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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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.