Buneba

Ah, Svaneti.  The famed, mystical, isolated region of high mountains, lush valleys and brave warriors.  We’ve been hearing people rave about it for years and finally were able to see for ourselves.

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Everyone was right.

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While the main town in Upper Svaneti – Mestia – has been developed into a tourist playground (truly, we only saw foreigners and Georgians serving the foreigners in the center of town), the natural beauty surrounding Mestia is incredible.

We hiked past a river and scrambled over rocks to a glacier.

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We walked along a mountain ridge and gazed at the Svaneti and Greater Caucusus ranges as the clouds rolled in.

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We visited a Svanetian tower, climbing up rickety ladders to the top.

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We bought Svanetian Salt straight from the lady that grew the herbs in the mountain behind her home and mixed the spice blend to her liking.

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The nature (buneba – ბუნება) in Upper Svaneti is deservedly famous.

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I’ll end with a quote from a famous Georgian photographer and alpinist, Guram Tikanadze, which we read at the Svaneti Museum in Mestia:

“Alpinists are often asked what they find interesting in mountains.  We leave this question unanswered considering it unreasonable.  Just some emotions can help the explanation.  We don’t talk to the mountains and don’t strengthen our love by conversation.  We know well that here under every stone and snowflake there can be a danger waiting.  Dense clouds disperse thunderstorm and snow on the mountain slopes, while the blazing sun sobers mountain ranges with rock falls and whirlwind of avalanches.  Always novelty, soberness, motion…we have much more in common with mountains and ice than with valleys and sea.”

PS:  If you’d like to try authentic Svanetian Salt, go to kargigogo.com and use Coupon Code SVANETI at checkout to save 20% off this delicious spice blend, found on almost every table in Svaneti, now through June 30th!

Potentsiali

We’ve been to Batumi, the rapidly-developing city on the Black Sea coast, many times.  In fact, we spent our first wedding anniversary at the luxurious Sheraton hotel in Batumi, basking in the hot showers, English-speaking television channels and outdoor swimming pool.

At that time, though, Batumi felt a little…strange.  Lacking cohesion.  Not quite “there” yet.  For example, we’d walk past a five-star hotel and next door would be crumbling Soviet-era street art.  Entire streets were flooded for days after heavy rains.  The beautifully paved sidewalk would disappear under muddy tire tracks before starting again 500 feet later.  We could kind of, sort of, see the potential (potentsiali – პოტენციალი) as a legitimate tourist destination, but it just wasn’t there yet.

Nearly six years later, we’re happy to say that Batumi – again, as a tourist destination, as the city itself is thousands of years old – seems to be coming into its own.  It’s like the city has outgrown its awkward teenage years and has emerged as a place with a ton of charm.

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Europe Square and the Medea Statue:  Medea helped Jason (leader of the Argonauts) find and steal the famous Golden Fleece, as legend has it.
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Art lining the boardwalk on the Black Sea
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The new Public Service Hall at sunset
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Yes, a McDonald’s!  Lauded as the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world, we have to admit it’s interesting. 
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A very impressive dancing fountain display
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View from the beach

The Batumi boardwalk was really lovely, and, unlike our first trip, very busy.  It’s great to see so many different types of people using a public space:  from tourists (like us) enjoying the view; to families, teaching their kids to ride bikes; to the elderly, exercising or just sitting on a bench, talking with friends.  With views like this, how can you not want to spend your time here?

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Black Sea sunset

Thank you, Batumi, for the lovely, relaxing, beautiful time.

Chai

I don’t drink coffee.  Turkish coffee – or, to Sean’s dismay, instant coffee – is always offered to guests here.  Therefore, one of the first sentences I managed to say in Georgian when we first arrived was “Sorry, I don’t drink coffee.”  So as to not insult our hosts’ hospitality, I started drinking tea (chai – ჩაი), which in my mind was the lesser of two evils.

Slowly but surely I started to enjoy, and yes, even crave black tea.  I only drink it here, and enjoying a weak cup of tea brings back happy memories of chatting away an afternoon with my co-workers or sitting in the kitchen with my host mom.

I was thrilled, then, when our new friend and neighbor told me that she “knows good tea.”  She invited us to her family home in Guria, Georgia’s tea growing region, to help pick tea leaves and learn how natural, small-batch tea is made.

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We arrived, ate (of course – this is Georgia, after all!) and got to work.

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I admit that, upon arriving, I didn’t know a thing about tea.  Our host had to point out the tea bushes or I would have missed them all together.

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There is an art to picking tea leaves.  We were told to look for groupings of three leaves that were soft and fresh.  While large factories use machines, they inevitably end up picking the harder, older leaves along with the new.  Hand-picked tea is the only way to ensure that the right leaves are picked.

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Guria was a huge tea growing region during the Soviet Union, but the focus was about quantity over quality.  They produced staggering amounts and sent it to Azerbaijan to be packaged.  Gurians continued to grow their own tea bushes for private use, picking leaves up to 12 times a season, using the same methods we learned during our stay.

We barely finished before a storm came in, rushing inside to lay our leaves out to dry in a spare bedroom.

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The leaves need a day or two to dry, depending on the humidity in the air.  We spent this downtime reading, relaxing, helping in the garden and exploring the farm.

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Once the tea is dried, it is ready for the next step, a cross between rolling, grinding and kneading.  Our hosts had a machine built for them to speed up this process, and neighbors dropped by to use it for their own small batches of leaves.

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This can also be done by hand, although it takes quite a bit of time and muscle.  For experience’s sake, we held some of our tea back and tried rolling by hand.  After 15 minutes, we were left with a wet, squishy bowl of tea leaves.

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This was left to ferment under a wet rag for six hours.  The next morning, we set it on a sheet in the sunshine until it was completely dried.

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As you can see in this up close photo, we weren’t trying to grind or pulverize the tea leaves.  Rather, we wanted to roll them.  Once they are submerged in hot water, they unroll and release their flavor.

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We drank our host’s tea all week and, while we are not tea connoisseurs by any stretch, they do grow fantastic tea.  Hand-picking the right leaves and rolling properly makes an incredible difference in taste.  This tea was strong, smooth and flavorful.

We were sent back to Tbilisi with a bag of “our” tea – the stuff we made from start to finish – as well as another bag of the family’s stash.  What a lovely few days in the village!  We learned so much:  about tea, about Guria and about village life.  I’m so glad I didn’t give in to coffee.

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Racha

Racha (რაჭა) is a region that you don’t hear much about, comparatively speaking. Kakheti has wine, Samegrelo has spicy food, Adjara has great beaches. But Racha? More off the beaten path.  But I have been intrigued for years, mostly – and I admit this is quite silly of me – because my favorite traditional dance comes from Racha.

Feel free to play this video of the Racha song and dance (with a modern twist, although I will say exposed midriffs are incredibly rare here) as you scroll through some of my favorite scenes from our trip there last week.

One of our first stops, Shaori Lake, was stunning, with the clear blue water, vibrant green trees and bright blue sky.
We walked around the lake for a long time; this was taken from the path circling the lake.
We were so happy here that we wanted to frolic. So we did.
 
The 11th century Nikortsminda Cathderal was covered in frescos, some original! I didn’t feel it was appropriate to take pictures inside so you will have to take my word for it.
We spent more than two hours on a rough road to visit Shovi and drink its naturally bubbly mineral water.
The drive to Shovi was beautiful. The town itself was sadly deserted. While the town does get some summer visitors, it is incredibly hard to reach since the 2008 war. Most people came via South Ossetia, making it a few hours’ trip from Tbilisi. Now that area is controlled by Russian border gaurds and the town – and many would say, Racha as a whole – has suffered.
Since there was literally no food for purchase to and from Shovi, this might have been our favorite sight of the day – shkmeruli, or roasted chicken with milk and lots of garlic – since we were famished by the time we came down the mountain.

Samto

Before reading this Atlantic article, I hadn’t even heard of Chiatura, a mining (სამთო – samto) town in the mountains of Imereti. I thought I had heard of, if not visited, all the relatively large towns and cities in Georgia. Little did I know Chiatura is bustling with nearly 20,000 people and, while one doesn’t just stumble into town, we found it worth the trip. 

View from above the city

We literally had less than two hours to visit (public transport set our schedule for us, sadly) but we were able to hit the highlights. 

Profiles of Lenin and Stalin still decorate this city building
Most of the workers in Chiatura mine manganese, an element that is used in metal alloys, especially stainless steel. The mines have been active since manganese was discovered in the late 1800s, although it’s not uncommon for the mines to be closed, like they were after the fall of the Soviet Union and as they have been for the last few months. 
Up, up, up!

There are 17 active cable cars in town, some which are free and others that cost a few tetri. The mining company owns the cable cars – they were installed mostly for the workers to use in the 1950s – but everyone in town uses them, as for some they are the only way to get to school​, work or home. 
Cable car mechanics

I am not good with heights (especially heights combined with moving vehicles) but the ride was smooth and uneventful. We were rewarded with great views of the valley from the top!

Compact Chiatura

Thanks to Hannah for (quickly!) showing us around! 

Mendzel

Sometimes the most fun and unexpected things happen here.  Such was the case when we visited Zugdidi, the largest city in the northwestern region of Samegrelo.

This was our first trip to Samegrelo.  We didn’t know many people in the area nor did we have many contacts, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  Sean had been communicating occasionally with a friend of a friend and experienced Georgian tour guide (Keti) who said we must meet with her friend Rusiko.  Never mind that we actually hadn’t met Keti in person; off we went to meet Rusiko at her office in central Zugdidi.

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Radio Atinati
As it turns out, Rusiko runs a long-standing and very successful non-profit called Atinati.  Along with running all sorts of youth outreach programs, Atinati has its own radio station, seeking to (among other things) build connections between the people in Samegrelo and the nearby breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Rusiko is a bundle of energy.  After sitting down, she ran her plan by us: we’d go to a local restaurant and learn a few regional specialties from their experienced kitchen staff.  Her team from Atinati would film it, giving some free press to the restaurant in exchange for hosting us.  Finally, we’d do a quick interview so her team could compile a short story for Atinati’s website.  Mutually beneficial for all.

Forty-five minutes later, we were in the kitchen of Mendzel (მენძელ), which means “host” – not in Georgian, but in the local language of Mingrelian, which is spoken in Samegrelo alongside Georgian.

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View from the second floor of Mendzel
Like we’ve found all Georgian cooks to be, the ladies working in Mendzel’s kitchen knew their stuff.  They slowed down their pace to teach us, but it was clear these ladies could churn out an incredible amount of food for their busy restaurant.

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Chopping cheese for elarji
We started by making elarji (ელარჯი).  We made two types:  Mingrelian, which is a mixture of cheese and cornmeal, and Svanetian, which is cheese and mashed potatoes. The cheese is mixed with either cornmeal or mashed potatoes over a hot stove.  Then comes the fun part.

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Sean learns to stretch his elarji alongside a seasoned pro
We also made gebjalia (გებჟალია), which came together so quickly we weren’t able to get any in-process pictures.  Sulguni cheese is heated in a pan until it’s flexible.  It’s rolled up with mint and sliced, then covered in matsoni.

Yum.

Of course, we had to have the local khachapuri.  Mingrelian khachapuri is the same is classic Imerulian khachapuri, with cheese inside a soft crust, except it adds more cheese on top. Why not? 
Cheese inside, cheese outside, then into the oven!

Kharcho (ხარჩო), a beef and walnut stew, is found all over Georgia, but the Mingrelian version is spicier and richer. (In general, Mingrelians are known for their love of spicy foods, especially adjika.)  Our hosts boiled chunks of beef and blended in ground walnuts, then added in a hefty portion of adjika and several other essential Georgian spices. They let it simmer on the stove before heating up individual clay jars in which to serve the hot kharcho. 

Clay jars called kotoni (ქოთონი)
Serving up hot, spicy and rich kharcho

A good Georgian restaurant wouldn’t be complete without khinkali. Mendzel’s khinkali were juicy and delicious, like other khinkali we have tried, except – you guessed it! – spicier. 

Sean impressing the ladies with his khinkali skills

After eating all this, we got to eat it! Not a bad way to (unexpectedly) spend an afternoon. 

A few members of thr Atinati team: Rusiko, Salome and Misha

We finished our day shooting extra footage for the Atinati piece and doing our best to answer their questions in Georgian. The finished piece is here.

They also created a video using some of the “B Roll” footage, which is pretty funny:

What an unexpected and fun day! We can’t say enough good things about Atinati and their great team. Our biggest thanks to Rusiko, Gia, Salome, Misha and the rest!

Somkheti

On a whim, Sean and I decided to take a quick trip to Armenia (called Somkheti or სომხეთი in Georgian).  We’ve lamented not visiting before; after all, Yerevan is just 5-6 hours from Tbilisi, depending on your mode of transportation.  Last week we were faced with a couple of free days in our schedule and, knowing it was likely our last chance for some time, decided to leave the next morning.

What a good decision!  We let ourselves be tourists and saw as much as possible during our 48 hour trip in and around Yerevan.  Photos from our short time in Armenia below:

 

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Republic Square in Yerevan.  We found the city to be surprisingly European and modern, but to us it lacked some of the charm we were used to finding in Tbilisi.  (We admit to being biased.)

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Ignorantly, we assumed Armenians were mostly Orthodox (like Georgians). I was surprised to enter this church – the largest we saw in Yerevan – and find it wasn’t Orthodox.  It felt Catholic, but we learned the next day it’s actually Armenian Apostolic, an unique type of Christianity of which Armenians are very proud.

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Originally we thought these Soviet-era steps were only for Yerevan views, but we happily discovered sculptures and a small indoor art museum on our way to the top.

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We had plenty of “moody clouds” during our time in Armenia.  On clear days, one can see Mt. Ararat (16,854 feet), a holy and special place for Armenians – and where Noah’s Ark landed!  It has been a part of Turkey since 1915.

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We went on a day-long tour that took us to Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus.  At 6,200 feet above sea level, it was cold – it started hailing right after this picture – but beautiful.

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Our tour guide joked that God gave Georgians the forests, rivers and Black Sea, and all the Armenians got were mountains and rocks.  In our experience, Georgians and Armenians tend to be competitive and we traded jokes with our guide all day.  (For the record, we found Armenia to be stunningly beautiful.)

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We visited a medieval cemetery filled with these unique Armenian “cross stones,” some from as early as the 10th century. 

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This first century pagan temple (!!) was rebuilt by the Soviets in the 1970’s.  When the area became Christian, the temple was allowed to remain standing as long as a church was built next to it.  They built it – three centimeters away!

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My favorite stop on the tour was Geghard, a monastery built in 1215 that hasn’t been remodeled since.  Pictured is a chamber that has amazing acoustics; we heard many pilgrims taking advantage of this while exploring the complex.
Of course, seeking out good food was on our itinerary. Armenians are quite proud of their version of dolma – meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Shaurma was also everywhere, and recommended by just about everyone we talked to. Although it isn’t uniquely Armenian, it is still tasty, filling — and cheap!

We even ran across Georgian food — especially khinkali.

It was interesting for us, with our knowledge of Georgia, to compare and contrast its very close neighbor.  Admittedly, we prefer Georgia – we are biased! – but we saw some extraordinary sights and were happy we finally visited, after six years of exploring here.

Matsoni

I’ve shared my love for matsoni (მაცონი) – tangy Georgian yogurt – before.  What can I say?  Not only is it delicious on its own, it’s incredibly versatile.  Georgians use it everywhere:  in cakes, as a base for soups, in bread dough, mixed with garlic as a sauce…

One can imagine my joy, then, when our host took us to the Matsoni House, a new facility geared towards preserving Georgia’s dairy-based culinary traditions.

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Matsoni with local honey and walnuts

The original matsoni culture used here – called Mariami – is hundreds of years old.  During Soviet times, factory matsoni was encouraged, but nearby monks and home cooks kept this culture alive.

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Matsoni with blackberries, which our waitress encouraged we try, since the berries were “very tasty.”

They even had matsoni ice cream, which I’ve never seen before and had to experience. Matsoni isn’t sweet, it’s tangy – so I was intrigued.

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Still tangy and a little sour but surprisingly refreshing!  Almost like a sherbet.

Inspired by our trip to this matsoni heaven, I decided to make my own.  I used the matsoni from the ladies at the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House as my starter (or “deda,” which means “mother”) and bought whole milk from the dairy lady in our village.  Organic, unpasteurized and non-homogenized milk is cheap and readily available here.

Making matsoni is simple:  just heat the whole milk on the stove until it boils, then let it cool until it’s the proper temperature.  What’s the proper temperature?  Well, Georgian ladies I’ve met just know by sticking their pinky finger in the milk, but I needed Google. It’s about 75-80 degrees.

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Starter matsoni on the left, warm milk on the right

Then, stir in two heaping tablespoons of your starter matsoni and let it ferment in a warm place for at least six hours.  I did as the Georgians do, keeping my matsoni warm by wrapping it in our sweatshirts for the rest of the day.

And just like that…you have fresh, homemade, tangy matsoni.

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Not perfect – a little runny and not smooth – but I’m happy with my first try!

Amazing.

Muzeumi

As a huge monarchy nerd, I was incredibly excited to visit the summer home of Alexander Chavchavadze, the famous Georgian noble, poet, military commander and winemaker.

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Super excited to geek out for a few hours
The home – and the village where it’s located, Tsinandali – was given to Chavchavadze by his father.  He renovated it in the 1830’s to be reminiscent of an Italian palace, suitable for hosting intellectuals, artists and dignitaries.

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The home has been a museum (მუზეუმი – muzeumi)  since 1947 and was beautifully renovated in 2009.

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Pictures weren’t allowed on the first floor (where the bulk of the museum is), but Sean snuck one of Alexander’s study, which contained the first piano brought to Georgia!
Chavchavadze was a very interesting person.  He was a major general in the Russian army, yet lamented the loss of Georgian independence to Russia and participated in several revolts against Russian rule.  He served jail time for these revolts but was always accepted back into service by the Tsar – likely due to his abilities as a military leader.  He used his time in jail to write some of his most well-respected works.

Having been born in St. Petersberg – Tsar Peter’s grand, European-style city – Chavchavadze was familiar with most things Western, including European winemaking methods.  He is known for having mixed traditional Georgian winemaking methods (in qvevris) with European styles (in oak barrels).

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Enjoying a glass of Tsinandali – Chavchavadze’s famous white wine – which is still produced here today.
Chavchavadze also built a beautiful garden, both cultivated and natural, on this property.  It was perfect for strolling on a sunny spring day.

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After Alexander Chavchavadze’s death, the home was inherited by his son, David Chavchavadze.  Interestingly, a band of Muslim warriors from the North Caucasus (present day Dagestan) – angry with the family for their support of Russian interference in their homeland – attacked the palace in 1854 and kidnapped David’s wife, children and other relatives.  He had to borrow money from the Russian Imperial family to pay the ransom.  The family couldn’t pay the debt and this home became the crown’s property, passing to the State in 1917.

Mtiuluri Khinkali

Earlier this year, Sean and I visited Washington, DC and met a young Georgian woman.  We immediately clicked and after telling her of our upcoming trip to Georgia, she exclaimed, “You must visit my family!  My mother is from the mountains and makes the best khinkali!”

This might be strange to Americans – to be invited to someone’s parents’ home when the one person you know won’t even be in the same country when you visit.  But this is another example of Georgia’s outstanding hospitality.  We hadn’t met this family before knocking on their front door, but we were quickly ushered inside to chat, drink wine – and of course, eat!

Our friend mentioned that her mother was from the mountains.  Khinkali originate from the mountains and are often considered to be better when either made in the mountains themselves or by someone from there.  (We actually have a Georgian friend that refuses to eat khinkali from the city; he drives to the mountains when he needs his fix.)

We’ve learned that khinkali come in all shapes and sizes so we were very excited to try these “mountain khinkali” (mtiuluri khinkali – მთიულური ხინკალი).  While the dough is generally the same across the country, mountain khinkali are stuffed with a mix of beef, pork, salt and onions.  That’s it.  Like most Georgian food, it’s incredibly simple yet challenging to execute perfectly.  It’s also delicious.

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They’d made the dough before we arrived and we immediately got to work.

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Cutting the dough into rounds is quicker – and more fun – when it’s a team effort!

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The dough was softer than what we used at the cart, but still strong enough to hold in the meat and juices while they were boiled.

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While khinkali are traditionally eaten with beer or cha-cha, a potent distilled spirit, we were in wine country – Kakheti – and simply had to try our host’s homemade wine.
After eating our khinkali, toasting with wine, Skyping with our friend (their daughter) in the States and enjoying an improptu Georgian dance performance by our hosts’ nine-year old grandson, we were sent home with promises to call the next day for a tour of some of the area’s sights.  As if inviting perfect strangers over for a lovely meal weren’t enough, they gave us gifts – in true Kakhetian fashion, wine!