Food, wine and revolution

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.

The bride who hides her face

“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by […]

Continue Reading

In the heart of the Caucasus

The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion […]

Continue Reading

Beyond the culinary

The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds. We managed […]

Continue Reading

When mining mattered

I’ve hesitated for years about Taiwan, in part due to the language which has been prohibitive for me, despite how much friends of mine have said—and extolled—about this place. This time around, I have 3 travel companions with me and planning for all of them has been a bloody pain and travelling with them, an […]

Continue Reading

The Path of Peace

In Ryukyuan legend, Nirai Kanai is the mythical realm across the sea where deities dwell and when invited, bring blessings into the home of the villagers. However seductive that imagery really is, present day Okinawa still styles itself as the island paradise (there’s even a bridge here named after this place), if the tree-lined paths, […]

Continue Reading

Route 58

If route 66 has become synonymous with the ultimate American road trip, Okinawa’s own version is found on route 58, a road that narrows in parts and widens in others and stretches from the south to the very far north of the main island. I spent a couple of days plying this route from Chatan […]

Continue Reading