A slide show of some of the must-eat-at restaurants in Asia. Stunning photography by David Hagerman, David Lett, Carla Capalbo, yours truly (me) and others. The restaurants I included were, Hua’s Shimao Mansion in Beijing’s Central Business District, Mirza Bashi in Khiva, Uzbekistan, and in Western Asia, Pheasant’s Tears Tasting Room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. Check out the lovely photos of some great restaurants and the people who prepare the food. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
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.
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.
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.
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)
We toasted to the mountains and how they have perseved Georgian culture over the millennia, to our ancestors, to our homelands, the men stood and toasted to the beautiful women in their lives and we all toasted to the future. Those were amongst the many toasts that we shared over glasses of Pheasant’s Tears recently at the Supra in Levante’s restaurant in downtown Washington’s Dupont Circle.
Our tamada, or toastmaster, Mr. John Wurdeman, co-owner of Pheasant’s Tears Vineyards, also bade us drink to the musicians and dancers, Zedashe, who illuminated our meal with ancient songs – like the one called Chakrulo sampled here *. The soulful, tight harmonies of the Georgian songs have been adapted for mixed male and female voices by the group with beautiful results. I’m no expert, but some of the recitative songs (particularly those from the Kartli-Kakheti region) seem to be stylistically related to Russian znammeny chant or perhaps share a common ancestor in the Byzantine church with znammeny. The group also played the panduri lute, the doli drum and a sort of goat-skin bagpipe called the chiboni.
There was wine, there were toasts, there was music – this being a Georgian Supra, there was, of course, dancing. Men dancing alone, men dancing with women and small groups of people circling each other, arms and legs blazing. It was impossible not to get drawn into the passionate sounds and sights and let one’s knife and fork down to clap along with the group.The food itself was solid, mostly Turkish offerings of Levante’s that were quite delicious. I had the spiced adana kebab and found it tender and very good and my husband had the beyti which he also enjoyed. The only truly Georgian food item was khachapuri the bread filled with suluguni cheese, but it didn’t distract from the overall enjoyment of the evening.Our dining companions were Maryland Senator, Jim Rosapepe and his wife, journalist, Shelilah Kast who hosts an NPR radio show called Maryland Morning. In addition to being great to dine with and interesting to talk to, both the Senator and his wife have written a book called Dracula is Dead about the fall and rebirth of modern Romania. Georgian embassy staff were also present with their families and at the table next to our own, I spied Oleg Kalugin.
The highlight of the evening came for me when the tamada came round to our table to tell us that, “My best friend in the whole world is a Persian Prince. . .” (what an opening line, eh?) “and a few nights ago, he gave me a gift of the Silk Road Gourmet, saying that it was his family’s favorite cookbook.”
Good food, great companions, a commanding tamada urging us on to more toasts celebrating life, and love; beautiful singing and dancing . . . why did it have to end?
It ended as all good parties end, so we can go out and live – to give us more life to celebrate. So, we left with smiles, with CDs and bottles of wine to share with our families. I also left with the knowledge that my book is bringing value and joy to some wonderful people. (Words and photographs by Laura Kelley; use of Chakrulo, courtesy of Zadashe. Special thanks to Prof. Mamuka Tsereteli of American University and the Georgian Wine House for organizing the event.)
* The song Chakrulo was also included as a representative sample of human communication on the Voyager Spacecraft in 1977 . . . I wonder if they like it too?
Last week I had the honor and the pleasure of attending a wine tasting at the Georgian Embassy in Washington, DC. Already a fan of Georgian wines – especially of the robust red Mukuzani and the full-bodied, white Tvishi – I attended the tasting to discern the differences between the wines from the featured vintners from Khaketi and the Teliani Valley.
Georgia has some of the oldest viticulture practices in the west, with a history going back thousands of years before the common era (BCE). The traditional method of fermenting grapes – in beeswax lined clay amphora buried in the ground – is still used by some of the vintners. One vineyard represented at the Embassy that still makes wine this way is Pheasant’s Tears, which brought its Saperavi and Rkatsiteli to the tasting. The traditional method produces wines that are thin by today’s standards, but wines that are intriguing none the less. The Rkatsiteli was a rich amber color and had hints of walnut with a citrus bite and the Saperavi also has a citrus bite, but is richer wine that I found more complex.
From vintners using modern production methods, I sampled an unfiltered Saperavi which was very good, and my favorite Mukuzani – which is a dry red produced from Saperavi grapes. The Teliani vineyard version of this wine that I sampled was fabulous. It had a complex aroma with hints of black pepper and oak, robust plum overtones with a strong, but not overpowering finish. It was the scene stealer for me – along with a delicious Bagrationi extra dry sparkling wine with overtones of quince and melon.
The wine was delicious, but the surprise of the evening for me was the delightful informality of the Georgians present from the Embassy staff and cultural association representatives to the visiting dignitaries and even the caterers. Everyone was friendly, interesting to talk to and eager to share their knowledge of Georgian food and wine with me. The event was more like being an invited guest at a `friend’s family dinner than any other Embassy event I have ever attended. The Georgians spoke to their Ambassador to the U.S. as if to an old friend and addressed him by his first name. The husband of the caterer, Maya of The Georgian Feast, even asked me if I wanted to take some of his wife’s delicious food home with me. Ingrained manners forced me to decline, even though I really wanted some more of her amazing spinach balls with pomegranate seeds. Still, I was charmed by the invitation.
The event was sponsored by the Georgian House of Greater Washington and the wines provided by the Georgian Wine House. The Embassy is leading an effort to educate wine-lovers in the U.S. about the delicious, wide-variety of Georgian wines. I encourage those interested to seek out the wines in your own areas or to order them and experiment with food pairings – hopefully with dishes cooked from The Silk Road Gourmet. (Words by Laura Kelley.)