There is a legend that when God was handing out land to the nations of the world, the Georgians were so busy feasting that they lost their place in the queue and there was no land left for them. But when they invited God to join the party, he enjoyed himself so much that he gave them the best bits of land that he had been saving for himself.
We visited a number of families, ostensibly to see how they produced wine or made cheese, but everywhere we stopped we were greeted by the most amazing hospitality and generosity. Meals would last several hours and involve large quantities of superb fresh food along with overflowing glasses of wine and chacha (grape vodka). Moat houses we visited grew their own grapes and made their own wine. Many had a still.
Toasting is a tradition in Georgia. You don’t tend to drink at your own pace, but at the behest of a toastmaster (tamada). A merikipe is on hand to make sure that glasses are always full and the wine never seems to stop flowing. Georgians toast their enemies with beer (we had a hilarious enemy-toasting session with our guide one night) – it is wine and chacha that are appropriate for feasting. We didn’t go to a formal grand feast (supra), but had many, many meals at guesthouses and family homes and we followed the toasting tradition each time. Meals are designed to last the evening – they comprise several scrummy dishes laid out on the table. Everyone just helps themselves and offers food to their dining companions. And, of course, every meal included a ubiquitous, delicious and calorie-loaded cheese pie (khachapuri).
At regular intervals throughout the evening the tamada proposes a toast. Everyone adds their wishes and much wine/chacha is consumed. If you are toasted, it’s appropriate to thank everyone for their good wishes and later ask the tamada if it is okay to reciprocate with a toast of your own. One guesthouse supplied us with a jug (probably about 4 bottles worth) of strong homemade red wine made from the Sapaveri grape, which was utterly splendid and eminently drinkable, to accompany the enormous evening meal they had provided. We ate with the family. Our driver was both tamada and merikipe and led the toasting throughout the evening. (At the end of the day, naturally, when no further driving was required.) On finishing the jug our driver, an excellent merikipe, asked if we wanted more wine. We said we’d join him in a tipple but only if he was partaking, not realising that he would return with another 4-bottle jug. Gulp.
You can toast anything and everything. We were toasted several times as ‘easy guests’ (people who were thoroughly enjoying the trip, didn’t make a fuss, and were always on time) as well as ‘guests that didn’t go to bed at 9pm but were happy to stay up late feasting and enjoying the hospitality of our hosts.’ We reciprocated by toasting our hosts, Georgia, Georgian hospitality, wine, food, family, friends, finding Mr Right (for our guide), young people, old people, men, women, happiness, health, friendship between our countries, anything. We easily knocked back the second jug. Amazingly we weren’t hungover the following morning. Just as well as we were due to visit three different vineyards for wine tasting – hair of the dog and all that. We did rather stagger round the Kakheti region that day.
What we didn’t realise until the last day was that we had been doing the toasting all wrong. We’d been having a sip/swig from the glass per toast which seemed to us to be the best way to regulate the drinking (we’d copied our hosts, who had the same idea). Apparently we were supposed to drain the wine/chacha glass each time. Oops!
Er, we did. Georgia (the one that’s always on my-my-my-my-my-my-my-mind, not the one where the midnight train goes) is famous for feasting. It is thought that wine was possibly invented in Georgia. And we all know that the thing that goes best with wine is cheese*.
We ate cheese every day on our trip. It felt like our arteries had the consistency of Primula by the time we arrived home but it didn’t matter – all the cheese was utterly delicious. We tried many varieties including Meskh cheese which was like cheese strings, but not made of nasty chemicals, Imeruli cheese, a mild, tasty and very holey number from the Imereti region which can then be made into Sulguni which is most popular in the Samegrelo Region. We visited a family who demonstrated how to make Sulguni and then offered us lots of it with an unexpected feast for lunch. Georgian hospitality is simply unsurpassed.
Much of the cheese we consumed involved tasting the regional variations of the national dish – cheese pie or khachapuri – which was served at pretty much every meal we ate. Each pie contains about 150,000 calories but don’t worry, it’s worth it. The pie itself is bread based rather than pastry based and filled with varying amounts of cheese from the relatively modest Imeruli pie which merely contains cheese inside the pie, to the more decadent Megruli which melts a few pounds of cheese on top, just in case the cheese inside doesn’t quite satisfy your cheesy cravings.
Imeruli is the most common type of cheese pie.
We ate this with most meals in central and eastern Georgia – the capital Tblisi and its surrounding regions.
The western part of Georgia lies on the Black Sea cost. Batumi is a resort and is clearly a party town.
It was in Batumi that we discovered the Acharuli cheese boat, a monster from the Adjaran region. In keeping with Batumi’s flamboyant style, this is the daddy of cheese pies. It comprises a bread dough crust in the shape of a boat, filled with local cheese plus a raw egg and is topped off with an enormous knob of butter. You have to mix everything up (the egg cooks very slightly and the butter melts away so that you can pretend that it wasn’t there in the first place) so you end up with very buttery cheesy scrambled egg in a massive boat shaped piece of bread. It was suggested at the restaurant that we order a boat each. We insisted that we share one. One was more than enough but oh, so delicious.
*Actually, it isn’t. Cheese tends to dull the palette, so if you’re serious about tasting wine you’re better off not eating anything at all and keeping your tastebuds in tip-top condition. But, of course, if you’re just out to have a good time, wine and cheese together is a delightful combination and entirely wonderful.