot. Delicious.
After the bread tasting, we walked back towards the church and low and behold another secret. The church had a store that sold all sorts of products made and grown around the country by monks in the monasteries. There was garlic, potatoes, honey, cheese, wine (yep wine) and chuckhela, a candy like product that is made with walnuts and grape juice. The store was in a little building and I never would have thought to look to see what was in the building.
So first up we tasted the various kinds of honey for sale. My favourite was the honey made from bees that had pollinated flowers. That was until the lady behind the counter gave me a cup full of cottage cheese with walnut honey. The walnut honey was absolutely fantastic with the cottage cheese. We ate the cottage cheese and honey with a bit of the bread. I then had a piece of the chuckhela (not too sweet and very nutty) and called it good. We had to pace ourselves as it was going to be a long day.
We then grabbed a cab and went across the bridge to the very untouristy Deserter’s Market aptly named because when Georgians left (i.e. deserted) the Russian army in the 1920s, they sold their weapons in the bazaar located there and the name stuck.
Now the Deserter’s Market used to be located in a gorgeous brick building. Unfortunately, in 2007 the government demolished the building and erected an ugly new modern building in which they now charge vendors’ rent (and before there was no rent). As a result, most vendors have abandoned the market and simply sell their goods outside the market along the sidewalks and parking lots or in the adjacent Central Bazaar.
So first up for us was a visit to a couple of the vendors out on the sidewalks where I was able to smell the various kinds of herbs and seasonings used in Georgian cooking. One of the most popular herbs seems to be tarragon. They even put tarragon in their lemonade (and it is actually quite good).
After taking in the various herbs, we moved on to the produce section where I was able to taste a very juicy pear, dogwood fruit (little red berries that are VERY sour) and a marvelous, juicy plum. The vendor was very nice, and I am certain he would have kept giving me samples as long as I stood there. He was very proud of his produce. At this point, Kristo bought some pink tomatoes that she said we would eat later.
We then moved on to the matsoni (yogurt) vendor who gave us each a large glass of fresh Georgian matsoni. Delicious. Now matsoni is a big deal in Georgia. Everyone eats matsoni. In fact, to this day they have matsoni vendors who come around to neighborhoods and deliver matsoni fresh daily. Folks leave their jug on the doorstep and the matsoni vendor replaces the empty jug with a full jug. This happens all over the country.
After the matsoni break, we walked up the stairs into the new market building where vendors selling imported produce are about the only folks inhabiting the building. Apparently, the vendors sell fruit and veggies to some restaurants and shops who want to buy on the cheap and want to buy produce that will last. In other words, this produce from China and Turkey has been sprayed with pesticides and is not organic. Kristo informed me that most older folks would never buy this sort of produce, but younger people like the convenience of local shops so don’t seem to be as discerning. I found this ironic since the reverse trend seems to be happening back home with so many younger people looking to organic farms and Farmer’s Markets to buy their produce.
Anyway, we walked up one more floor to where a few organic producers were selling some fruit. I was able to sample three different kinds of figs and a tiny little hard fruit called an unabi that tastes quite similar to an apple.
We walked down the stairs and out of the covered market and stopped at a little bread shop where Kristo bought a thin bread filled with beans. This was one of my favorites of the day. The bean mixture was spicy, but not overwhelming and the bread was chewy and delicious. A big thumbs up!
We then made our way through to the cheese market where a lady gave me a thin slice of selguini cheese (a Georgian cheese) filled with cottage cheese and tarragon. It was rather tasty, but not my favourite of the day.
As we left the cheese market we crossed into the meat market where we saw dead piglets by the case load. Apparently, when there is a festive occasion, Georgians roast a whole piglet. I saw a couple of cooked piglets and quite frankly, they looked really yummy. (Sorry vegetarians.)
The meat market gave way to the spice market where Kristo pulled out one of the tomatoes she had previously purchased and had the spice vendor give us some svanetian salt (a mixture of salt, pepper and spices) and ajika (made of red peppers, garlics, herbs and spices) to put on slices of the tomato. (I can’t remember if I have sung the praises of the tomatoes and cucumbers in this region -Georgia and Azerbaijan – but I can tell you I have never tasted better in my life.). Anyway, I had one slice of the tomatoes with the svanetian salt and one slice with the ajika and all I can say is I am now bringing home a bag of svanetian salt and a bag of ajika. Fantastic spices.
Our last stop was to the pickle market where I was able to try a pickled pepper (yea say that three times) and pickled garlic. I was a big fan of the pickled pepper, but the pickled garlic was overwhelming and not for me.
So now that we were done with the market, we hailed a cab and drove back to the old quarter of Tbilisi for some kinkali. Kinkali are the dumplings that are filled with various kinds of meat and veggies. The restaurant we were going to was Zakhar Zakharich, which still makes dumplings by hand. Kristo had ordered ahead, so we had no sooner sat down than we were being served 4 plates of dumplings with 5 dumplings on each plate. Huh? I soon learned that the dumplings are only served in plates of 5 so Kristo wanted me to try the 4 most popular so 20 dumplings it was.
The first dumpling I tried was a mushroom dumpling. I was told to pick it up with my hands and eat it from the bottom so that the juices run into my mouth and not onto the plate. The second dumpling was beef and was one of my favorites. As soon as I bit into the dumpling, juices oozed down my chin. It was wonderful. The third dumpling was a lamb dumpling, probably my least favourite. The last dumpling was a pork and beef dumpling and was my other favourite. The juices were wonderful and the meat combination worked very well together.
Now as we were eating the dumplings, I was served a shot of chacha. Apparently you cannot eat dumplings without chacha. Now this wicked stuff burned a hole in my stomach (OK, not literally, but pretty close) last time and I swore I was done with this stuff, but I didn’t want to be rude, so bottoms up. And yep, this moonshine still burns!
After a round of dumplings, Kristo suggested we leave the rest since we were still going to have lunch at her restaurant. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Kristo owns a restaurant with her husband called EZO, a highly rated local restaurant off the tourist path.). Anyway, we ordered a cab and motored to our next spot, the Vino Underground, where we were going to do some wine tasting.
We were dropped off at Freedom Square and walked a block or two to the little underground wine tasting room. We were going to try four different wines. Two whites and two reds. All were made qvevri style. The first white was made from a tsitska grape and was actually quite good. Probably needed to age a bit, but otherwise very nice. The second was, in a word, undrinkable. It looked like unfiltered apple juice and after one taste, I put it aside. It was not good, although Kristo didn’t think it was that bad.
The third wine was a light red (I did not get the name of the grape), but was quite good, but again could have used more aging. The fourth wine was a 2015 Saperavi. I took a couple drinks, but had to admit it was not the best Saperavi I had drank to date. Kristo did not like it at all and asked that we be served a different Saperavi. We were then served a 2017 Saperavi, which I had to admit was far, far better. However, nothing will match the Saperavi I had in the wine tunnel. Still the best to date.
Our final stop of the day was for lunch at EVO. EVO is located in a little neighborhood with courtyard seating as well as two small indoor patio areas for seating. It was just around the block from the wine cellar and was absolutely charming. Now I was a little concerned that I could not eat much more, but Kristo assured me she simply wanted me to have a little taste of a variety of dishes so … with that, the onslaught of food and wine began. First up was bread and sauces for dipping including yoghurt, a dip made of coriander, garlic and sunflower oil and a dip made of red pepper and oils. My favourite was the red pepper dip.
Then the waiter brought out Pkhali and Jonjoli. Pkhali is a traditional Georgian vegetable dish combined with walnuts, vinegar, garlic and herbs and served with cornbread. Jonjoli is made of flowers, sunflower oil and walnuts. We were served three types of Pkhali: one made with spinach, one made with beetroot and one made with eggplant. The beetroot and eggplant dishes were off the charts good. And as surprising as it sounds, the Jonjoli was equally good. Unfortunately at this point I learned that the dishes I had been served so far were only the precursors to the main courses. Huh?? I was already stuffed. And as we were eating, I was being served red and white wine. Both wines were terrific and I interchanged the wine with the food I was eating according to the instructions from Kristo.
When the main courses came out I started to laugh. There was so much food on the table, we could have fed ten people. There was a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and walnuts, kachapure (essentially a pizza stuffed with cheese called the “Holy Food” of Georgia), Chakhokhbili, a dish of chicken, tomatoes and spices and finally Chashushuli, a form of beef stew made with tomatoes and spices. I tried a bit of everything and hands down my favourite was the Chakhokhbili. It was absolutely delicious. I wished I could have eaten the whole bowl. I am going to make sure I have that dish again while I am in Georgia.
By now it was almost 4. We ended the day with some tea and biscuits and then I finally said goodbye to my fantastic host, Kristo, who had to get back to the business of running her restaurant. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of forgetting to ask how to get back to the main road so I could walk to my hotel and ended up wandering around in circles for about a half hour until I finally ran into a nice lady and her daughter who walked with me down several little alley roads where they pointed down a street that finally led me back to the main road to my hotel. My bad.
Anyway, the tour had been fantastic. Throughout the day, Kristo had told me about the food traditions of Georgia and had introduced me to foods and spices I would have never discovered on my own. The food tour had been everything I had hoped for and then some. Like I said at the beginning of this blog, maybe one of the best tours I have ever taken. Simply perfect. I think I did Mr. Bourdain proud.