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!

Kubdari

 

I hate kubdari (კუბდარი).

Let me rephrase that. I hated kubdari.

Originating in the highlands of Georgia’s Svaneti region, kubdari is basically a stuffed meat pie. Because its shape and size is often similar to khachapuri, it is sometimes referred to as “Svanetian khachapuri,” even though there isn’t a single curd of cheese in it.

During our time in the Peace Corps we had eaten kubdari a few times. And it was awful.

At trainings, conferences, work luncheons, etc., next to the khachapuri, there was sometimes this other bread. It looked like lobiani (the stuffed bean bread), which I liked. I’d pick up a piece, ice cold, and if all of the filling didn’t just tumble out on the table or down the front of my shirt before making it to my mouth, I’d bite into it.

Not lobiani.

“What is this?” I’d ask.

“Kubdari.”

“What’s that?”

“Meat.”

“What kind of meat?”

“. . . . . I don’t know. Meat. Eat it. It’s delicious.”

It certainly was not. Dry. Chewy. Flavorless. Awful.

Again and again this would happen. I’d see what looked like lobiani, only to be unpleasantly surprised when I discovered it was actually just its boring and unsavory cousin, kubdari.

I finally stopped eating it altogether.

Yet, as we prepared to go to Svaneti a few weeks ago, people were raving about it. “You must eat kubdari in Svaneti! It’s amazing! It’s delicious!”

I had my doubts, but I fully intended to try it, to see if it was better up there in its homeland.

On our way up the mountain last week, our driver asked if we were hungry.

Sure, why not. Recently, the way our eating habits have evolved over here, we’re usually either a) stuffed or b) starving. Not the way we roll in the States, but when you’re traveling as much as we are, mostly as guests of other people, unsure of when your next meal will be, knowing that a full-on multi-course supra feast is a possibility at any given moment, it’s hard to plan our meals and have sensible eating habits. But we came over here to eat, so I’m not complaining.

Our driver would call ahead to a roadside cafe and order kubdari for us, so it would be ready when we arrived. It was “the best kubdari.”

Mmm-hmmm.

We pulled up to a nondescript blue building and went inside.

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What they brought out on a plate was a completely different dish than any kubdari we had eaten before.

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Steaming hot. Packed with lean chunks of meat, diced onions and garlic. Buttery. Salty. Spicy. Absolutely delicious.

Even though it’s easy to just pick up a slice and dive in, we were told that the traditional way of eating it is to peel back the top layer of bread, pulling off pieces and using them to scoop up chunks of the meat inside.

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Later, we spent time learning how to make it. As with all great Georgian food (and most great food in general), it comes down to high quality ingredients and simple techniques executed perfectly.

Sometimes they use pork, but more often beef. Sometimes both. Sometimes even lamb. The meat isn’t ground at all — it’s diced. It’s mixed with chopped onions and garlic and a blend of spices including the zesty and potent Svanetian Salt (a mix of spices on every table in Svaneti, much like salt and pepper in America), hot red pepper and a touch of fennel. As the meat cooks inside the bread, the fat melts, binding the dish together and creating that “buttery” flavor I thought I tasted (there is actually no butter at all in the dish).

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It’s important to taste the meat before you stuff it all in the bread to know if you need to adjust your seasoning, so we cooked a small spoonful on the top of the wood-burning stove. Gas has not made it up into the mountains yet, so wood-burning stoves and ovens are the norm.

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The dough and assembly is essentially the same as with khachapuri.

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Roll it all up, then cook it on both sides on the stovetop before finishing it in the oven.

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I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I’m a convert. I ate three of them in two days.

I love kubdari.

P.S. 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, now through June 30th! It’s great on everything from grilled meats to veggies to breads to eggs… to kubdari. 🙂