Phoenician Dining on the Silk Road

Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.

Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE
Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE

In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.

Center Detail - Man Battling a Lion
Center Detail – Man Battling a Lion
Snake Detail
Snake Detail

The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)

Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Afghan Cardamom Cookies
Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Today I’m cooking for a holiday get together with friends we’re having this evening, but wanted to share a delicious recipe with you that is just perfect for this time of year.

These Afghan cardamom cookies are spicy and savory, and deliver a blast of cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth.

They are also really simple to make, and take no more than a half-an-hour from sifting, to cooling rack, to table. Try them to add a different kind of Silk Road spice to your holiday dessert spread.

Ingredients
1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup whole milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts, plus a few whole nuts to press into cookies

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°. Sift together the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Roll the dough into 1-inch round balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.

Remove from the oven and press a whole pistachio into the center of the cookie as it cools. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.

(Makes about a dozen-and-a-half cookies.)

Variation: Substitute some lard or other animal fat for all or some of the butter for additional savory, umami flavor and mouthfulness.  Life is hard in Afghanistan, and in lean times women will even use corn-oil to make these cookies.  They turn out fine every time.

Early 20th Century Georgian Winemaking

On the subject of Georgian winemaking, I recently found these incredible old photos depicting various aspects of wine making and drinking. I found the photos on the British Library’s Endangered Archives Project website, but they are  originally from the National Archives of Georgia. The first three were taken by the photographer, Constantine Zanis, probably in the late 19th or early 20th Century. The are of a man tending grapevines, Men crushing grapes, and a line of qvevri – the traditional vessel used for Georgian winemaking – along the side of a road.

Man Tending Grapevines
Man Tending Grapevines
Men Crushing Grapes
Men Crushing Grapes
Qvevri Along the Roadside
Qvevri Along the Roadside

The next is a photo of a fantastic pair of drinking horns set in silver. It was taken by the photographer, Dmitri Ivanovich Yermakov, and is dated 1880.

Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)
Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)

I’ve never enjoyed wine from a drinking horn, but imagine that it would somehow taste more . . . heroic.

The last photo is interesting because it shows men sampling wine out of a qvevri. The photograph is entitled Sampling Wine in Armenia. Although the oldest winemaking vessels are from Georgia, the practice was traditionally more widespread across the region – the term for qvevri in Armenian is karas. That said, it is not clear where this photograph was taken. I wonder whether it is in part of the territory that Georgia lost to Armenia during Sovietization, but clearly, the fashions seem to be Armenian. The photograph is by Gertrude Beasley, and is date 1923.

Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923
Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923

Food and Wine at Pheasants Tears

This is an essay that is long overdue. It’s been well more than a year since I ate delicious food paired with fantastic wines at Pheasants Tears tasting room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. The dishes and the wine were wonderful and remain vivid in my memory, but they were also matched by the hospitality shown to me by the people of Pheasants Tears. My apologies, Gia, Tamar, Alex, and all of the other great folks I met that day. I hope that this post expresses how grateful I am for the time we spent together.

Pheasant's Tears Entry
Pheasant’s Tears Entry

From the moment one steps through the elaborately carved doors of Pheasants Tears, you know that this isn’t just another tasting. You can feel the difference in the dusky pink stones and bricks that line the walls of the tasting room and you can see it in the smiling and laughing faces of the guests. There is LOVE here. You are surrounded by people who love what they do and who are anxious to share it with you.

Visits usually begin with a tour of the tasting room and its modest winemaking museum. A centuries-old carved, wooden basin for holding grapes for processing hints at old the art of vintning is in Georgia’s eastern Khaketi province. Sighnaghi is a few hundred miles from Areni-1 cave with its Copper-Age wine production site (dated 4223 – 3790 BCE). In between these two points lies Shulaveri, Georgia where the oldest domesticated grape pips have been dated to eight-thousand years ago. So clearly, viticulture, vintning, and wine drinking in Georgia are amongst the most ancient in the world.

Traditional Georgian winemaking is done underground. Large earthenware vessels called qvevri are coated with beeswax to make them less porous and to provide a near neutral pH surface for the wine to ferment in. The qvevri are then sunk into the ground or buried below a cellar in a wine-making facility, and usually left to season or age before first use. Then, the qvevri are filled with partially smashed grapes and their accompanying liquid, and pounded some more to fully macerate the grapes. The contents of the qvevri are stirred several times a day to push the skins of the grapes down into the wine The only yeasts used to ferment the grapes are the natural yeasts that come in on the grapes. After a week or two of stirring, the qvevri are sealed with stone caps and clay for months or years as the wines mature.

Traditional Qvevri and Winemaking Museum
Traditional Qvevri and Winemaking Museum

I was lucky enough to be greeted and toured around by the brilliant man who makes the food at Pheasant’s Tears tasting room as unique and as unforgettable as its wines – Chef Gia Rokashvili. His culinary creations meld the freshest Georgian herbs and produce with modern, healthy, preparation methods and deep knowledge of both traditional Georgian and French cuisine. He calls this his, “fusion,” style. I call it inspired and delicious.

A large party of Russian tourists were in mid-meal when I arrived, so after my tour, Gia gave me into the care of his wife, Tamar who is the maître d’hôtel and manager of the tasting room and a visiting American vintner named Alex Rodzianko. As Gia went to oversee the kitchen, Alex and I began tasting – and eating.

We started with a light white Chinuri – a great summer wine – with a floral aroma and a crisp finish, and moved on to an amber Rkatsiteli (my husband’s favorite), another light wine with a surprisingly full body given its color and aroma.  As we tasted, a parade of light dishes began to flow from Gia’s kitchen to our table.  A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers was first up, followed by some heavenly roasted eggplant with garlic, walnuts, and herbs.  Last up was a Georgian specialty called jonjoli which is a seed pod of a bladdernut (Staphylea colchica) that tastes something like a caper, only Georgian’s prepare them with the tender, young greens attached.  Lightly tossed in safflower oil and a bit of seasoning, its not to be missed.

Tomato and Cucumber Salad
Tomato and Cucumber Salad

 

Eggplant with Garlic, Walnuts and Herbs
Eggplant with Garlic, Walnuts and Herbs

 

Jonjoli
Jonjoli

After the Rkatsiteli, Alex offered me a delicious Tavkveri, a full bodied red with hints of cranberry and hibiscus. It has an incredible floral aroma that fills the senses and hints of the wonderful flavors to come. We closed with a glass of chacha to aid our digestion. Chacha is technically a grape brandy, but it is very strong (like grappa on steroids). It is a traditional homebrewed liquor that can also be made from other fruits such as figs, mulberries and tangerines, that is now being made by professional distillers. By the time we got to the chacha, my driver walked into the tasting room for the third time and began glowering at me with a smokiness that only a Georgian can muster. He also had his ample arms crossed across his chest. Subtle though he was, I got the message. Reluctantly, I had to leave. Thank yous and hugs all ’round and a few bottles to bring home and I was on my way.

If your own travels take you to Georgia, do pay a visit to the Pheasants Tears tasting room. It is a wonderful place with great wine, delicious food, and wonderful people. A great place to spend a day, or two, or three, and feel the love that they bring to their work. In the car ride back to the city, I began to understand why people return again and again, and some, never leave. (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley)