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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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.