The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.
A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.
That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.
We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.
This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.
TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.
Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.