Abkhazian Venison Loin with Blackberry Sauce and Cheese Polenta

Back when I wrote of my adventures in wild Abkhazia, I talked about shashlyk, spices, cheese, honey, and wine. And of course lodochka (aka Adjaran khachapuri). But there can be more to Abkhazian cuisine. Some time ago, I published a recipe for Honey Cake Gagra with Mandarin and Black Tea. Here is another original recipe that combines many local flavors into a more elaborate dish.

  • Yes, there are deer in Abkhazia. I even remember that the driver who picked us up at the Ingur border was a hunter. I suppose that people have got to find a use for all their guns, now that they’ve (sort of) got their independence!
  • The idea for a blackberry sauce comes from a sadly unidentified Abkhazian cookbook, though the recipe below is mostly adapted from Michel Roux’s Sauces. I believe the Abkhazian version contained garlic and adjika; I’m keeping it for another time.
  • The cheese polenta is called abista in Abkhazian. In Georgian it would be called elardji (it’s particularly popular in Mingrelia). The cornmeal is traditionally white, but yellow polenta works just as well. If you don’t have the courage to make your own cheese, and don’t have a Russian supermarket in your area, you can substitute mozzarella for the sulguni.

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Cooking National Dishes for Ingredient Matcher

Ingredient Matcher is a new web site (and app) that offers to compare a list of ingredients you already have to its recipe database, in order to figure out what you can cook for dinner without having to go to the store. It’s so new, in fact, that it hasn’t even officially launched yet.

Belarusian National Dish - Draniki

While I would have a lot to say about offering recipes based on user inputs, what initially caught my attention was a series of contests that they recently started. In an attempt to gather recipes for the national dishes of all the countries in the world, the creators have been inviting food bloggers and other home cooks to submit their dishes for the illustrious title of Country Chef, plus some more material prizes.

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Honey Cake Gagra with Mandarin and Black Tea

A few weeks ago, I was promising some recipes inspired by my trip to Abkhazia. I’ve already delivered the achma and the Adjaran khachapuri, but I had to redo this recipe countless times. I started with the idea for a black tea cake with a mandarin sauce, two ingredients characteristic of Abkhazia — check out my pictures from the food market in Gagra. As it turned out after many experiments, it takes tons of black tea to get a flavorful cake, and even then the result is OK but not spectacular. So I introduced a third local ingredient (honey), added an ice cream, and played musical chairs with the flavors. The final version now has a honey cake, a black tea ice cream, a mandarin sauce and madarin pâte de fruit.

The ice cream recipe is adapted from Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati by Caroline and Robin Weir, the brand new edition of a book I already mentioned here. I’m using Nilgiri black tea, but I encourage you to go to your local tea shop and pick a strong black tea you like. The ice cream recipe is written for way over 4 servings, as you need a substantial minimum amount for most ice cream machines to work properly. The mandarin pâte de fruit is equally challenging to scale, because you need a dish of the right size when you let it set. If, like me, you live in a climate where mandarins are rarely available, you can replace them with tangerines or oranges. Finally, every pectin is slightly different. I am using the powdered apple pectin from Rousseau, available here.

Mandarin pâte de fruit
Yields 9 servings (18 pieces)

7 oz mandarin juice
10 g powdered pectin
6 oz sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
2 oz superfine sugar

  • While mixing the mandarin juice in a blender on low speed, pour in the pectin and blend until homogenous. Heat in a sauce pan over high heat and bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Add the sugar progressively, bring back to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Stir in the lemon juice and remove from the heat. Pass through a chinois into an 4″ x 8″ dish lined with plastic wrap. Cover with more plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
  • Take the pâte de fruit out of the dish, remove the plastic wrap, and trim the edges. Cut into 18 squares, then coat in superfine sugar and refrigerate.

Mandarin syrup
Yields about 4 servings

6 oz mandarin juice
2 oz sugar

  • Place the mandarin juice and sugar into a saucepan over high heat and reduce by 1/2. Pass through a chinois and refrigerate.

Honey cakes
Yields 4 servings

3.5 oz butter, softened
3.3 oz orange blossom honey (or other mild honey)
1 egg
1 oz sour cream
4.5 oz milk
1/4 tsp salt
5.5 oz flour
1/4 tsp baking soda

  • Place the butter and honey in the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, and whip on high speed until creamy. Mix in the egg,  sour cream, milk and salt on medium speed, then sift in the flour and baking soda in a couple additions.
  • Place a dish of water at the bottom of a 350 F oven. Grease the inside of four 2 3/4″ square ring molds, and place on a sheet tray lined with greased parchment paper. Pour the batter into the molds, and bake  about 25 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.

Black tea ice cream
Yields 4 servings and leftovers

11 oz milk
0.25 oz loose black tea (such as Nilgiri)
3 egg yolks
4 oz sugar
8.5 oz heavy cream
smoked sea salt

  • In a saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, let rest for 1 minute, and stir in the black tea. Let steep for 30 minutes, then pass through a chinois, squeezing the tea leaves with a spoon.
  • In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar to a ribbon. Place the rest of the sugar in a saucepan with the flavored milk and the heavy cream, and bring to a boil, stirring regularly. Pour into the bowl while whisking, then place the bowl over a pot of simmering water and cook the custard until it coats the back of a spoon (about 185 F), stirring constantly with a rubber spatula. Pass through a chinois into a container that’s sitting in a bowl of ice water, and let cool. Transfer the container to the freezer and wait until it is completely cold.
  • Churn the custard in an ice cream maker, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to the freezer for at least 4 hours.
  • When serving, sprinkle some smoked sea salt on top.

Walnut-Stuffed Eggplant Rolls

In Georgia, walnut-stuffed eggplant rolls are almost as popular as khachapuri. In Abkhazia, too, apparently, as I adapted this recipe from an Abkhaz cookbook! These rolls make for a very satisfying appetizer, and the filling strikes the perfect balance between spices, fresh herbs, moist onions and rich walnuts. My partner doesn’t even like eggplant, and she liked these!

Walnut-stuffed eggplant rolls
Yields about 24 pieces

1 1/2 lb Italian eggplant
4 oz olive oil
6 oz very thinly sliced onion
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
4 saffron filaments
8 oz shelled walnuts
2 tbsp chopped mint
4 tbsp chopped parsley
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
4 oz pomegranate juice

  • Remove the stems from the whole eggplants, and slice the flesh lengthwise into slices about 3/16″ thick, discarding the skin-side slices. Generously season the slices with salt on both sides. Let rest for 15 minutes, then brush both sides with a wet paper towel.
  • Sauté the eggplant slices in olive oil in a hot frying pan until brown on both sides. Reserve on paper towels.
  • Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until golden brown. Season with salt, mix in the saffron and let cool.
  • In a food processor, process the walnuts, mint, parsley, piment d’espelette and pomegranate juice to a coarse paste. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the onion preparation. Place some mixture on one end of each eggplant slice, and roll into a cylinder. Refrigerate and take out of the fridge 30 minutes before serving.

Adjaran Khachapuri, or Death by Cheese

Wherever you go in Georgia, you can be sure to eat khachapuri at least once a day. These national cheese breads come in various shapes. The Imeretian khachapuri is a round pie filled with cheese, by far the most common. The Mingrelian one is similar, but topped with more cheese. The cheese is usually whatever is produced locally, from curds to sulguni, fresh or aged.

Today we’ll look at the Adjaran khachapuri, an open-face version topped with tons of cheese, plus an egg and slices of butter for maximum artery clogging. The bread is comparable to pizza dough, and many places actually sell both khachapuris and pizzas.  If you travel to Abkhazia, you’ll find out that the exact same dish (though sometimes without the egg) is marketed as the national dish:

Don’t call it Adjaran there though — you might get shot in the head! Locals have renamed it “lodochka”, “little boat” in Russian, which is particularly funny when you know that the only boats you’ll see in Abkhazia are Russian war ships.

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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?

Achma, Georgian Cheese Lasagna

Achma is a kind of cheese lasagna found in the Adjara and Abkhazia regions, where the crisp top crust contrasts with the tender cheesy layers. Somehow, I’ve eaten more of it in Moscow than in Georgia itself, but here it is in the picture above, next to the pomegranate juice, in a food stall in Abkhazia.

This is more time-consuming to make than it seems: count 2 1/2 hours from start to finish, as the assembly easily takes an hour. Most recipes spread the cheese mixture only on one or two layers and cover the other layers with butter, but I prefer to alternate cheese and butter layers. In Georgia, one’s choice of cheese is generally determined by local production, so feel free to experiment with any combination of rustic cheeses. It’s best to avoid mixing too many different cheeses, though, or the result will have a nondescript, generic cheesy taste that will make you regret you tried so hard. Here, I’m using two cheeses with complementary flavors: a tangy brynza (Bulgarian feta would be a good replacement) and a rich Ossau-Iraty (a firm sheep’s milk cheese from the French Pyrénées).

Yields one 9″ x 13″ pan

11 oz flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 oz milk
3 oz butter, very soft
8 oz brynza (or Bulgarian feta), coarsely crumbled
8 oz Ossau-Iraty, coarsely grated

  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, add the flour, salt and eggs, and mix over low speed until homogeneous. Add the milk, and mix for another 2 minutes. Form a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 30 minutes.
  • Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Using a pasta machine, roll each piece to the next-to-finest setting. Grease a 9″ x 13″ Pyrex pan with some of the butter. Cook one pasta sheet in salted boiling water for 1 minute, shock in ice water, pat dry with paper towels, then arrange into the dish to form 1 layer, cutting as necessary. Cover the layer with 1/4 of the butter, spread with a knife or an offset spatula. Cook and arrange another pasta sheet the same way, and top with 1/4 of the brynza and Ossau-Iraty. Repeat this procedure 3 more times.
  • Bake the dish in a 400 F oven for 30 minutes, then finish under the broiler until brown, for 1 or 2 minutes.
  • Let cool for a couple minutes and serve.

Here is another variation for the holiday season! The butternut squash pasta dough and butter are inspired by a recipe for butternut squash cavatelli by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, found here.

Roasted butternut squash
Yield varies

1 butternut squash

  • Pierce the squash with a knife in a few places, then roast in a 350 F oven for an hour. Let cool for 30 minutes.
  • Cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Scoop out and reserve the seeds and pulp. Remove the skin, and reserve 1 lb of the flesh. Use the rest of the flesh for another recipe.

Butternut squash pasta dough
Yields enough dough for one 9″ x 13″ pan

1 lb roasted butternut squash flesh
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp honey
1/2 oz butter
1 egg
1/2 tsp salt
10 oz flour

  • Mix the butternut squash, garam masala, nutmeg, honey and butter with a fork. Transfer to an oven-safe dish, and bake in a 325 F oven for an hour. Let cool for an hour.
  • Transfer to a blender and process until smooth. Measure 8 oz of the purée, and transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment. Add the egg and salt and mix over low speed, then incorporate the flour in 2 additions, and mix for 3 minutes. Form a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 30 minutes.

Butternut squash butter
Yields 2 1/2 to 3 oz

4 oz butter
4 oz butternut squash seeds and pulp

  • Place the butter and butternut squash seeds and pulp into a small saucepan, and cook in a 325 F oven for 1 hour.
  • Pass through a chinois and reserve.

Butternut squash achma
Yields one 9″ x 13″ dish

butternut squash pasta dough
butternut squash butter, melted
8 oz brynza (or Bulgarian feta), coarsely crumbled
8 oz Ossau-Iraty, coarsely grated

  • Assemble and bake as the regular achma above.