2019 was a good year for prying ourselves out of our Tbilisi comfort zone, filling the tank and getting out of town. For us it is a way to connect to the captivating earthy genuineness that prompted us to move here, but this year we wanted to meet some of the people who have become part of what we call a “return to the village” trend.
On one trip to Kakheti last winter, we visited Sopo Gorgadze and Levan (Leo) Tsaguria, a Tbilisi couple who left the city to resume new lives as farmers in the village of Shalauri. Kicking back in their living room looking at the Caucasus Mountains stretching across the Alazani Valley, we learned how they became cheesemakers more by coincidence than by design. Then Sopo set down a board with artisan goat and cow’s milk cheese that straightened us right up. Nobody in Georgia makes cheese this delectable. Marleta Cheese, which is named after their first cow, can be found in several Tbilisi restaurants, wine bars and specialty shops. Sopo also teaches cooking and hosts private dinners, which feature her award-winning cooking, by appointment at their home, providing a refreshing touch of sophistication to Kakheti’s developing food scene. “We are starting a new cheese tradition in Georgia,” Sopo said.
Racha is Georgia’s best-kept secret. Snuggled between Svaneti, Imereti, South Ossetia and the Russian Federation, the hidden region is famed for its semi-sweet appellation Khvanchkara, smoked pork, and for being the birthplace of the world’s boldest garlic chicken, shkmeruli. The best way to taste Racha is by staying in family-run guesthouses because nothing beats home cooking. We had the pleasure of visiting Marani Margvelidze in Sadmeli, just outside the city of Ambrolauri. The Margvelidze family treated us as guests, not clients, while their wine cellar also doubles as an ethnographic museum with two satsnakheli, long, hollowed-out logs that have been used for crushing grapes by foot for generations. Faced with the opportunity to move to the city to study, 20-year-old Mariam Margvelidze decided to stay in the village and be one of the few female winemakers in Georgia. “My family was happy I didn’t choose to study economics. I’m continuing the family tradition,” she said.
In June we embarked on a quixotic quest to Svaneti seeking the best kubdari in the world. The spiced meat pie is native to this Caucasian Shangri-La, and our hunt lead us up mountain trails to medieval churches where locals celebrated pagan-Christian rituals, including the slaughtering of sacrificial sheep for outdoor feasts. In the meantime, we learned of the secrets behind Svanetian salt, a native spice blend used in kubdari – and practically everything else in Svaneti. We can’t say we found the best kubdari, but we loved sitting in the Ushguli meadow at Café Lemi, staring up at Mt. Shkhara, one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus range, and chewing on the fabulously spiced meat, tossing the gristly bits to the stray dog keeping us company. In the otherworldly village of Kala we stayed with 25-year-old Mariam Khardziani, who has renovated the old family home with her twin sister Tamara to turn it into a summer guesthouse.
Below Svaneti is Samegrelo, a region we know well after years of reporting in the nearby breakaway region of Abkhazia. However, we never managed to wander into the Martvili area, despite its famed canyon boat trips. It is a lush, neat, pleasant town and the home of Zaza Gagua and Keto Ninidze who, like Sopo Gorgadze and Leo Tsaguria, uprooted themselves from Tbilisi to pursue a mellower, back-to-the-earth lifestyle. We were familiar with their rare Megrelian wines but it was the stories of how people would impulsively drive five hours from Tbilisi to eat at their front-yard restaurant, Oda House, that charmed us. “We had no clear idea if people would come to Samegrelo for culinary tourism,” Keto said, pouring her audacious Naked Ojaleshi wine for us. It was a gamble that paid off – since its opening in 2017, hundreds of guests from some 30 countries have discovered the artistry that is Oda.
Later in Tbilisi, we walked down to Sulico Wine Bar and heard that our dear Sandro “Mukrani” Macedoneli, Sulico’s unofficial sommelier, would be moving to New York. “Everyone is leaving,” we mused while waiting for the city’s best tolma – not so much out of the country, like Mukrani, but back to the villages. Tekuna Gachecheladze, whose Cafe Littera was threatened this year with an uncertain future (although the case was positively resolved), is franchising her Culinarium Khasheria to Kakheti, Gudauri, Shovi and Svaneti. Moreover, she is developing an ambitious five-hectare “chef’s residency” in a place she calls Amber Lakes in Kakheti, which will be a farm-to-table restaurant for gourmet travelers.
“I’m kind of fed up with the standard system,” Tekuna says looking over our shoulder, towards the future. “It will be a very simple, natural, organic space.”