We are so heartbroken to report the passing of Nunu Gachechiladze, fondly known as our “Pickle Queen” at Tbilisi’s Deserter’s Bazaar.
We first met Nunu two years ago, while mapping out our market walk with Justyna Mielnikiewicz. In our decade and a half of life together in Georgia, Justyna, a Polish native and pickle expert by default, had never been impressed with local pickled cucumbers, finding them too salty, too mushy or simply bland.
Some sort of cosmic force directed us to Nunu. How else to explain that out of all the pickle makers at the bazaar, we were drawn deep into a hidden corner of the labyrinthine market to where Nunu stood behind stacks of her creations, warmly grinning at us with a fresh slice of pickled cucumber between her fingers as if she knew we were coming?
“Taste it!” she insisted.
Justyna was the first to try. Shock waves rippled through her palate. “One kilo!” she moaned. They were a perfect combination of crispness, garlic, herbs and salt.
Nunu threw back her head with a deep laugh. She knew her pickles were good and loved to see how much people adored them. That night Justyna made Polish pickle soup, the first ever in our 25 years of togetherness.
Since then, a stop at Nunu and her stoic, gentle husband Tamaz’s pickle stand has been the climax of our walk; not just for the quality samples they offered, but for the sincere warmth they radiated. And if the weather was nippy, or the mood just right, they might ply us with chacha – never letting us go until we had three shots.
“Nunu and Tamaz work twelve hours, seven days a week. The market is not their job, it is their life.”
One day, local chef Tekuna Gachechiladze (no relation) hired me to take her and American chef Todd English through the market. “What could I possibly show Tekuna that she doesn’t already know?” I wondered nervously.
When we got to Nunu’s, we lucked out. She was busy mixing her spectacular marinated carrots in the perfect combination of blue fenugreek, red pepper, coriander, salt, wine vinegar and raw sunflower seed oil. (It took me a year to find out what she put in them. Whenever I asked, she would reply, “Secret recipe!” When she finally told me the ingredients, she added, “But it is my touch!”)
The carrots had the same euphoric effect on Tekuna that the pickles had on Justyna. From that day, Nunu became Tekuna’s provider of carrots and other goodies for her restaurants. The downside was that there were never any carrots around whenever we brought a group of guests to meet her and sample her treats, which included pickled heads of garlic, sweet and spicy green peppers, stuffed green tomatoes, jonjoli (bladdernut flowers and buds), cabbage marinated in beet juice, ghandzili (wild garlic), grape leaves, and many others.
These were all made from bazaar produce, at the stand and in their “workshop” in an adjacent room. “Our family recipes,” Nunu explained.
Nunu died of a heart attack, which makes perfect sense, as her heart was simply too enormous for this world. Last week I filed a story about the bazaar for a Polish food and culture magazine, and mentioned how, like most of the people at the Deserter’s Bazaar, “Nunu and Tamaz work twelve hours, seven days a week. The market is not their job, it is their life.”
By bringing guests to visit them several times a month, we somehow became part of their lives and for that, we shall always feel blessed and be eternally grateful.