Gorgeous Georgian: Now we can enjoy the cuisine of Russia's fiery neighbour nearer home

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Georgia's food is among the world's most inventive and original, says Anthea Gerrie.

I was in Tbilisi to explore Georgia's legendary cuisine, but despite its reputation, could not believe the strangeness and deliciousness of the dishes coming at me. Strips of delicately poached chicken submerged in a thin but rich sauce of ground walnuts, infused with garlic, trout from a nearby river, pan-fried crisp and enrobed in a ruby-red pomegranate coulis.

And the bread! One kind was baked into a pie stuffed to the gills with rich, melty curd cheese and served sliced, like a fat double-crust pizza, while another came shaped like a gondola, with the cheese pooled in the middle to mix with butter and a runny egg poaching as it came to table.

Before these came many cold starters. Slices of aubergine and courgette wrapped around garlicky walnut paste, pounded fresh spinach sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, a purée of red beans enriched with unfamiliar spices including marigold, and yet more walnuts. And all this followed by a standout dish of succulent cubes of lamb shoulder baked with sour plums and more fresh tarragon than you would believe.

Georgia, blessed with a Mediterranean climate and outstanding organic produce, is home to some of the world's most inventive and original food traditions. The country, which celebrates Independence Day tomorrow, has sustained invasions from Mongols, Russians, Arabs and others, but influences come mainly from a large Jewish population that arrived centuries ago with strong culinary traditions of its own, and neighbouring Turks and Persians.

Until recently, the cuisine was a secret to almost everyone but the Russians, who treasure the Georgian restaurants that opened in Moscow during 200 years of Russian occupation (the only dish the Georgians took from them in return is their olivier, or Russian salad). But now the Russians are coming in increasing numbers to London, new Georgian restaurants are opening and the older ones are coming out of the closet.

This beautiful little corner of Asia is a sort of paradise. It's blessed with fertile soil and a diverse landscape, from the subtropical Black Sea coast to the snow-peaked Caucasus Mountains to the glorious Kakheti hills, where grapes are grown on high slopes in the country that gave wine to the world 8,000 years ago.

"I could not believe the quality of the produce in the markets – it was phenomenal," says Claude Bosi of Hibiscus, the two-Michelin-starred restaurateur who has been incubating a love affair with Georgia since his first visit last year.

In Tbilisi to create a gala dinner during the food and wine festival, he discovered the fine sunflower oil, now a staple in his Mayfair kitchen, the potential of walnuts and hazelnuts in a country that uses more in its cuisine than any other on earth, and the many kinds of cheese: "There is a very salty one I use as a condiment; I put it in a veal dish, which is out of this world," Bosi says. He has also created a hazelnut and Parmesan quenelle as one of several new taste sensations to partner the Georgian wines he has added to his list.

Like this wonderfully hospitable country, which has an alphabet no one else reads, a language no one else speaks and a currency used by no other nation, Georgian wines are as unique as the dishes they accompany. Nearly every rural home has a qvevri, or clay pot, buried in the ground, in which they make their own wine, allowing the grapes to macerate for a while with skins, stems and pips to produce a richer-tasting wine than the relatively low alcohol content would suggest. Reds are mainly powerful products of the saperavi grape, while whites, often blended, range from pale, crisp and appley to amber with notes of bone-dry sherry. Top growers whose wines are new to Britain include Pheasant's Tears, Nika, Our Wine and Berishvili.

It may be the trade embargo that has deprived Russians of their beloved Georgian wine that is driving those visiting London to the capital's Georgian and Russian restaurants. "Our customers from all the former Soviet countries are so pleased to see the wines here and some of the menu items," says Ilana Hundadzee, the half-Georgian assistant manager of new Russian restaurant Mari Vanna.

"The rich flavours of Georgian food appeal greatly to Russian tastes," owner Dmitry Sergeyev explains. "For many families in Russia, dishes such as lobio and khachapuri are as common as borscht on the table, so including them on our menu was very natural."

Lobio is a red bean soup often flavoured with dill as a hot starter, or the beans may be thickened to a paste to form one of the dazzling array of cold hors d'oeuvres that greet diners at every meal in Georgia.

Then come legions of hot dishes, including the essential khachapuri, as the cheese bread is known. In Tbilisi they prefer this as a round pie, but the boat-shaped variety is on the menu at a new branch of Little Georgia, one of London's first Georgian restaurants, and the newer Tamada in St John's Wood.

"They call it 'Georgian breakfast' in the west of Georgia, and if you go to the Black Sea you'll see everyone eating it in waterfront cafés," says Tamara Lordkipanidze, chef patron of Tamada.

This is an unbelievably delicious dish – but then so is the round khachapuri at Little Georgia, which also makes a dessert to die for of thick blini made with a yoghurt batter and served with strawberries.

Georgia's baking may be even better than its food and wine – and don't forget the Cha Cha, a grappa that natives down with khinkali (indescribably delicious meat dumplings that take years to learn to wrap properly so all the juice stays in and comes flooding down your throat with the first bite).

Don't expect a khinkali or khachapuri shop in the UK any time soon – but you can expect to see other Georgian dishes edging into the high street. The boat-shaped cheese bread inspired by a Georgian bakery just introduced by Marks & Spencer is, sadly, nothing like real khachapuri, but Tamada has packaged its lobio and some other products for local Budgens stores, while artisan Georgian wines are newly available here from importer Les Caves de Pyrène.

Little Georgia, 14 Barnsbury Road, London N1, littlegeorgia.co.uk

Tamada, 122 Boundary Road, London NW8, tamada.co.uk

Mari Vanna, 116 Knightsbridge, London SW1, marivanna.co.uk

For Georgian wines: Les Caves de Pyrène, lescaves.co.uk


Khachapuri – round pie of cheese-filled bread to share

Adjaruli khachapuri – boat-shaped cheese bread served with an egg

Sacivi – poached chicken served in a thin walnut-and-garlic sauce

Lobio – red bean soup

Khinkali – dumplings stuffed with juicy beef, pork, onions and spices

Chakapuli – lamb baked with sour plums and tarragon

Bazha – a delicious thin walnut sauce, also a component of sacivi, used on the Georgian table as a condiment

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick