Carla Capalbo

If you can flip through the pages of Carla Capalbo’s book Tasting Georgia and not book yourself a one-way to Tbilisi, you’re better than us. Subtitled “A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus”, the book is a glimpse of what awaits you in Georgia: natural wine in ancient clay pots; home cooks preparing traditional dishes filled with pomegranate, nuts and peppers; markets with rare fruit; and scenery straight out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Georgia’s tourism was gaining traction before the pandemic hit. With restrictions slowly lifting, now’s the time to walk a mile in Capalbo’s trekking shoes.
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What Drew Me To Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a really exciting city. I wish I was there right now. The city had a terrifically difficult time with COVID and I haven’t been back in years. I am itching to see how the restaurants are faring. Luckily, Georgia has recently come off the UK’s red travel list which means I get to go back very soon. I think what’s great about the food culture of Georgia is that it offers a range of eating styles. There’s the very traditional “street food”, although Georgians don’t really eat in the streets the way they do in some other cultures. They prefer to eat sitting at a table and that’s a really big part of Georgian identity. Even if you’re eating their equivalent of a slice of pizza, you would still go into a little restaurant, sit down and have it there. I personally prefer eating that way too. Otherwise, if you’re having a meal at someone’s house or at a restaurant, you’re never served one lonely dish. It just doesn’t work that way. A meal in Georgia is a multitude of dishes, particularly, if you attend something called supra, a Georgian feast. What’s so beautiful is that you always sit down to a table with food on it,  you never sit down to an empty table. I think of it as a symbolically good sign. 

A Khachapuri Chain Bakery

The first category of eating I mentioned, features little restaurants specialising in one or two of the most iconic, traditional local foods, like khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) or khinkali (Georgian dumplings). Khachapuri is made in nearly every bakery and every restaurant in Tbilisi. There’s one little chain called Machakhela that has several shops around the city where you can sit and have one of a handful of varieties: khachapuri topped with cheese, khachapuri stuffed with cheese, khachapuri with spinach, khachapuri with beans and of course, adjaruli khachapuri, which is the one shaped like a boat and topped with an egg. This is the simplest level of dining or what Italians would call, “populare”. 

Restaurants That Specialise In Grilled Meats And Other Items

There are other small restaurants you go to just for mtsvadi (grilled meat on skewers). Salobie is a restaurant between Mtskheta and Tbilisi worth visiting for its chargrilled pork mtsvadi and ground-meat kebabs in thin lavash bread with a spicy, liquidy tomato sauce. The restaurant’s name roughly translates to “house of beans” because it’s actually known for its delicious beans, stewed in terracotta pots and served with a side of salad, pickles and bread. It also makes fresh, large meat-and-broth khinkali. You pay as soon as you place your order and can sit at a table in the leafy terrace as you wait for your food. 

Supra: A Georgian Feast

In a Georgian supra, you’re free to choose what you like from the various things presented to you and how much of it you want, rather than being given a portion of something. If you’re having a long meal, main dishes will start arriving after typical things which will include khachapuri and khinkali, but there are rarely less than eight different things to choose from. Some of these things will be fresh salads – cucumbers and tomatoes is a classic – and wonderful vegetable dishes. You can experience a Georgian feast at Azarpesha, which has been at the forefront of a new eno-gastronomic scene. Opened in 2013, the restaurant features a small wine bar with a list of 150 natural wines from Georgia and beyond. The food was created by chef Ketevan Mindorashvili in partnership with John Wurdeman of [winery] Pheasant’s Tears, and Luarsab and Nino Togonidze of Salobie. Some of the slightly more touristy restaurants will have folk dancing and singing: Georgian polyphonic singing, in particular, is absolutely incredible. The city centre is full of nice, low-key places such as Salobie Bia, a small restaurant with delicious food. 

The Georgian Diet is Very Inclusive

Georgians are Eastern Orthodox Christians and a significant part of the population is practising which means they fast pretty much every Wednesday and Friday as well as in the lead-up to saints’ feast days, Easter and Christmas. Their version of fasting is basically vegan, so they don’t starve themselves; they just cut out dairy, fish and meat. Since Lent takes up many days of the year, there’s a good chance any restaurant spread will include vegan dishes. This is great because Georgian food is very inclusive. Nobody has to say: “I’m vegan; could you make special food for me?” If you don’t want to eat pork for example, it’s easy to avoid because you could have mushrooms or aubergine with walnut sauce or khachapuri where they’ve replaced the cheese with beans. Vegetarians are happy and vegans are happy. Georgians have always prided themselves on their acceptance of other creeds and nationalities. It was always a place where different religions cohabited peacefully. 

The New Georgian Cuisine

You can also go to fancier and more experimental restaurants in Tbilisi. My friends from the famous winery Pheasant’s Tears and a group of their friends are involved in a few restaurants that focus more on regional specialties. The menu at restaurants was often limited to the same 10 to 20 dishes. These people felt that it was important to bring the food from the coast or from the Highlands into Tbilisi and make some traditions more accessible. Poliphonia is a modern restaurant which focuses on wild, seasonal Georgian ingredients and places great emphasis on matching their dishes with local natural wines. It’s a cosy restaurant where you will dine under one of those low, stone arches, typical of Georgian houses. Culinarium Khasheria, named after their famous tripe soup, is a great casual restaurant to explore Georgian flavours. The chef does her own take on traditional local food that’s still very much comfort food. 

The Best Hotels to Stay at in Tbilisi 

Because tourism to Georgia was increasing in the years leading up to the pandemic, a few stylish hotels have opened up. Particularly worth mentioning are the projects developed by people who care about preserving spaces. They have been locating abandoned factories and interesting old buildings and turning them into hotels with restaurants and outdoor spaces where you can enjoy a cocktail. Those places are great and because there are suddenly a lot of trendy international tourists staying in them, new restaurants have also started to pop up around them, which I guess is good for urban development. One of them is called Rooms and the guys behind it were the first to do something like that. They now have two big hotels in the centre of Tbilisi and a big hotel up in the Highlands with amazing mountain views. They’re very comfortable and are wonderful places to stay. Another one is called Stamba Hotel: also really beautiful. It has a café, a bar and library in the lobby, a photo museum and the region’s first urban vertical farming project.

A Hotel You’ll Never Want to Leave

When I’m travelling solo I tend to stay at a friend’s place: a friend who’s practically like a sister – because that’s what people are like in Georgia – and who has this little hotel called Hotel at Gomi 19 in the Old Town. You have to walk up and up, and you get to a place where you have to climb up another four flights of stairs, before you get to a view that is just breathtaking. Once you reach the top, you never want to leave, that’s the only trouble. It’s so comfortable and you get to sit on a little terrace to enjoy the view. It’s inexpensive and almost feels like living with the family, which is very nice. 

The Best of Georgian Qvevri Wine

Ghvino Underground is the most important hub for tasting the natural wines of Georgia. It literally is an underground cellar that is always full of people drinking and eating artisan cheeses or a light meal. It was set up by seven natural wine producers who used to take turns running it. A wonderful thing to do outside the city is to visit the wineries and eat with the people who are making the wine. About an hour outside of Tbilisi in the Mukhrani Valley, you can visit the winery of Iago Bitarishvili, one of the pioneers of the new wine era in Georgia. Iago is known for his organic chinuri white grapes from Kartli and his project to promote the culture of winemaking in qvevri. He and his wife Marina Kurtanidze built a new dining room in their cellar to share some of their homemade recipes like grilled meats, khinkali and vegetable dishes like badrijani ojakhuri: a dish of aubergine, sweet peppers and tomatoes tossed with fresh herbs and walnuts. Marina was the first woman to make a natural wine with her own name on the label. This only happened about seven or eight years ago. Up until then and like everywhere in the world, even though women worked in the vineyards and did everything in the winemaking process, it was always the men who signed the label. Marina and her friend Tea Melanashvili thought that it was ridiculous and decided to make their own wine. ManDili became a kind of icon of Georgian wine and opened the door for a lot of other young women to sign their own labels like Mariam Iosebidze. You can go to Ghvino Underground and ask them to point out all the natural wines made by women. I’m talking about traditional, all-natural, qvevri (clay pot) wines that are made by families and not industrially. 

Apple Cider And Italian-Style Charcuterie From Local Pigs

My friend Nathan Moss is this really amazing English guy who used to work at Pheasant’s Tears. He married a Georgian woman and really settled into Georgian life. He started making apple cider in qvevri, because there were endless apple trees everywhere and nobody could be bothered to pick the apples. He then became very interested in charcuterie and started making prosciutto, coppa, salame and other Italian-style pork products, but with Georgian pigs that live good lives out in the woods, eating acorns and foraging for themselves. He bought a place just before I left two years ago, which was pretty much an abandoned little corner shop. He dug it all out and turned part of it into a butcher shop and the other part into a café. He called it Saidanaa. It’s something completely new to Georgia. 

Nuns Who Make Cheese

There are some interesting artisans and cheese producers starting to pop up around the countryside. A couple of shops in town sell some of these products which include goat’s cheeses which weren’t so common. The most interesting of these cheesemakers are these nuns who formed an order at some point and went to live in an isolated nunnery down on a big lake. It was abandoned for a long time and they fixed it up. The St. Nino’s Convent is very high up and it’s freezing there. It’s so cold that there are no trees around. All the houses up there are surrounded by enormous mounds of straw that they use to feed animals in the winter. The nuns learned how to make French cheese on the internet and make delicious cheese. It’s a wonderful place that you can visit. We actually had a wonderful meal when we were there. I mean, it’s such a funny modern story, but they’re living like they were in the 12th Century. 

A Walk Filled With Culture and Georgian Specialties 

Tbilisi is a great city to see on foot. Some of the neighbourhoods are kind of crumbling – but, in a nice way –  and some of it has been slightly gentrified or put back together again. You could spend hours walking everywhere, going from the monumental opera house and museums to food shops and open markets. When you’re on Leselidze Street, you should check out Aristaeus Ethno Wine Bar, which sells wine and other local specialties like Georgian cheeses and ajika (spicy dip) and where you can enjoy a cheese tasting with a glass of wine. Bitadze Tea Shop on Galaktioni Tabidze Street, next to Ghvini Underground, has fine Georgian teas (white, green and black) and tisanes such as rosehip and quince that you can take home. 

Shopping For Dried Fruits and Nuts 

Georgians are very big on markets and their markets are very big. I’ve dedicated a large section of my book to markets. Two of the ones in Tbilisi that are important to visit are the Dezerterebi Bazar near the Station Square Metro and Samgori’s Bazar near the metro station by the same name. You can load up on all kinds of tklapi, the sweet or sour fruit sheets, and on churchkhela, the colourful sticks of grape concentrate loaded with nuts that look like sausage or wax candles and usually hang in storefront windows. Badagi is a shop that specialises in churchkhela and sells a wonderful variety of them. Georgia is a big nut-producing country. Walnuts are like a national food there and they are incorporated in many of their dishes. It also grows a lot of hazelnuts: The country has its own factory that produces Ferrero Rocher’s hazelnut chocolates. 

The Insider’s Guide to Buying (And Using) Georgian Spice

I started this single-themed book series called The Little Georgian Collection. Just like my main book, there’s always a map and I like to include lovely pictures of the people with their products and a bunch of recipes. The idea is that these books are smaller, are easier to carry and cover more specific things in Georgian culture. I’ve produced one on Georgian bread and was in the process of starting the second book in the series when many horrible things got in the way and I didn’t feel like writing anymore. I’m back to it now and working on one about Georgia’s spices and how to use them. So many people go to markets when they travel and buy spices that they don’t know how to use. They run back to the hotel and ask the staff there how to cook with them. Of the 20 major kinds of spices in Georgia, only three will really be needed to make Georgian food. Georgia has particularly fine coriander seeds that are very small – they’re smaller than the Turkish ones – very fragrant and delicious. There’s also blue fenugreek which you practically can’t get anywhere else in the world, although Georgians don’t realise how rare it is. Then there are marigold petals: another banal ingredient to most Georgians, but you just try and get them in London. You can’t. I would urge anyone in Georgia to stock up on those few things because you can get chilli and cumin anywhere.

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