I joined the Saveur Cookbook Club which featured Tasting GeorgiaA food and wine journey in the Caucasus for the month of January. My fellow GeorgiaphileBenjamin Kemper invited me and I took up the task wholeheartedly. Ms. Capalbo has been writing about Italy and Italian cuisine and wine in great depth for years and her reputation proceeds her. I bought the book when it was first released because I have dedicated my work to Georgia and I will consume every morsel written about the place, the people, the food or wine of this wonderful country. I bought it in the same way I buy all cookbooks. I read them, keep them pristine, and then put them on the shelf to gather dust. I knew within five pages of reading this book I would not be shelving it. It’s a journey through all the regions of Georgia and encompasses the skills and flavors of not only the humblest of home cooks, but master chefs such as Tekuna Gachechiladze, Meriko Gubeladze and culinary genius Gia Rokashvili. Had I not cooked many of the recipes this month the book would still be huge resource of information. I saw some familiar faces and learned so much more about them; the poetry of their lives written in the pages alongside gorgeous photographs that capture the essence of the individual.
The book is well researched and beautifully written. It’s a personal journey of guest and host, of people opening their kitchens and sharing their family recipes. This alone is evidence enough of her approach and skill as a food journalist. She hasn’t inserted herself into their stories as one tends to see in food and travel writing today. She is listening and sharing with us, the readers.
Whenever people new to Georgia ask me what Georgian food is. I always answer that it’s both familiar and foreign. This book confirms this. Going through the histories of each region, one starts to find answers to what makes Georgian cuisine so international and so essentially Georgian at the same time. It’s not the ingredients. Except for a few spices blends and herbs and cheeses, most of the ingredients are easy to find. Many websites offer Georgian spices, and they can even be found on Amazon. I often post photos of Georgian food and depending on the recipe I receive a variety of comments that compare dishes to the Iranian food someone grew up with or remarks that a particular dish is also made in a neighboring country.
This sentiment is touched upon in the book and not surprising due to Georgia’s links to the Silk Road. But what is it that makes Georgian cuisine Georgian? I believe it is the people, the poetry of the table, the connection to the earth through qvevri wine or earthenware dishes. Though Georgia is not a large country, its food is regional and people are fiercely loyal to their family roots even if they were born in Tbilisi. As a companion to Georgian culture, food, wine and travel, this book is hugely successful. The table is where culture comes to life, food and wine in traditional cultures are not so far removed from the people. Perhaps this is why a book like this appeals. So many of us are separated from the culture of the table, we live long distances from friends or family or work life prevents that closeness. Reading about the Georgian table transports us back to something that all humans crave and that is a sense of belonging. I suppose many of us fell in love with Georgia because our friends there appeal to that very primitive need.
This past month has had me transported to Georgia through the textures, aromas, and flavors of the ingredients in the book. The recipes stand up. They work for those of us who regularly eat Georgian food in Georgia and know the food, and they work for the novice as well. The directions are easy to follow and the results are on point. The first fifty pages are dedicated to introducing the reader to the food, wine, customs, ingredients and basic techniques necessary for the Georgian kitchen. It is then divided regionally, commencing with Tbilisi. It is a cookbook and introduction to Georgian culture as well as a travel companion. In each region there are travel tips for hotels or guest houses along with restaurants and other places to eat. I’ve already earmarked a number of places I’d love to share with our guests. I have learned through testing a number of these recipes that Gia Rokashvili is a culinary treasure. Every single dish of his was a symphony of flavors that are perfectly balanced. Seasonality is a huge factor in Georgian cuisine, so I was not able to recreate a few dishes as I did not have access to the ingredients. My favorite recipes that I know I will make repeatedly are the walnut paste and the hazelnut paste. The three types of ajika are warm, spicy and delicious, and make a great addition to my growing collection of ajika recipes. I discovered that leeks are truly one of the most amazing vegetables in the world. I tried and failed to succeed with lobiani and khatchapuri a number of times.
I followed the recipes for the yeasted dough and the yogurt and baking soda dough, but it kept falling apart until I used the correct type of flour. The issue was not the recipe itself but the ingredients I was using. The recipes are well done and she gives credit where credit is due. Georgians use what is available and she suggests for you to do the same. If you don’t have cornelian cherries on hand, why not try it with dried cranberries? It is okay. I have also gained a greater appreciation for dried marigold than I had before. In my mind, since I had never really cooked with it, I assumed it was for color, or perhaps gave a slightly bitter flavor like turmeric. While trying recipes with this humble flower, I realized that the marigold really takes Georgian dishes to the next level. It gives depth and earthiness.
One must thank Ms. Capalbo for bringing Georgian cuisine out into the world at large. The attention to detail and incredible amount of research done to create such a culinary masterpiece should be celebrated. I know that this book will have a huge impact on my own life, in my kitchen, and in further travels through Georgia. On a personal level, I must thank Ms. Capalbo for inspiring me to continue in this wine and food tour project, Georgia’s time to shine is here. I fell in love with this Georgia in 2014. Madloba!
“Carla asks, Carla tastes, Carla sees and Carla tells. And in so doing, she confirms my belief that the identity of a region and its people is built through the exchange not only of products and ideas but also the fruits of the earth and their producers.”
Carlo Petrini, President, Slow Food
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