Everything You Need to Know about Khachapuri on MUNCHIES

MUNCHIES just published my article on khachapuri: “Georgia’s Cheese Bread Might Be Better Than Pizza”. It covers all the various types of cheese breads you can find in Georgia, from the classic Imeretian khachapuri to the much rarer khabizgini.

To help you orient yourself, I’ve created a map of all the Georgian regions that claim their own local variations of the dish. As you can see, they are pretty much all located in Western Georgia, which makes me wonder if there’s a connection with the historical division between the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity. That is, I wonder if cheese breads descend only from the former.

Khachapuri - Georgian Regions

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Caucasus Adventures Redux

I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.

Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.

Soviet Stamp - Caucasian Goat

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Georgian Adventures, Part 9

To conclude this Georgian Adventure series, here’s a look at the stores and markets of the capital city, Tbilisi.

Soviet mosaics are an endangered species in Tbilisi. Here is a rare specimen from the Lagidze Café on Rustaveli Avenue. Lagidze is a popular brand of sodas and syrups created at the turn of the 20th century, here is an interesting article about them. When I got there in 2008, the café was already closed, and the mosaic must certainly be gone by now.

Bread occupies a very important place in Georgian cuisine, whether it’s a cheese-filled khachapuri or a long flat loaf cooked in the toné, a tandoor-like clay oven. Here is a small booth selling bread in the city center:

In my opinion though, the kind of flat bread displayed in the window above is much better when consumed fresh from the oven. I captured the bread making process in the kitchen of a small bakery, the traditional toné replaced with an electric bread oven:

Below is a storefront on Leselitze Street, the main artery of the old town. You can see breads and pastries of all sizes and shapes, sweet or savory, filled with cheese or meat.

Of course all this bread requires heaps of flour, and this is literally what you’ll find at the central market. There’s a whole room dedicated to flour:

I will spare you the produce department since I’ve already shown you so many road-side vendors in other parts of my trip. Here is the meat section:

As you can see, offals are well-represented:

We’ll leave Georgia with my own recipe for a “Lagidze” chocolate cream soda. My version is low in sugar and high in cacao powder — feel free to adjust the proportions to your liking!

Chocolate syrup
Yields 5 servings

6 oz sugar
5 oz water
1 1/2 oz unsweetened cacao powder
1/4 tsp citric acid

  • Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil and cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and mix in the cacao powder and the citric acid. Let cool, transfer to a plastic container and reserve.

Chocolate cream soda
Yields 5 glasses

chocolate syrup
35 oz seltzer water
10 ice cubes
heavy cream, to taste

  • In 12 oz soda glasses, gently stir 4 tbsp chocolate syrup with 7 oz seltzer. Add 2 ice cubes and a dash of heavy cream. Enjoy!

Georgian Adventures, Part 8

In our previous adventures, we entered Abkhazia, an almost-country that already has a language with a funky Cyrillic alphabet, a flag worthy of a banana republic, a dead president (Vladislav Ardzinba, below), and authoritarian-looking billboards:

Not to mention some of the most accomplished Soviet bus stop artwork:

Except for the Russians who don’t need a visa — after all, there would be no Republic of Abkhazia without them — and spend their vacations on the beaches in the Western part of the country, almost all foreign tourists need to stop at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Sukhum. The town has a nice seashore promenade, a couple buildings packing all the government personnel necessary to masquerade as a nation, and some unexpected attractions such as a monkey nursery with a statue of a baboon and plans to send apes to Mars. In October 2011, Sukhum will host the little known but illustrious World Domino Championship. Beware, domino players of the world: the Abkhaz people sometimes have a propensity for belligerence. On the first day of our stay, we were threatened several times with having our throats slit or being shot in the head.

Gagra constitutes a far more touristy destination, a famous stretch along the seashore hosting dozens of hotels, former Soviet sanatoriums, restaurants and cafés. Here is a vendor offering chebureks (Tatar deep-fried turnovers with a meat filling) at the terrace of a café on the beach:

The Gagra market is definitely worth a visit to get an idea of the flavors used in the local cuisine. Here are the spices. At the bottom left, khmeli-suneli is a traditional Georgian blend of basil, red pepper, dill, coriander, marjoram and saffron, plus sometimes parsley, mint, savory, celery, bay leaf and fenugreek. This one must be slightly different, as it is more yellow than the usual greenish color.

And here’s an assortment of honeys, teas, sauces, juices (mandarin and pomegranate), wines and spirits.

Mandarins and tea are specific to Abkhazia and you don’t really find them in Georgia, except maybe near the border, in Mingrelia. Be wary of the alcoholic beverages, though: Abkhaz wine is vile. I had no problem drinking plain homemade Georgian wine at every meal for two weeks, but this is completely undrinkable. And it gets worse: some of that bad grape juice is distilled into “cognac”, and bottled with heavy-handedly added natural flavors — imagine a cheap brandy mixed with a whole bottle of almond extract.

The cheese department is more in line with the Georgian offering: think sulguni, either plain or smoked.

Lake Ritsa is another popular destination. Since car rentals are non-existent and taxis can be pretty expensive, your best option is to join one of the day excursions advertised everywhere. For a very modest fee, discover tourism à la Russe! A Russian-speaking guide and a one-armed driver in a minibus will show you every notable feature of the Abkhaz hinterland, from the Maiden Tears to the “Farewell, Motherland!” road shoelace, and give you the opportunity to participate in various degustations. Below are honey and cold mead available for tasting. Adding nuts to honey is a traditional local recipe.

The whole journey is quite entertaining, peppered with Abkhaz legends about the places visited and anecdotes about the virile Abkhaz traditions. Here’s the place where we had lunch: now this is what I call a serious shashlyk grill!

Expect a couple Abkhaz recipes in my upcoming posts!

Georgian Adventures, Part 7

The last leg of our Georgian Adventures took us to the controversial Republic of Abkhazia, the self-proclaimed independent region at the Northeast tip of the country.

Let me start with some practical information (dating from July 2010) for prospective travelers. Getting there isn’t trivial. The airport is closed, and its reconstruction is being delayed both for political and economic reasons. The seaports are deserted. The train stations are in ruins, although service has now been restored between Sukhum, the capital, and the Russian city of Sochi. Riding this train on tracks that have been abandoned for nearly 20 years is probably quite an interesting experience, but I haven’t tried it. The most common point of entry is the Psou crossing point on the Russian border. With a double-entry Russian visa, you can enter Abkhazia by car or by foot here without any problem.

Things become a lot more complicated if you’re on the Georgian side, like we were. There are no flights connecting Georgia and Russia. There is a boat connecting Batumi in Georgia and Sochi in Russia, but they don’t take foreigners — I was never able to clarify if foreigner means non-Georgian, non-Russian or non-Soviet, but it doesn’t matter.  The only way into Abkhazia, then, is via the Ingur crossing point. Though rather than “crossing point”, I should really call it a “cease-fire line”, since Abkhazia and Georgia are still at war.

Unlike what you may have read elsewhere, this is doable, with a little bit of patience. Start by applying for an Abkhazian Entry Permit here. If you’re lucky, you should get the permit in about 5 days. It is however fully possible that the lazy staff at the ministry of foreign affairs is too busy checking their Facebook pages (literally!) or chatting over a glass of orange juice to answer you, and this no matter how many times you re-send your application. With that eventuality, it helps to have a hotel in Sukhum deal with the paperwork in person on your behalf— you’ll have to stay in Sukhum for some time anyway, to get a visa.

If you choose to stay in Zugdidi, a taxi will take you to the Ingur crossing point in about 15 minutes, for a very small fee. Here is the Georgian border:

The Georgian “customs officers”, a group of plainclothes cops in a black Mercedes, are actually friendly enough. They were a bit perplexed to see a group of guys from New York, Paris and Moscow, respectively, trying to enter enemy territory together, but after telling our story 3 times and waiting for over an hour, they finally let us cross the bridge and even asked us to send them pictures — some of them grew up in Sukhum and haven’t been there for 20 years.

You can only cross the bridge over the Ingur River by foot, or in this lovely carriage:

The bridge is pretty long, with only a handful of Georgian soldiers on one side, and whole barracks of Russian soldiers on the other (no pictures allowed, sorry).

The people you will see are mostly locals, going to work or shopping on the other side of the border, and the occasional UN truck with rocket impact marks on its trailer.

Arriving on the other side, an armed Abkhaz custom officers verifies you entry permit, shakes you hand and welcomes you to Abkhazia. You can arrange for a pickup with your hotel in advance, or you should be able to find a taxi to take you to Sukhum. If you choose the former, just be aware that cell phones don’t work at the border and hotel drivers won’t wait for you forever, so make your plans well ahead of time. Taxis can be pretty expensive, especially in a spot like this one where you may not really have a choice. To complicate matters a bit more, come prepared to pay in rubles (or maybe dollars, or euros), as Abkhazia doesn’t use the Georgian Lari and the (literally!) only ATM in the country probably won’t take your card.

The trip from the border to the capital takes about an hour and a half. Abkhazia will satisfy your cravings for Soviet relics even more than Georgia. You’ll see abandoned buildings of questionable purpose:

Little kiosks in the middle of nowhere:

Gas trucks of another age selling fuel on the roadside:

Imposing mosaics promoting improbable achievements; mandatory “Houses of Culture”:

Forgotten communist mottos on the streets… It’s all there!

The new powers in place have added their own contributions,  and throughout the country you can see billboards singing the praise of free independent Abkhazia:

Coming next: visiting the markets and restaurants of Abkhazia! And if you can’t wait, why not try my achma recipe in the meantime?

Georgian Adventures, Part 6

In our last Georgian adventures, we were being jolted about on the roads of Svaneti.  One flat tire and many overflowing streams later, we reached the coveted Zagar Pass:

From there, it wasn’t long until we reached Ushguli, the climax of our trip. At 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), this is the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe, a conglomeration of three tiny villages dotted with Svan towers, the snow-covered Mount Shkara in the background:

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Georgian Adventures, Part 5

After leaving the vineyards of Khvanchkara, we spent the night in Tsageri, then drove to Lentekhi, the capital of Lower Svaneti. This marked the beginning of our long journey across the mountainous, wild and beautiful region of Svaneti, home of the proud and bellicose Svans and their mysterious towers. How many towns can boast having a massive sword planted in the middle of their main square?

Let me start with some practical information for the travelers who are interested in this particular itinerary. Despite what you may have read online or in some guidebooks, the track from Lentheki to Ushguli over the Zagar Pass is usable by anybody with an SUV, a spare tire and a large, full gas tank. It can be rough in places and I would avoid it after heavy rains, but the whole trip, in July 2010, took us about 5 1/2 hours at a leasurely pace, including various stops. Also, the armed robberies you probably heard about seem to be a thing of the past, and you can safely travel across the region and even take on the occasional hitch-hiker.

This, by the way, is THE gas station in Lentekhi, the last one you’ll see until you reach Mestia (another 3 hours after Ushguli):

Lentekhi is the last place where you can easily buy food. We stopped at a café to get a khachapuri, freshly baked in the wood stove below:

And here’s the bakery, hidden in a small wooden shack:

Time to hit the road. As I said earlier, the track to Ushguli is usable — but I didn’t say it was in great shape 🙂 The ascension to the Zagar Pass is by far the worst road I’ve seen in Georgia.

I think there were a couple workers actually trying to build a bridge here, but in the meantime the only way was still through the river:

No bridge here either:

Anyway, sometimes a bridge comes with its own set of problems:

Coming next: the Zagar Pass and the village of Ushguli, where Borat meets Lord of the Rings.

Georgian Adventures, Part 4

Our next trip in the Georgian Caucasus took us to the small province of Racha, known for its traditional culture, honey and wine. A quick look at the roadside food stalls reveals plums, figs and lady apples, but also chanterelles:

And here is some of the famous Racha honey. Dozens of beekeepers are set up along the main highway. Acacia and mountain flowers are the main varieties, and you can buy jars containing whole honeycomb clusters.

Of course, no trip would be complete without a Soviet relief exalting the Soviet Georgian values: family, peace, and lots of wine.

We even found Baba Yaga! It turns out she retired in an abandoned Soviet factory near Ambrolauri:

We finally reached Ambrolauri, the regional capital of Racha, “capital” being a big word for a town of 2,500 inhabitants. The tasteful “sculpture” on the main square confirms that our goal is near: the most famous wine of the region comes from a nearby village called Khvanchkara. Khvanchkara is a semi-sweet red wine made from Alexandria & Mudzhuretuli grapes. Along with Kindzmarauli, it was supposedly Stalin’s favorite.

As we left town and drove West, vineyards started to appear on the mountain slopes:

There are only two full-on wineries in the region, as the other producers all transport their grapes to facilities in Kakheti. But in fact, the total planted area is so small that many producers simply make a wine in the Khvanchkara style using grapes from other regions. You can find more information about the two local wineries and the wine itself here.

Since Racha sees very few tourists, you won’t find signs singing the praise of such-and-such’s family wine, either. Your best option is to ask a local, who will gladly jump in your car and direct you across the village until some friends open up their doors for a degustation.

Don’t expect long discussions about terroir or micro-oxidation. Firstly, they have only an approximate knowledge of Russian and you probably don’t know Georgian. Then, the whole operation takes place in a garage. Our host poured copious glasses straight from his plastic barrels, accompanied with a plate of delicious bread, cheese and tomatoes.

And the wine was very pleasant, I must say. If you keep your expectations moderate, homemade Georgian wine can be among the best the country has to offer. It’s an affordable, sweet and refreshing beverage to enjoy with food on a hot day. Too often the large wineries pride themselves on using “latest Western technology” and struggle to produce an expensive but boring wine with few distinctive characteristics. Meanwhile, there’s a whole movement of people in Italy making high-end natural wine aged in amphoras — and these wine-makers buy their amphoras in Georgia!

Time to say goodbye to our new friends:

Georgian Adventures, Part 3

True adventure in the Caucasus generally begins with trips to the mountainous regions. A combination of civil war, earthquake, rude climate and long neglect means that the roads are in dismal condition. Luckily, recent government efforts have taken the bandits out of the way and nowadays you can be confident that you will arrive at your destination alive and with your car and other possessions (unless you fall in a ditch, of course).

Actually, if you speak a little bit of Russian (or Georgian) and see people hitch-hiking, I recommend that you pick them up. They can entertain you with their war stories or help you find that remote “touristic” attraction you’ve been looking for in the middle of nowhere. They’ll tell you about the happening local places — like this guy who gathers with his friends by a cross perched on top of a hill a good 10 miles away from town. Sometimes they can even give a nod to the fence-keeper / customs officer, who’s hardly seen any tourist since he took his position in 1990, doesn’t really know what to do with you and could send you back the way you came, causing a 12-hour detour.

Today’s trip takes us to Shatili, a small village only a few miles away from the Chechen border, famous for its fortified dwellings built between the 7th and 13th centuries. To get there, we rented a Lada Niva SUV:

This is a car built with Soviet roads in mind: it has a high clearance and a small form factor, and it’s easy to repair (not that I know anything about mechanics, but I can reasonably expect to find someone who does). It’s also half the price of the next cheapest SUV. It does have some issues, though, and lack of comfort is the least of them. The tank is pretty small, and there are no gas stations once you leave the main road. The gauge keeps swinging in the slopes, so you never know how much gas you have left. The gear box is fragile, and you often find yourself holding the gear stick with one hand while navigating a hairpin turn with the other. Our model also suffered from a scary design problem that caused gas to back up into the car salon when the tank was too full, leaving a puddle of oil at our feet!

At the start of our journey, we stopped at a restaurant by the road along the Aragvi River, with tables scattered under trees in the courtyard. This was a very typical Georgian meal, pretty much the same as we had every day. The appetizers consisted of a tomato, cucumber and onion salad, and possibly eggplants stuffed with walnuts:

Next came shashlyks of pork, veal or lamb, served with the ubiquitous Tkemali, a spicy and tart plum sauce used a little bit like ketchup in America. And of course we had to order a khachapuri, the very addictive Georgian cheese bread. The meal was washed down with local sparkling water and home-made white wine.

The first half of the route, from the Zhinvali Reservoir to Barisakho, was pretty uneventful. Things got a lot more interesting as a we started climbing to the Datvis-Jvari Pass, culminating at 2,676 meters. The pot-holed road turned into a dirt track often cut by rainwater streams and fallen rocks, or blocked by cows, horses or sheep:

We arrived to breathtaking Shatili after a 4-hour drive. I think we saw only two cars during the whole trip.

The village is a conglomeration of about 50 high defensive towers and ancient, balconied houses that were occupied until the 60’s. New houses were built around the hill in the 70’s and 80’s. You should have no problem negotiating nightly accommodations with the locals. We were welcomed by two teenagers who knew a few words of Russian and English, and gave us a tour of the towers. They offered us a room with a sink that had cold water running in straight from the river, and a dinner of potatoes, brynza (a feta-like cheese), yogurt, and honey, with a delicious herbal tea made from local plants.

Although we drove back to the capital the next day, one of my maps shows a dotted route leading eastward to more towers, followed by the Atsunda Pass at 3,431 meters. If you’ve been there, let me know!

Here is my plum sauce recipe for the next time you make kebabs on the barbecue:

Yields 1 pint

1/4 lb onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 lb yellow plums (not too sweet), halved and pitted
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp chopped mint
4 tbsp chopped parsley

  • In a saucepan, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until translucent. Add the cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper and salt, stir and cook for 1 minute.
  • Add the plums, water and brown sugar, and simmer for 15 minutes. Pass through a food mill using the medium dice. Add the lemon juice (taste first, as desired amount of lemon juice depends on the acidity of the plums), return to the saucepan, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mint and parsley, and let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, seal and process in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes.
  • Let cool and refrigerate.

Georgian Adventures, Part 2

Our trip to Kakheti started with an abandoned mountain road that our questionable map had identified as the shortest path to Telavi, the administrative center of the region. Despite lack of road signs, the fences blocking access, and the police officers mounting guard, we had now crossed the Gombori Pass, and drove through the village of Kobadze, where stands one of the very last statues of Comrade Stalin:

We spent two days visiting the wineries and other attractions of the region. I’ll certainly tell you more about Georgian wine in a future post, but for now I’d like to share some pictures of the roadside food stands that we passed during the trip. You will see these food stands wherever you travel in the Caucasus, but in Kakheti, they essentially focus on produce and wine.

Let’s begin with the churchkhelas, those walnut rolls I’ve already talked about here:

Notice the ones on the far left, covered with powdery sugar: these are the ones that have matured for a few months, whereas the others were freshly made.

Most of the stands are attended by locals selling the small outputs of their gardens, plus a few bottles of homemade wine and grape brandy (called chacha):

Sometimes that production is limited to one product. Here we have the cucumber dude:

And here, the peach specialists:

Another classic is to load your fruits in the trunk, back seats and roof rack of your old Lada and drive to town to sell them:

And here’s a preserves recipe to use all those peaches and chacha. You can multiply the proportions by the number of pint jars you plan to make.

Raisin, chacha and peach preserves
Yields 1 pint

1 1/2 oz golden raisins
1 oz chacha (or other grape brandy)
12 oz peeled and pitted ripe peaches
1 tsp lemon juice
5 g powdered pectin
8 oz sugar
1/4 tsp butter

  • Soak the golden raisins in the chacha for a couple hours.
  • Crush the peaches into chunks, add to a saucepan with the lemon juice, sprinkle in the pectin and bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly.
  • Add the sugar progressively, bring back to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, seal and place in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes, with water level just below the lid.
  • Let cool for 30 minutes, refrigerate upside-down for 30 minutes, then flip.