So finally, to the main recipe for Hot Pepper Relish (Adzhika). In Georgia, grilled meat is never served without a relish or condiment. The Adzhika I ate in Tbilisi had a salsa-like consistency, but it apparently varies to a firm paste. This recipe is adapted from Darra Goldstein’s and is heady with garlic, hot with chilies, tart from vinegar and aromatic with fresh dill and coriander. The whack of intense flavour you get from this salsa is quite incredible, and it is effortlessly made by putting all the simple ingredients into a food processor and pulsing them to a fine salsa. We ate this recently with lemon chicken skewers, the next morning on scrambled eggs and as Nigella Lawson recommends in her book Feast, on cold, sweet slices of melon.
In 2013 I went on a surreal 48 hour business trip to Tbilisi in an attempt to sell fabric to the Georgian Ministry of Defence. Instead of leaving with a contract, I returned to London with a case of Georgian wine, a deep affection for Khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) and an intense curiosity to further explore the flavours and wines of the region.
The Georgian connection sparked on a business trip to Mumbai several months earlier. The daughter of the Georgian ambassador to India was dating a film-maker friend of a colleague of mine and we met at a party. The film-maker had shot a movie in Georgia the previous summer and claimed he was able to make an introduction to the Head of Procurement at the MoD in Tbilisi. We were in the business of manufacturing high-tech fabric for use on military uniforms so naturally we were interested. The film-maker and my colleague were supposed to accompany me on the trip but both pulled out at the last minute so I landed alone in Tbilisi late one October night.
To my Western mind, everything about the trip was novel, beginning with the flight via Baku in Azerbaijan, where 95% of the plane disembarked and only 3 of us continued to Tbilisi. I later learned that the US was building a crude oil pipeline from Baku, through the Caspian sea (The Republic of Georgia was a strategic partner) to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It allows the US to bypass Russian pipelines and avoid the Bosphorus bottleneck, and it has the capacity to transport 1m barrels a day from the Caspian sea, which contains the world’s third-largest oil and gas reserves.
My taxi driver was genial as we drove down George W. Bush Street, a picture of Joseph Stalin dangling from his rear-view mirror. The reverence many still display for Stalin was alarming at first, but I grew to understand it as the “misguided national spirit” Darra Goldstein discusses in her book, The Georgian Feast. I stayed at a Sheraton hotel, where the decor was seriously Soviet but the room service menu authentically Georgian. I went straight for the dumplings, tossing the local newspaper aside in favour of a midnight feast. The Republic of Georgia has been dominated throughout time by several foreign forces and Khinkali, boiled dumplings made with a variety of fillings, are apparently indicative of the Tartar (Mongolian) influence. I didn’t know how soon I’d be back in Tbilisi so, erring on the side of caution, I ordered two main course plates of Khinkali – one with beef and pork in a warm beef broth and another filled with cheese. The dumpling dough was soft and tender, yielding it’s filling the instant I approached them with the tines of a fork.
After a meager 4 hours sleep on a belly full of dumplings I turned up as arranged at the Georgian National Investment Agency who were to provide a guide and translator to accompany me to my meetings. The Finance Minister at the time was a college buddy of the head of the agency, so she arranged for us to meet as I had an hour free before my meetings with the MoD. I got the impression that many heads of agencies were cronies, sons and daughters of Georgian oligarchs recently returned from the US to enlighten the country with their Ivy League education. It was a trend that came to an abrupt end when power shifted the very next month to the Georgian Dream Coalition. Thankfully we didn’t discuss much business or politics but arranged to meet later that evening for dinner and what became my first experience with the Georgian Feast, about which I’d so fondly read in Darra Goldstein’s book.
The day’s business meetings were unprofitable, and as the afternoon wore on all I could think about was the dinner that lay ahead. We met at 8pm at an upmarket but authentically Georgian restaurant, the finance minister, head of the Investment Agency, little ‘ol me and two of their friends both named Irakli. This being pre-blog, I didn’t note down the name of the restaurant. Our meal was a modest 10 courses, minimal by Georgian feasting standards, but one I will never forget. We began with khuchapuri, the dense yeasted dough filled with local cheese that tastes like a combination of feta and mozzarella. I was slightly offended when one of the Irakli’s leaned over to whisper that I should show some restraint as there were several further courses to come. By the end of the meal I realised that his caution was one of genuine concern and the exercise of moderation during a meal is learned at a young age in Georgia as many feasts span more than 20 courses and can persist for longer than 5 hours! Our meal continued with sturgeon marinated in pomegranate molasses, aubergine stuffed with walnuts and herbs, a lamb stew, dumplings of both meat and cheese, fresh salads, vegetable fritters, roast sucking pig and an overwhelming assortment of meat on skewers accompanied by bowls of hot relish, and pomegranate & walnut sauce. By the time an enormous fruit platter arrived for dessert, I wished I’d heeded their advice instead of retorting with “I’ve got a big appetite”. Lesson learned. Then, there was the wine. Toasting throughout a meal is an ancient Georgian tradition. At formal feasts, a Tamada, or toastmaster, is appointed to guide the guests through the meal with mini speeches punctuating every course. At more relaxed gatherings, it is customary for any member of the party to raise a glass of aromatic Georgian table wine as and when they please, and generally not a sip is taken outside of a toast.
Georgian legend goes that when God was creating the world he took a dinner break. He became so involved in the meal that he tripped over the Caucasus and spilled his food and wine into the land below. So it was that Georgia became blessed with the table scraps from Heaven. Due to Georgia’s situation between the Black Sea and the High Caucasus, it’s topography ranges from sub-tropical to alpine. Farming and agriculture thrive and the country produces an incredible bounty. Georgia has been beset with a succession of foreign invasion from Assyrian, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arabian, Osmanli, Russian, and, lastly, the Soviet Union. It is possibly these struggles for independence that have given Georgians a strong sense of national identity and an almost genetic urge, regardless of demographic, to celebrate life through feasting. I yearn to return to Georgia and experience the food, wine and culture from a less privileged perspective. Throughout my travels, the best food I’ve eaten has been in people’s homes and that is not something I was able to experience in Tbilisi.
Contrary to popular belief, the origins of viticulture and wine belong to ancient Georgia and not to Rome. Archeology has revealed that wine making was practiced there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. I hope to write further soon about the wines I love from Georgia but for now I’ll just mention a two. During our little feast, we drank a popular Georgian dry white wine called Tsinandali, a crisp, fruity, aromatic blend of two local grape varieties (Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane), which I haven’t been able to find in the mainstream London wine trade. The majority of commercial viticulture takes place in Khaketi, in Eastern Georgia, and Marani vineyards have had some success in export markets. I bought their Rkatsiteli (pronounced Ra-kats-itelli) at Hedonism Wines recently, which was the only Georgian white wine available at this large wine shop but there are more on offer online. It’s a rich, full-bodied wine that to me smelled like peaches with some waxy notes. It tasted of soft, ripe lemons, yellow peaches and a little floral, with that waxiness the reminds me of Chenin Blanc, but with less acidity and therefore less refreshment.
8 garlic cloves
1 stick celery
125g long red chillies (Goldstein and Lawson instruct you to leave the seeds in, but I deseed half the chillies)
1 red pepper
20-30grams dill (1 and 1/2 cups roughly chopped)
20-30grams coriander (1 and 1/2 cups roughly chopped)
80ml / 1/4 cup good quality red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Peel the garlic cloves and pulse them to small pieces in a food processor.
2. Roughly chop the red pepper, chillies, celery and herbs, then add them to the food processor with the vinegar and salt and pulse to the texture of a fine salsa.
3. Empty the relish into a glass jar and leave overnight – the flavours will mingle and the heat of the chillies will calm down.
Serving suggestions –
With grilled meat or fish
With scrambled eggs
Over cold slices of sweet melon
Boneless chicken thighs – there is enough marinade for about 10 chicken thighs
Juice of 2 large lemons
Zest of 1 large or 2 smaller lemons
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
You will also need several skewers.
1. Mix the marinade together in a bowl large enough to fit all the chicken.
2. Chop the chicken into roughly 1 inch cubes and thread 5-6 pieces onto each skewer.
3. Marinade the chicken in the lemon mixture for several hours but preferably overnight.
5. Fire up the BBQ or a non-stick pan and grill the chicken skewers, turning 3-4 times during cooking, over medium heat for about 15 minutes.
Serve with the hot pepper relish