Editor’s note: As summer heats up, we’re looking to get outside. So we asked our contributors to write about their favorite spots to eat outdoors as well as nearby shops to fill a picnic basket for Picnic Week 2020.
The greatest picnic in my life was at an elevation of 6,100 feet in the Tushetian village of Omalo for Mariamoba, Assumption Day, 2001. Sheep were escorted three times around the local chapel before being slaughtered in a ritualistic “sacrifice,” then butchered into chunks and boiled in a cauldron for khashlama, a type of stew, and ground into khinkali meat. Toast after toast of wine and chacha brought from the Kakheti lowlands made for the greatest bacchanalia in the name of the Virgin Mary, ever. In the morning, bodies littered the meadow, fetal and sprawled, where their last stumbling steps dropped them on their way home like sacks of boneless flesh.
While there have been plenty of Christian-pagan outdoor feasts since then, most of the picnics we attend are low-key birthday parties or simple no-reason gatherings in the great outdoors. The recipe is simple: bags of fresh tonis puri (bread cooked in a tone, a deep, circular oven), tomatoes, cucumbers, a wet wheel of sulguni cheese, a few khachapuri and cubes of pork to be skewered and roasted on tsalami, dried grapevine trimmings, which can easily be found in supermarkets. And, of course, wine. The best spots have water sources like tapped springs or little streams to wash the produce in and keep the wine chilled.
The best spots have water sources like tapped springs or little streams to wash the produce in and keep the wine chilled.
Although Tbilisi has lost much of its green space over the years, there are still many spots within the city limits where you can lay a blanket and even start a fire. Mount Mtatsminda is festooned with skinny trails, some of which lead to springs and picnic tables. The “Tbilisi Sea” reservoir has plenty of would-be-perfect spots, if not for all the litter people leave behind. Cleaner is the nearby Gldani-Nadzaladevi park area full of pines and unleaded air. We like to explore the wooded areas and rolling meadows above and behind Tbilisi near Kojori and the Algeti National Park. Saguramo is a 15-minute drive north of the city with a lovely picnic area on the road to Zedazeni Monastery. You can stop at Riravo distillery at the turn-off and pick up a couple bottles of Tevza Qvevri Wines. Truly, the options around Tbilisi are endless.
While we typically stock up at the supermarket or Deserter’s Bazaar for our picnicking needs, we sometimes like to class up our outing with some artisan products. Georgian Kalata is a little shop that moved from Kote Apkhazi Street to the freshly renovated Orbeliani Square. They have a fine selection of gourmet food products like fruit preserves, candies, tea and churchkhela, but best of all is their cheese, some from our friends Marleta. If you had a basket you could pretty much fill it up there. If you don’t have one, Art calamus, a little company that makes custom wicker accessories, has designed a cool basket with a three-bottle capacity.
Ready-made food is often added to our cache of provisions. While there is no scarcity of decent spots preparing takeout, Tartan is our first choice for its personal touch. We love sucking on the bones of their roasted chicken tabaka, while their prepared salads add a kind of decadence to simple “shashlik-mashlik” barbecues. To take our khachapuri up a notch, there is the chain, Keria, which bakes the finest kubadari we have found this side of Svaneti.
When it comes to wine, the choice is simple. Are we going to drink a lot, or less than a lot? For the former, there is Wine Gallery in Plekhanov. We skip the upstairs retail shop and go straight downstairs into the wine cellar where over a half-dozen giant stainless steel vats hold quite decent house wine for 3 lari ($1) to 15 lari ($5) a liter. A couple of five-liter plastic jugs usually do the trick. When we have no designated driver, we pick up a few bottles of family-produced wine at Wine Boutique in Vera, or at Vinotheca, which also moved to Orbeliani Square with Georgian Kalata.
Now that we’re loaded with food and have found our spot, and the kids are running around, we tend to break off into groups. Some set the table and cut the cucumbers and tomatoes for the salad, while others start the fire and discuss the possibilities (read: argue) of cooking the skewered meat. And then there is that moment we get into the groove, when the glasses are filled and the waft of roasting pork fills the air. There is no better scent in the world. It is the smell of happiness.
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