(video.nytimes.com) A trip to the post-Soviet republic of Georgia where agritourism draws visitors eager to help out with the farm chores and reap the bounty at the dinner table.
Journeys: In Former Soviet Georgia, Two Families and the Art of Hospitality
|Justyna Mielnikiewicz for The New York Times|
Shorena at the Nikolaishvili house. More Photos »Vazha and his vines. More Photos »
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY Published: May 27, 2011
FIRST the roasted eggplant arrived, topped with walnut paste and pomegranate seeds, followed by seared red peppers glistening with oil, and a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, scattered with herbs. Then bread from a nearby kiln, a soul mate for the homemade cheese, which was akin to mozzarella with a sour kick. The two women of the house soon shuttled in with carafes of red and white wine, squeezed from grapes tended on the surrounding land and coaxed to life in cisterns out back. It was a fine finale — or so we thought — for our first lunch at a small farmstead in Georgia, the fertile backyard of the former Soviet Union.
We smiled and thanked the women. They chuckled, as if to say: silly guests, that does not make for a Georgian meal. And as a fire crackled in the hearth, they kept crowding the broad wooden table with platters — chicken grilled under a brick, chubby spiced meat dumplings, stuffed cabbage and numerous accompaniments.
“Almost everything that we eat here, we grow on our own,” our host, Vazha Nikolaishvili, later told us.
We marveled at the repast, as well as the location: Kakheti, a lush region of Eastern Georgia known for its winemaking, where blooming agritourism ventures offer a chance to see how private farming has revived since the end of the dismal collective agriculture of Communism.
Last fall, joined by my wife and three children, I journeyed two hours by car from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to Kakheti, but decided against a hotel in favor of a three-day stay with the Nikolaishvili family in the village of Tsinandali. On our arrival, we were greeted by Vazha, the patriarch of the family, a charming and chatty man who looked like Pablo Picasso.
During a tour of the property in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains, he explained in a raspy voice how he produces wine from grapes that he tends around his house and on 15 acres nearby. He also has persimmon, and other fruit trees, and raises vegetables as well.
“When we harvest grapes and other crops, my friends, my son’s friends, come to help us, 50 or 60 men come to help us,” he said. “My wealth is my friends.”
The Nikolaishvili family has even branched into organic crops, and has helped to champion an association of Georgian organic producers called Elkana, a nongovernmental association that is trying to nurture organic farming across the country.
In recent years, local growers like the Nikolaishvilis have begun to throw open their doors to tourists, showing off Georgia’s robust traditions of hospitality, which endured even during the Soviet era. Back then, Georgia was a popular vacation spot for the Communist elite, with its soaring mountains and Black Sea coast. Even now, Georgian cuisine has a cherished niche throughout the former Soviet Union — a jazzy cousin to more staid Slavic food.
The accommodations at the Nikolaishvili’s were not fancy: the five of us slept in a couple of rustic bedrooms in the main house; the bathroom was in a separate building a short walk away. In the spring and fall, nighttime temperatures can dip close to freezing. A wood stove in the kitchen provided heat, though it did not always reach our bedrooms. (Guests are welcome year-round, though the nonwinter months are preferable. Call 995-99-260-215 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.)
Still, we were treated warmly by Mr. Nikolaishvili and his family, who delighted in describing rural customs and teaching us to cook Georgian specialties. The price was more than reasonable — $35 a night per person, including copious quantities of that delicious food and house wine. (Fresh-squeezed grape juice for the children, too.)
Mr. Nikolaishvili, 62, and his wife, Tina, 58, did not speak English, so we communicated with them in Russian, which they learned during Soviet times. Their English-speaking son, Niko, 35, and daughter-in-law, Shorena, 26, were at the ready to translate for foreigners.
Of course, it was not all eating and chatting — there was work to be done.
From the first milking of their cow at dawn to the baking of bread at night, we took part in the farm’s chores. Vazha demonstrated how the grapes were picked, pressed and fermented, especially the classic Georgian varietals, rkatsiteli (white) and saperavi (red). Though he has his own label, he said that most of his yield — he produces as many as 70,000 bottles a year — he sells wholesale. He also distills chacha, a punch-to-the-gut brew made from grape skins and other remains of the fermentation process.
The alluring property was covered with grapevines on trellises, and the children played tag around the vegetable plots in the waning autumn sunlight.
They also loved loitering in the kitchen with Tina and Shorena, learning how to cook dishes like the spiced meat dumplings called khinkali. “That’s not quite right,” Shorena gently chided, holding up a lumpy dumpling that looked as if it had been mangled by a toddler. Everyone laughed, and started over again.
The highlight of our time in the kitchen was making walnut bars called churchkhela, a cherished harvest event in Georgia. The women boiled a pot of fresh grape juice, vigorously stirring it and thickening it with flour. The children took strings of walnuts and dipped them into the mixture, forming a gooey coating. The strings were hung to dry around the house, the treats later gnawed upon for the rest of the trip.
Vazha liked nothing more than to pour a glass of rkatsiteli — or several — and sit in front of the fire in the dining room and talk. He recalled that he learned the virtues of hospitality from his grandfather, who planted the ancestors of some of the grape vines still on the property. When someone stopped by, whether for business or pleasure, his grandfather first ushered them to the table.
“Whatever there was in the house, it could be anything, it could be something simple — salt and bread, cheese and greens — he would pour wine and only after that would he ask, ‘What is the purpose of your visit, what do you need, how can I help you?’ “Mr. Nikolaishvili said.
“Why are we alive?” he added, rhetorically. “Isn’t it to meet people, to offer them a good meal, to share a meal with them? Georgians love having guests, and we want the entire world to know that.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 29, 2011, on page TR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Home Cooking in Georgia (Not That One).