Early January is the start of Georgia’s real holiday season: the New Year (Jan. 1), followed by Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7) and then the Old New Year (which follows the Julian calendar, falling on Jan. 14). In between those main celebrations, friends and relatives visit each other, and all of these occasions make something like a two-weeks-long feast, or supra. Tables are replete with all that the Georgian gastronomy can offer.
This festive season ends the longest fasting period of the Orthodox calendar. Even though a big chunk of the population might not fast, hosts make sure to have on their table plenty of fish and meat prepared in various ways. The prime meal is satsivi – turkey or chicken in a walnut sauce served cold – but most Georgians won’t dispute that gochi, roast suckling pig, is a much-coveted New Year delicacy.
I was introduced to the New Year supras when I moved for a second time to Georgia on December 31, 2017. I just had a few hours to rest before attending the family supra with my in-laws. Every inch of the table was covered by a bowl or a plate. Similar dishes were put at different corners of the table in an attempt at symmetry.
I’ll admit, I was overwhelmed at the feast before me, but this was nothing new for Nino, my wife. The most vivid memory of her childhood’s New Year’s was the whole suckling pig displayed at the center of the table with a radish in its mouth. She and her brother were fond of the crunchy skin of the piglet and its soft meat, which melts in the mouth.
“It was like our Christmas present,” Nino recalls. Despite the dreadful economic situation of the 90s, her parents did everything they could to cook a suckling pig each New Year’s. You could buy it at the local butcher for 10 to 30 GEL (anywhere from $4.50-25, depending on the year), but some years they would also receive a ready-to-cook piglet sent by bus from her grandparents living in a village in the Western Georgian region of Samegrelo. They had either slaughtered one of their own or bought one from a neighbor.
Although it has spread all over the country, the culinary tradition of roast suckling pigs originates from Samegrelo, which has a long history of raising all sorts of quality livestock. Today, visitors coming to the hilly historical province are surprised to see cows wandering or lying in the middle of the roads. Pigs and piglets also roam free in the villages. One supporting fact of the dish’s origin is that the piglet’s skin is covered with the hot adjika spread – mainly made of chile peppers and garlic – which has its roots in Samegrelo and the neighboring region of Abkhazia.
“In the village, Nino’s grandmother would always take care of slaughtering the piglet, cleaning it and preparing it. I don’t know why, it is an old tradition that was passed from one generation of women to another,” my mother-in-law tells me. “Her granddad would just oversee the roast!” In Samegrelo, suckling pigs are a staple not only for New Year’s celebrations, but also for Easter, Mariamoba (the Assumption), weddings and supras that are held 40 days after a loved one passes away. “Having piglets on the supra is a sign of a family’s affluence,” my mother-in-law says.
Along with turkey for satsivi, piglets are among the most-expensive products Georgian families must purchase for the new year. There are now several delivery services that will bring a roast piglet to your door for 130-250 GEL (about $40-80), depending on the weight. For the holiday season, many restaurants are adding suckling pigs to their menu, including the well-regarded Cafe Littera restaurant.
The most vivid memory of her childhood’s New Year’s was the whole suckling pig displayed at the center of the table with a radish in its mouth.
But most Tbilisians would buy piglet either from a nearby butcher or from the central market located below the train station, also known as the Dezerter’s Bazaar. Part of the market is located in an old red-brick building at the corner of Tamar Mepe Ave. and Tsinamdzghvrishvili St. On the second floor, behind the stalls selling spices, jars of adjika and bottles of the beloved sour plums sauce tkemali, a hanging board indicates gochi. On the left is the small room with pale-yellow wooden walls, where piglets are kept in industrial refrigerators.
“This year, the price is 25 GEL [about $8] per kilo,” says Gocha Apridonidze, one of the sellers. Suckling pigs usually weigh from 4 to 8 kilos. “Now I come here everyday, but after the New Year holidays, I work more for restaurants, weddings, birthdays…” he adds.
An alternative option for piglet shopping in the central market is the meat corner at the top floor of the modern-looking, bigger building devoted mostly to fruits and vegetables. This is where Edisher Danelia, a former geologist, is working. “We know we sell good-quality piglets because we buy them directly from households, not farms, in the villages of Samegrelo,” he tells me.
He is also operating all year round, although the New Year holidays are by far the most-busy times. “We sell up to 100 suckling pigs a day, compared to 20-25 on a normal day,” he says. Edisher is also the owner of a small rudimentary kitchen one floor below, where his employees are preparing and roasting piglets in an industrial electric oven for those clients who request it.
“You need to put salt and ajika, and sometimes add a bit of fat like butter or oil – that’s it!” he says while helping his employee take out a flattened piglet with browned skin from the oven. “Two hours at 240-300 degrees C.”
Piglets can also be cooked at home in a conventional oven, but many Tbilisians like to have it roasted in the traditional round, brick-lined oven called a tone, which many bakers are using to prepare the elongated shoti bread. Not all bakeries are offering this service, but those who do usually display a paper with the word “gochi” on their door.
A few meters away from the central market, on Tamar Mepe Ave., baker Valeri Gogua is offering his tone to roast piglets for 20 GEL ($6.50). When entering his workplace, we see a long table on the left used to prepare dough, with the tone oven on the right. First, he takes the piglet and places it on the floury table. “Before putting the piglet on a spit, I make small incisions around the neck so that I am sure this part will be well-cooked,” he tells us.
He then brings the skewered piglet close to a small sink and energetically applies salt with his wet hand, then the red ajika. He carefully inserts the spit inside the tone, closing it with a metallic cover. In the tone, he says it takes 1 ½ to 2 hours to roast the suckling pig.
While there is usually no debate on whether or not to add ajika, the roasting method is what divides Georgian gochi aficionados. “It depends how you like the meat. If you like to have more fat, the oven is better, if you prefer no fat then, go for the tone. I prefer in the tone,” says piglet seller Gocha Apridonidze, who has been in the business for 30 years.
As for me, I’m fine with whichever way it’s roasted – as long as it makes it to the supra table in time for New Year’s.
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Published on January 03, 2022