Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.
Last March we loaded the car with our best cooking gear, bought enough provisions at Carrefour to fill a big red shopping cart, and headed to Garikula to ride out the pandemic in our village sanctuary. The seasonal cold winds ripped down the Tedzami Valley to shake winter off the trees; before unloading the car, we stoked the wood-burning stove to shake it out of our walls.
A wood burner saved our butts in Tbilisi in 2003, just like in the village, but that’s what Tbilisi was back then, with only a million inhabitants. Neighbors used outhouses, electricity was intermittent at best and everyone shopped at bazaars and mom-and-pop shops. The Russians often shut off the gas to remind Georgia who was boss, so sometimes we heated meals on the stovetop. We never imagined we would someday enjoy cooking daily on one.
For Garikula we got a Svanuri, a heavy-duty homemade iron box with an oven in the bottom chamber. We had only used it for winter weekends, but now the hideaway had become home and the Svanuri our hearth. Each morning I’d get on my knees to scoop out the ashes and kindle it, our cold dog nudging me to hurry. Meanwhile, the rest of the household would still be under layers of covers, waiting for the whooshing sound of blazing wood before getting up.
Breakfast was prepared on the flat top: coffee from a handleless Bialetti, eggs fried in a pan next to it, and khachapuri and bread heated up in the oven below. At cruising daytime temperature, the Svanuri is perfect for simmering stocks, stews and beans. We planned most dinners around the oven, discovering how flawlessly it roasted chicken, which always came out crisp-skinned and moist. Likewise, village potatoes tossed in cold-pressed Kakhetian sunflower oil and fresh rosemary. Pork chops. Corn bread. Everything. We started frying eggs in there for sunny side up perfection.
We were almost sorry that summer came around and the stove took a rest. When cooking during a pandemic we need all the magic we can get in the kitchen, and the Svanuri, through some kind of wizardry, has a way of making whatever you put in or on it taste more real – a comforting enchantment for what has been the most unsettling year of our lives.