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
WHAT TO ASK FOR
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