Tbilisi stores and markets are festooned now with distinctive sausage-shaped candies called churchkhela, ready for New Year celebrations and then Orthodox Christmas on January 7. They are a very traditional Georgian specialty, usually homemade from grape juice thickened with flour and nuts.
But those aren’t the only ingredients you need to make churchkhela – they also require some serious muscle. How could it be otherwise for a food created by Georgian warriors as a sugar hit that wouldn’t perish on a long march? It was, in other words, one of the world’s earliest energy bars.
“We still do it the same way as our ancestors,” says Khatuna Saalishvili, as we watch her and her husband, Temuri, start the process in their backyard in the village of Kisiskhevi. A wood fire heats a large metal cauldron filled with the mix of grape juice and flour known as tatara. The steam shines in the winter sun. The Saalishvilis’ daughter, Ani, visiting from Tbilisi with her little baby, and their neighbors take turns stirring the pot with a large wooden spoon, as big as a woodcutter’s axe. Churchkhela making is a communal affair.
After simmering several hours, the tatara is so dense it almost holds the spoon upright. But as she lifts it and watches cinnamon-colored globs slide back into the pot, Khatuna wants it still thicker. “Another half an hour,” she says, and strides off.
Faces tighten. There’s a good-natured grumble from the volunteers. Even if Khatuna is happy in an open-necked shirt and slippers, everyone else is freezing.
Temuri comes over to give the mix another turn.
“Let’s go,” he says theatrically, plunging the spoon into the wax-like mixture and working it like an oar in a heavy swell. He is a big man, arms and shoulders molded by years of hefting sacks of grapes and wine barrels. But barely 30 seconds later, he has to give it a rest. We give it a try too. Mixing cement is easy by comparison.
Finally, the moment arrives. The tatara is ready – and an orchestra of hands springs to life.
First Khatuna and Temuri’s, lifting the heavy pot off the fire. Other hands lay a wooden plank to catch the drips and chairs to serve as a makeshift drying rack. Another pair arranges strings of walnuts and hazelnuts on a tray, ready to be covered with the sticky grape mixture.
They push each string of nuts under with a spoon, before hanging them on long sticks to dry. As each rod fills up, Temuri suspends them between the chairs.
“Only 20 per stick,” he shouts, “or they won’t fit.”
“I’ll put however many I like,” Khatuna shoots back. The ribbing doesn’t interrupt the workflow, and soon there are hundreds of churchkhela hanging from sticks. They will be dried for 10 days in the family loft and then taken to Tbilisi to be sold for 3 to 5 lari (US$1.20 to $2) a piece. The reward for the waiting is the sweet, burnt scrapings at the bottom of the pot, and everyone crowds round. Churchkhela making is done for another year.
Editor’s note: In anticipation of the New Year and Orthodox Christmas, we thought it was worthwhile to rerun this illustrated dispatch from 2015. Contributor Andrew North is an artist and journalist based in Tbilisi who spent many years before that reporting from the Middle East and Asia.