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Georgia on my mind – for fabulous food and 8000 years of fine wine

Georgia, that beautiful land in the Caucasus which has been independent from Russia for 20 years, is a revelation for the palate.  A trip to Tbilisi and beyond revealed the most beautiful produce I have ever seen, and an incredibly original and rich cuisine.

Lamb baked with plums and tarragon, aubergine slices wrapped around spiced walnut paste, chicken roasted and steeped in an intense creamy garlic sauce, grilled trout robed in a rich pink pomegranate dressing – the list goes on.   From a Mongolian invasion the Georgians also took dim sum-style dumplings stuffed with meat and rich broth, which they chase down with cha-cha – their home-grown grappa – but khajhapuri, bread stuffed with cheese into which eggs are often cracked at table to mix in, cook gently in the goopy cheese and scoop out with pieces of crust, is entirely their own invention.

It didn’t take the Romans, among the many invaders this country has endured over the centuries, to teach the Georgians how to make wine.  They were doing it 8000 years ago, the world’s very first wine-makers, and they are still sticking to many of their ancient principles.  The most unique of these is a first fermentation of grapes with skins, seeds and sometimes stems intact, in clay pots known as qvevri which are buried in the ground to keep them cool.  After a few weeks or as long as six months, the grape juice comes out of the pots and the wine-making process continues.  The results vary, from intriguing white wines, often amber to orange in colour and high in minerality, to red wines which are more of an acquired taste, preferred young, tough and tannic in their home country.

Georgian reds become much more palatable for western tastes when they are allowed a little age.  Most are  made entirely from the Saperavi grape, one of 500 indigeneous varieties, while others mimic a classic Bordeaux blend.   I enjoyed  a delectable  2007 blend from Winiveria  at the Georgian Food and Wine Festival, and with dinner a beautiful organic Saperavi 2008 from Nikoashvili vineyards.  The real stars of my tasting trip, though, were two gorgeous clay-pot whites from the poetically-named Pheasant’s Tears.   The best way to enjoy their amber, honey-scented Rkatsiteli and even more exotically fragrant Mitsvane is to visit the winery’s rustic restaurant in the wine town of Signaghi, where Guy cooks up a storm.   After feasting on various combinations of the aubergine, walnut, pomegranate and beetroot salads so beloved of the Georgians(they also grow the world’s sweetest tomatoes and crispest cucumbers), we enjoyed a stunning casserole of mushrooms baked in cream and the tasty smoked, stringy cheese which abounds in the country.

London’s two-star Michelin chef Claude Bosi left his Hibiscus restaurant for a weekend to cook a gala dinner in Tbilisi during our stay, using only fine Goergian ingredients.   But while his cep tart with pomegranate sorbet was a triumph, none of his savoury dishes were better than the best of the local specialities we ate on the ground.    Great Tbilisi restaurants like Kopala, the Bread House and In the Shadow of Metekhi are all surprisingly affordable – the message is to get there before Georgia is identified, rightly, as the world’s next great foodie destination.

The BEST holidays

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