Kerdzebi, Part 3

Gozinaki (გოზინაყი)

If you don’t like nuts and honey, you may have a hard time finding dessert in Georgia. Both are an integral part of the country’s culinary identity, and the two come together wonderfully in gozinaki.

This confection is most often seen around New Year’s celebrations, and is about as simple as you get: nuts, honey, a little bit of sugar. The end result is a cross between a granola bar and a nut brittle. While the ingredient list may be short and the process simple, success or failure all comes down to execution.

This is a dish we’ve made before in the States (there’s actually a recipe on our website), but again, it’s always interesting to see how others make it, too: what secrets they have, what’s important to them, unimportant, etc. 

Here in Sagarejo, much attention was paid to the honey. It was boiled and allowed to cool three separate times in order to get the perfect consistency.

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The nuts were toasted, and little flecks of skin were blown out of the pan. We were told that it’s good to toast the nuts outside, so the wind can naturally blow the unwanted skins out of the pan.

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Into the honey go the nuts. The pot is placed over a medium flame and constantly stirred. Here you have to be careful: just a few seconds means the difference between a perfectly caramelized mix and one that is too dark and bitter. With so many other dishes being made in the kitchen, attention was diverted from the gozinaki, resulting in a darker than desirable outcome.

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The thickened mixture is then spread out in a thin layer on a wooden board that has been covered in water, so the mix doesn’t stick.

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Once spread out, a wet rolling pin is used to roll it even thinner, to about a quarter of an inch at most.

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Working quickly at this point, you cut the gozinaki into diamond shapes. 

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The diamonds are pulled off the board and arranged on small plates. Our gozinaki was dark enough that everyone jokingly called it chocolate gozinaki the rest of the day.

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Tolma (ტოლმა)

Spiced meat wrapped in a leaf is a staple of cuisines all around this part of the world. Although not uniquely Georgian, tolma is very popular here and is given a unique spin: instead of using cabbage leafs to wrap, Georgians will sometimes use pickled grape leaves.

Ground pork, chopped cilantro, kindzi, blue fenugreek and other seasonings are mixed with par-cooked rice and rolled up much like a burrito.

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These little bundles are neatly stacked in a deep pot. Some tkemali (sour plums) are thrown in and everything is covered with more grape leaves. Water is added, covering the top layer of tolma.

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Onto the propane burner it goes, covered, until it starts to boil.

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At this point, the lid is removed and a plate is set on top of the leaves. A heavy rock (scrubbed first with water) is set on top of the plate to press it down, keeping the tolma from moving.

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The end result: tasty little wraps that are meaty and, thanks to the grape leaves and sour plums, slightly tart.

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Vashlis Namtskhvari (Apple Cake – ვაშლის ნამცხვარი)

When fruit is in season here, it is everywhere: on every table, in every market, in every car trunk along the road, selling goods to passersby. While eating fresh and seasonally in the US may be “trendy” or part of a lifestyle that sadly perhaps not everyone can afford, here it is quite the opposite: you eat what’s available, when it’s available. 

Potatoes are in season now, as are carrots, the first batches of sour plums and apples. Apples, apples, apples! Red apples, yellow apples, white apples and green… sweet, sour and tart. So it was no surprise that we made a simple and delicious apple cake.

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One layer of batter (flour, sugar, matsoni yogurt, eggs, baking soda) is poured into a huge shallow pan, and a layer of freshly chopped apples is carefully placed on top. Add some sugar, then pour the rest of the batter on top.

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More apples, more sugar. Then into the oven. It was supposed to take 30-40 minutes, but it was such a huge cake that I swear it took closer to 90.

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The end result: a cake that was not only rich and delicious, but also beautiful to look at.

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Again, we can’t thank the women of the Sagarejo Youth Municipality enough. It was an honor and joy to spend time with you, learning about the food you love and how to make it. დიდი მადლობა!

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Kerdzebi, Part 2

More from our recent visit to Sagarejo, where we spent two great days making a variety of Georgian dishes. 

Tatara (თათარა) & Churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა)

The juice from grapes flows like water over here. Oftentimes in the form of wine, for which Georgia is famous, but also in its unfermented form. Add a bunch of flour, heat and time, and you have yourself a thick & mildly sweet concoction called tatara (or pelamushi).

It’s great the way it’s traditionally served – on a plate, sprinkled with walnuts. Or, string some of those walnuts with a needle and thread and dip them in the thickened grape juice, and the result is churchkhela – sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers.”

It is said that there is so much energy (calories) in churchkhela that Georgian soldiers used to carry them as their only source of food during ancient times. Portable, durable and delicious, whether you’re going off to battle or not.

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How the nuts are cut for churchkhela is very important. Long pieces of the white part of the nut are preferred.

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Mixing the grape juice and flour. This is juice from the white rkatsiteli grape, although any grape juice can be used.

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It’s heated until very thick.

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From here it can go directly on a plate…

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…or you can dip your stringed nuts and hang them up to dry. Both are delicious and, as you might imagine, very filling.

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Abkhazura (აბხაზურა)
Originating in the northwestern region of Georgia called Abkhazia (now a breakaway state with its own Russia-backed government), abkhazura is kind of like a sausage. 

The spiced meat filling is wrapped in caul fat, which is the stomach lining from an animal – in this case, cow. 

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Pieces of the caul are snipped down to size with scissors.

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The filling includes ground pork, spices like kindzi and blue fenugreek – and the surprising addition of whole dried barberries, which gives the meat unexpected pops of texture and tartness.

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I had eaten abkhazura many times, but this was the first time I had made it. My rolling technique needed guidance.

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A basket of abkhazura, ready for the frying pan.

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They cook up much like small sausages, with the caul fat serving the dual purpose of adding flavor and keeping the meat together.

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The final product, served with a garnish of onions and pomegranate seeds for more tartness!

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Khachapuri (ხაჭაპური)
As with khinkali, we are intimately familiar with Georgia’s famous cheese-stuffed bread, khachapuri. We have made literally thousands of them in the last few years, yet it’s still always a treat to roll up our sleeves and get our hands covered in dough while learning little nuances that slightly differentiate one recipe from another.

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The cheese should always be the star, and in Georgia this is easy. So many cheeses, each a little different in how it melts, how it is salted and how “close to the cow” it is. We made this khachapuri with a pretty salty and creamy Imeruli cheese from a nearby village.

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McKinze rolls it out under the watchful eyes of our instructor.

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Ready to be cooked.

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Khachapuri can either be baked or cooked in a hot pan. In Georgia, you use the resources you have around you. Since this was sort of a makeshift kitchen in a room at the youth center and not a full home/restaurant kitchen, a portable propane tank served as the stove all day. It worked like a charm.

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Jonjoli (ჯონჯოლი)

One of the most elusively mysterious Georgian foods outside of the Caucasus region is jonjoli. Elusive, because as far as I have been told, the flowering shrub that it comes from doesn’t even grow in the US. 

Here, this Caucasian Bladdernut plant is everywhere.

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The flowers and stems are fermented, salted and combined with sliced onions to create a piquant appetizer seen on tables around the country. It’s an acquired taste, but once your palate warms up, it’s easy to start craving it.

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Check back tomorrow for the last segment of this post! (Miss the first part? Check that out here.)

 

Kerdzebi, Part 1

Earlier this week we had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the ladies of the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House.

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Because of our Peace Corps experience, McKinze and I have been to a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over Georgia and have seen all different levels of activity. It’s great to see this Youth House experiencing so much success!

You could see the pride in the faces of the women as they told us about their various projects and accolades: young people learning how to design and code apps for mobile devices, a successful youth camp just wrapping up and another one in the works, paintings earning a spot in a Tbilisi gallery, young men learning to play the panduri, and even a visit from the US Ambassador. გილოცავთ, ყველას.

But it was food that brought us to their organization on this trip. For two whole days, these generous ladies rolled out the red carpet and opened their kitchen to us, teaching us how to make a variety of their favorite Georgian kerdzebi (კერძები – dishes).

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Some of the dishes we made with them were fairly new to us. Others, like khachapuri and khinkali, we know quite well but still learned how these women made it. What was important to them and why. Plus, we learned how to fold khinkali in “tevzis pormashi,” i.e. in the shape of a fish!

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It’s so interesting to see how people make the same food in slightly different ways: because that’s the way it’s done in their region, or that’s the way they were taught, or that’s simply what they like. Some things — like how many fresh herbs to put in the soup — are open to interpretation. Others — like which side of the grape leaf is on the outside of the tolma — are not.

What a great experience — exactly the kind this trip of ours is all about. We can’t thank the ladies in Sagarejo enough!

Here, in no particular order, are a few pics of what we made over those two days, with more to come in the next post.

Mtsvadi (მწვადი)
This classic Georgian dish is all about the meat — in this case, pork. The meat is first seasoned liberally with salt (and other spices, if you so desire), then skewered onto long spears.

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A fire is made from wood and dried grapevines, traditionally on the ground, until it has burned down to white-hot embers.

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Then the skewers are placed over the make-shift grill until crispy on the outside and tender & juicy on the inside.

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A piece of bread is used to pull the finished chunks of meat off the spears into a bowl filled with sliced onions.

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Toss it all together and enjoy. A little bit of tkemali sour plum sauce is great on the side. Our hosts also liked a sweet pomegranate syrup.

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(Matsoni Soup) მაწონის სუპი
You may recall that this is a favorite of ours, and our former host mom in Akhaltsikhe makes a killer version from the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti (as documented in this post). Well, the women in Sagarejo had seen McKinze express her love for this soup on an old TV segment from our food cart days, and couldn’t wait to teach her their version from Eastern Georgia.

It started with making matsoni, not unlike plain yogurt in the States, but with a bit more sourness and “tang.” You simply put a spoonful of existing matsoni in a jar of warm unpasteurized/un-homogenized milk, wrap in towels, and a few hours later you’re holding a brand new jar of matsoni with a big smile on your face.

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Into the jar go a few eggs and some salt.

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For the base of the soup, we used white onion, green onion, a little garlic, a little water — and a bunch of butter.

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After awhile, we added some rice and water…

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…and stirred, stirred, stirred, until the rice was cooked.

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Into the pot goes the matsoni and egg mixture…

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…freshly chopped dill and green onions…

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…and how about some more butter.

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A few minutes later and it’s ready to go. Skip the spoon and just grab a mug.

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Khinkali (ხინკალი)
McKinze and I calculated that during our time in the food cart, we rolled around 100,000 of these famously juicy dumplings. One hundred thousand. Needless to say, we think we know our way around these things pretty well.

Still, there’s a difference between using mixers, dough sheeters and other equipment to crank out khinkali in a restaurant setting and making them the way they’ve been made for centuries: entirely by hand. Starting, of course, with the dough.

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After being mixed, kneaded and rolled out by hand, the dough — much softer and wetter than “restaurant style” dough — is cut into rounds with the top of a nearby juice glass.

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The rounds are then further rolled out into thin circles with a rolling pin — or an empty glass bottle.

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At last the meat mixture is spooned onto each circle and rolled up. This meat was a simple mix of fatty ground pork, salt, diced onions, garlic and cilantro. Not much water was added because there was enough fat in the meat to create the bulk of the “juice” as it cooked.

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Into the pot of water they go…

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At the dinner table there are usually plenty of leftover khinkali. Those are often sent back to be fried up in a little bit of oil or butter. You lose the juiciness but get crispiness instead.

 

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In addition to the “fish shaped” khinkali, we also learned first-hand how to roll these pretty awesome “double decker” khinkali, which we first saw on a YouTube video that has been making the rounds. Cool!

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Part two of our trip coming tomorrow…

Sashualo

This food isn’t fancy or refined. It’s not even distinctly Georgian. Nope, no adjika here. But when in Georgia, I sometimes crave shaurma like nothing else.

Shaurma — known in other parts of the world as döner, shawarma, gyros — is meat (usually chicken or lamb over here) layered on a vertical spit and grilled for a long period of time. The charred pieces are sliced off the spit and wrapped up in lavash (a very thin, tortilla-like sheet of bread) with tomatoes, onions, spicy pickled peppers and some combination of “secret sauces” — usually ketchup and mayo.

There are a million shaurma stands over here, and frankly, most of them aren’t very good. It’s easy to overcook the meat until it’s dry and tough. Oftentimes the meat-to-bread ratio is way off. And a few of those pickled peppers go a long way.

Usually there’s a small mob of people hovering around the window, making it near impossible to figure out who has ordered and who hasn’t. There is no line. Sometimes it can take forever to get your food, or a guy who ordered 10 minutes after you will somehow get his four shaurmas before you get your one. And with a few of the stands I’ve been to, you probably don’t want to spend too much time looking around at conditions inside the cart.

The experience is inconsistent. But when you get a good one — look out. So what’s a guy to do?

Enter MacShaurma.

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They’ve fixed everything that’s wrong with the shaurma experience. You know where to order and you know where to pick up. Service is fast. You get a number. It’s clean. It’s delicious.

And it’s HUGE. My sashualo (normal/regular – საშუალო) shawarma is easily 14″ long, all for about four American dollars. (Yes, that means there’s a bigger one.)

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I haven’t talked to any Georgians yet about what they think of the place, but it’s busy every time I go past and it looks like they’ve got about 88,000 fans on Facebook. Sure, you give up some of the charm of the stereotypical “street food experience” for something systematized, sterile and more than a little reminiscent of a certain fast food joint.

Whatever. I think I hear my number.

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Temi

Over the holiday season last year we sold Georgian Christmas ornaments made from felt – khinkali, qvevris, churchkela, wine bottles, wine pitchers and even tonis puri (Georgian bread).

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Such a cute little khinkali!

These ornaments were handmade by the men and women of Art Koda – a social enterprise working with families that were displaced during the 2008 war with Russia.  These resettled families, originally from South Ossetia, now live in the former military base just outside the small town of Koda, a 40-minute drive from Tbilisi.

Art Koda works to teach new skills and provide new sources of income for these displaced residents.  Perhaps more importantly, it offers a place and reason for people to come together and build relationships in their new community (temi – თემი).  Considering that these families had been living in South Ossetia for generations, starting over in a new place with new people takes some real courage.

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Handmade finger puppets

We attended a workshop at Art Koda to make our own felt ornaments, and learned that they were both easy and hard to make:  easy, in that all you do is repeatedly poke the felt with a needle until it makes the desired shape; and hard, in that it takes some time and skill to turn a big piece of felt into something that resembles, in our cases, a khinkali and a wine pitcher.

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The beginnings of my khinkali
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Sean’s wine pitcher taking shape, with his model in the background
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Finished products! Our teachers were very impressed with Sean.

We also received a tour of the Koda settlement and were happy to see the residents beginning to put down roots in their new town.

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Bee hives behind an apartment building
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Co-op gardens for residents

Our thanks to Art Koda for partnering with us and the Koda community for inviting us to visit (and the Peace Corps volunteer that organized it all – thanks Kim!).  We loved meeting you!

 

 

Stumartmokvareoba

We’re celebrating an anniversary this month: it was six years ago that we first came to Georgia! While the memories of our first days and weeks in country are a bit blurry (jet lag + culture shock), I do remember being amazed by how incredibly nice everyone was to us.

We lived in a small village outside Borjomi and so many families enthusiastically invited us in to their homes, fed us ridiculous amounts of food and smiled patiently at our attempts to say simple things in Georgian.  Some even offered me slippers so my feet wouldn’t get cold.

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Sean and McKinze in 2010, shortly after arriving in Georgia

Little did we know then that we were being treated to Georgia’s famous hospitality (stumartmokvareoba – სტუმართმოყვარეობა).   We’ve experienced so much generosity and kindness over the past six years and can attest that the culture of hospitality in this country deserves to be famous.

Case in point: when we traveled to Guria, we didn’t know anyone there – only loose introductions from friends. But the incredibly gracious hosts we met spent entire days with us, taking us on all sorts of adventures. And, as is customary, they fed us – plenty.

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Our host treated to this dry aged and slow smoked pork (lori – ლორი), raised on the family farm.  Wow. 
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Our host’s take on gupta (გუფთა), with meat balls, fried onions, tomato paste, a little rice and seasoned with blue fenugreek (utskho suneli),  ground coriander (kindzi) and fresh herbs.
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A type of khachapuri cheese bread that we hadn’t tried; the dough was more like a pancake batter, made of yogurt, eggs, flour and baking soda.  The cheese was mixed with the batter before being cooked in a pan. 
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This roasted chicken was seasoned with hot red peppers, oil and salt.  Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, it was exactly how I like my chicken.  
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Sean giving a rousing final toast in Georgian at the end of a supra.

In situations like these, it’s impossible to repay the kindness we’ve received.  So we offer our most sincere thanks, multiple times, and promise to show a bit of Georgian hospitality to our guests in the future.

Dzveli

We often say that Georgia is a relatively new country but a very, very old place.  The country broke away from the Soviet Union in the spring of 1991 and became a Western-leaning democracy in 2003 after the Rose Revolution.  Still, Georgia – the place – was a kingdom as early as the 4th century BC (!!), which is pretty incredible when you think about it.

The Georgians we’ve met are incredibly proud of their history, and rightfully so.  Some of the oldest places we’ve visited are churches and monasteries, often perched high on a mountain or hill with stunning views.

IMG_1113After 20 minutes uphill on the roughest road we’ve encountered in Georgia, we arrived at Dedata Monastery near the village of Erketi, outside of Chokhatauri.

A fast-talking nun gave us a tour of the grounds.  Gurians are known for speaking quickly, and while our Georgian is decent enough, religious vocabulary + speed meant that we grasped about a quarter of what she said.  Still, it was quite interesting and a truly beautiful, serene place.

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Villagers are buried on the monastery grounds.  The cemetery will be full in a few weeks for Orthodox Easter, when people come to celebrate and remember their dead.

Interestingly, the monastery has a room that’s always prepared for the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  It was unclear how often he comes (if ever!) but the nuns were ready for him.

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The nuns also had an enviable wine collection.

A friend recommended we visit Jikheti Monastery outside of Lanchkhuti, which was interesting for totally different reasons.  Legend has it it was built on the site where Saint Andrew preached in the first century, although a church wasn’t built on the site until King Tamar – the famed Georgian ruler – visited in the 13th century.

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We were impressed to learn that the nuns that live at Jikheti are almost totally self-sufficient.  They raise cows, chickens and goats; grow their own produce and keep bees for honey.  They also have every fruit tree imaginable:  apple, pear, fig and plum…

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It’s so interesting to visit these ancient (dzveli – ძველი) places.  They are literally hundreds and hundreds of years old, yet remain active and relevant to Georgians today.

Nabeghlavi

Nabeghlavi (ნაბეღლავი) is the name of a small village in the western Georgian province of Guria. It is also the name of one of my favorite beverages in the world, Nabeghlavi mineral water.

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Along with their main competitor, Borjomi, the water that comes in these signature green and yellow bottles is one of the most popular Georgian products both inside and outside of the country; we could even find it in some Eastern European grocery stores in Portland, Oregon!

Nabeghlavi water comes bubbling up from 3000 meters below the surface of the earth, picking up layers of minerals on its way, and is naturally infused with carbon dioxide to have a bubbly and effervescent character (additional CO2 is added in the bottling process). Because of the mineral content, it is supposed to have curative properties and is supposedly especially good at calming upset stomachs.

Since we arrived in Georgia, I’ve been drinking at least a liter of it every day. So naturally I was excited when, at dinner with a friend’s host family, they suggested we go up to the Nabeghlavi village on a little excursion the next day.

The next afternoon, up the winding road we went until we came across a large construction site — the home of a brand new Nabeghlavi factory in the works, which appears to be at least four times the size of the existing one next door.

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Beware of… everything?

We parked, got out of the car, and were told to grab whatever empty bottles we could find… so we could fill them up with mineral water, unfiltered, unprocessed and straight from the source! Heaven.

 

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It wasn’t the same as what’s in the bottles — a little more of a sulphur taste, a little less carbonation — but was crisp, cool and refreshing nonetheless. And such a treat to get that close to the source.

We got back in the car, went off to do some other things further up the mountain, and passed the factory again on our way back down. Our host and driver was on the phone, and suddenly he stopped the car and turned it around:

We were heading back to Nabeghlavi — to go inside the factory.

That’s how a lot of things happen here: you set about to do one thing, and before you know it you’re off on an adventure you had no idea was coming. It’s what makes each day exciting.

Within minutes we were walking around the factory floor of the Nabeghlavi bottling plant, where they also bottle a still water called Bakhmaro. I am an absolute sucker for food factories anyway (I can’t get enough of the TV show in the States), so to be inside, watching the bottles shuttling through a beautifully choreographed sequence of engineering magic… again, heaven.

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A “baby” Bakhmaro bottle before it is injected with forced air and heat into a mold.

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Chizhi-Bizhi

Georgia is a stunningly beautiful country. About the size of South Carolina, it packs an enormous amount of natural beauty and diversity into its relatively small borders.

In the far west, up and down the border of the Black Sea, you’ll think you’re in Miami as the humidity envelops you and the sun beats down on palm trees. A few hours inland, you’re in the midst of some of the tallest mountains in Europe, high above the clouds, looking down on snow-capped peaks. Go further east and you’ll find yourself surrounded by vineyards, stretching out over long and flat swaths of land perfectly suited for carrying on the centuries-old traditions of the birthplace of wine.

Last week we hopped on a marshrutka and headed west to a region where we have spent little time before: Guria. We couldn’t get everywhere (a great excuse for a return trip!), but where we did go — the area in and around Chokhatauri and Lanchkhuti — this lush province did not disappoint.

Animals and humans share the land and life moves along at a leisurely pace. With views like this, what’s the hurry?

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A trout farm

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One area of particular pride for local residents and Georgians in general is Bakhmaro, a mountainous resort town famous for wooden houses on stilts, clean air and lots & lots of snow. So much snow that the road up there is impassable 6-9 months a year. Some people told us that right now there are three meters of snow. Others said seven. And others said nine.

None of this deterred our host for the day from taking us as far as we could go in his truck:

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We winded up and up, past the last inhabited village on the mountain, past the point where snow and slushy ice started to accumulate on the road, past the turn where a dozen or so Georgian men were having a picnic celebrating a birthday (and warning our driver not to keep going), until we could go no further.

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After a full day of these and other excursions, it was time to head back down the mountain to our host’s family home in the village and settle into a steaming hot bowl of a traditional Gurian dish called chizhi-bizhi (ჩიჟი-ბიჟი). Made with stewed tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggs and whatever spices the cook is inspired to use, chizhi-bizhi reminded me of a Georgian shakshouka.

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We were told by one Georgian woman that chizhi-bizhi is so common in those parts that people don’t consider it to be anything special, as in “we don’t have any food prepared right now, only chizhi-bizhi.

Hearty, rich and deliciously satisfying, I beg to disagree.

Shetsdoma

Sometimes you learn new Georgian words from a street sign, a menu or in conversation. Other times you look them up. Such as “shetsdoma” (შეცდომა), which means “mistake.”

It’s a good word to learn when you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment and have to call your landlord, who then drives three hours one way to let you in and explain – again – how to properly operate the multiple doors and locks for which there are a full ring of keys.

  
Luckily, our landlord is a friend, and also one of the nicest men in Georgia.

It was an honest mistake to close the inner of two solid metal doors behind us as we met and talked with our neighbor for the first time, mindlessly pulling on the doorknob while putting our complete concentration into communication.

It’s a good example of the effort it sometimes takes to do simple things while traveling or living abroad. This isn’t unique to Georgia or to us, I’m certain. But simple things aren’t always… well, simple.

Like knowing which minibus (marshrutka) to hop on as you try to read the signs in the window:

  

Or which button to push to get to your floor on the elevator:

  
Or understanding why the bus zoomed past you while you were standing at the bus stop:

  

Dozens of things happen every day that require attention and concentration, things that we take for granted in the States.

But that’s what makes living abroad an adventure. It’s a cycle of constant learning, continuous improvement. These experiences become badges of honor, stories of triumph over adversity. They separate the tourists from those trying to assimilate. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which is a good thing, because I can’t.