Tbilisi Food Market

I’ll admit that the primary reason I decided to join the International Wine Tourism Conference in Tbilisi,Georgia was for the location. For a few years now, I had been wanting to discover for myself the rich wine and culinary culture of Georgia. I narrowly missed the DWCC post-conference trip from Izmir in 2012, and had had tentative plans to visit in 2013, but life got in the way and it just never happened. In the interim, I studied the food and wine of Georgia and planned itineraries in my head. Travel information was scarce and mostly related to mountains and hiking, and the guidebooks tended towards pathetic regarding food and wine information. So, when I saw the announcement that the 2014 IWINETC conference would be held in Georgia and they were looking for bloggers and speakers, I jumped at the opportunity. My speech was accepted and I managed to join the pre- and post-conference media trip as well. I was very excited to join fellow food and wine lovers in the birthplace of wine. When I received the tour itinerary I was slightly disheartened to see that a visit to the Tbilisi market I had been reading, studying and dreaming about was not included on the schedule. But that would not deter me. I had a few hours of free time so I decided I would go on my own…even though I had yet to fully understand the concept of Georgian hospitality. When you read in guide books that Georgians believe, “A guest is a gift from God,” it is not lip service. From taxi drivers to invitations to homes, I was almost embarrassed by the level of hospitality in Georgia-knowing that I could never reciprocate in the same way. A week before the trip, I posted on the Wine and Culinary Tourism page on Facebook that I was looking for a guide and almost as soon as I posted, I got a reply that a guide would be waiting in the lobby at 10:30 am on the day of my arrival. I invited my fellow FAM trippers and the lovely guide Mariam met us in the lobby, threw us in cab and gave us our first view of the city. Of course, that view was seen while swerving in and out of the congested Tbilisi traffic until we arrived at the market about 10 minutes later. Churchkhela at the Tbilisi MarketAt this point I am sure I will start to sound like a living foodie cliché, so forgive me. The Tbilisi market needs to be included in any visitor’s itinerary. It was an explosion of colors, flavors and aromas. Before going I was mostly curious about the walnuts, fruits, pickles and Churchchela,strings of nuts dipped in grape concentrate, otherwise known as “Georgian candy.” The vendors were gracious and kindly let us sample their products. They were more than happy to explain the use of various seasons and spices such as the marigold and fenugreek powder, plum sauces and garlic salt. It was a sensory overload. Spice vendor explaining how to use the marigold and fenugreek powderMy favorite “discovery” was learning that like Italians, Georgians have a long-standing tradition and passion for wild food ranging from foraged edible weeds, wild thyme (so good!), mushrooms and fermented or pickled foods. I tasted fermented cabbage, whole fermented garlic (Mzhave Niori), fermented wild greens and wild leeks. As an advocate for home fermentation, I was overwhelmed by the range of pickled goods available. There was so much variety; anything edible was pickled. I bought fermented garlic and the strong aroma followed me all the way back home. Pickled vegetables were available at every meal we had during our trip and without paying too much attention to the health benefits, we unintentionally aided the digestion of some of the heavier Georgian foods. Fermented foods are true Super Foods. I am sure my travel mates got tired of me exclaiming, “Oh my god, I love pickles!” at every meal, but I couldn’t contain myself. I really, really love pickles. Good to know that they pair perfectly with the strong Chacha, a beverage similar to vodka that is made from the leftovers of the wine. Fermented products at the Tbilisi MarketPickles weren’t the only product that excited me. Churchkhela, the sausage shaped delicious strings of nuts that have been dipped in grape concentrate and flour were a delight. They were sweet enough to satisfy a sweet tooth but not cloyingly so. They’d be great on a hike instead of premixed trail mix. They were simple and delicious, and the one food product I wish I had bought more of. I also loved the wild honey that was sold in used pickled jars alongside different bee products such as pollen and propolis, as well as honeycomb. I took pollen every day while in Georgia as an immunity boost and—despite sleeping an average of three hours a night—I managed to stay energetic and healthy throughout the trip. Honey in used pickle jarsI not only sampled these products, also I learned about local baking techniques. The market had surprises around every corner. Mariam took us inside a small bakery where there were shelves of long pointed bread called puri and the delicious aroma of yeast and wood fire. The oven was not in the wall but in the earth in the form of a cylindrical clay tub that resembled a well. These ovens are called tone. After the dough has risen, been kneaded and been rolled, it is not put in a pan or on a shelf for baking. Instead, it is pressed up against the inner wall of the tone. I had never seen this baking process before and found it fascinating. It was yet another link that Georgian food and wine has to the earth and clay vessels.

The “tone” photo by Sally Prosser at www.mycustardpie.com

The aromas, colors and flavors are now imprinted on my heart and palate. I am so glad we visited the market before we started our trip. All of the food we tasted and all the meals we shared were made richer by the market experience. Understanding the food and the source of that food is an important part of traveling. At the Georgian table each meal is perfectly balanced between salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. Visiting the market gave me a much better understanding of the Georgian kitchen and what we could expect over the next nine days. The Tbilisi Market is truly a can’t-miss for food lovers, people interested in a more authentic experience in Georgia, proponents of slow food, real food and people who want to eat like our ancestors. Markets are always great venues to experience of the bounty of the region, and this market is no exception. I learned that the Georgian food culture is real. It has not yet been corrupted by mass production and industrialization. I certainly hope that the Georgians take pride in this and protect it. These pockets of real food culture have almost disappeared in some places and are limited to the elite in others. Food is culture, and in Georgia the culture is rich. My next visit to Georgia will include an extra suitcase for more edible souvenirs. Check out my friend Sally Prosser’s blog post on the market here  Thank you Sally, Rowena and Erin for letting me include some of your photos in the blog post!Check out their blogs/posts on Georgia!

For more on Georgian wine, check out posts by Sarah Abbot MW here and here Gorgeous photo of Churchkhela and fruit by Sally Prosser (@mycustardpie)Mzhave Niori (fermented garlic)Puri (bread) photo by Sally Prosser (@mycustardpie)Tone (oven) photo by Sally ProsserMe with some puri (bread) photo by Rowena Dumlao-Giardina (@ApronSneakers)

Rowena Dumlao – Giardina.
Rowena Dumlao – Giardina.

Jars of raw honeyBee productsOur lovely guide Mariam speaking with a Churchkhela vendorThe baker taking fresh puri out of the tone

Our guide Mariam (second from right) patiently explaining everything to us. Photo by Erin Korpisto (@vinesanddesigns)
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