The snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop to the village. Pigs shared the stone-and-mud paths, and carts pulled by oxen competed in the fields with miniature army-green Russian trucks. Me, I was getting a lesson in farm life from Tziala Ratiani, or “Babushka,” the black-clad matriarch of the family with whom I was staying—she had me milking a cow. I was at the highest point (both literally and figuratively) of my seven-day culinary adventure in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, and it didn’t get more fundamental than this. From the cow’s milk, we made fresh cheese, thickened with rennet and warmed on the stovetop until it was barely past room temperature so the curds would coagulate. The next day, we reheated our original creation, then stretched one batch into a round for the ubiquitous sulguni (a firm, salty cheese that’s used in countless dishes); braided another into a variation on Armenian string cheese; and chopped and tossed a final batch with fresh mint for one more regional specialty. Babushka smiled encouragingly as our guide translated anything that couldn’t be easily communicated by gesture.
Just one week after landing in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, I had cooked with five different women in four different towns. I’d purchased plum-size pomegranates and grape-size plums at the market in Kutaisi; prepared a delicious walnut sauce for vegetables; hand-rolled pasta for achma, the Caucasian version of lasagne; and kneaded dough for meat pies and khachapuri—cheese bread so delicious I can’t stop thinking about it (see recipe). And that was just the cooking. I’d also marveled at the tiny ancient church in the village of Kala and the frescoes in the 12th-century Gelati Monastery; walked inside Stalin’s railroad car at the museum in Gori, his birthplace; and traversed what seemed like every chaotic highway and rustic mountain road east of the Black Sea with my intrepid driver, Nodari.
As difficult as it is to get to places, however, the rewards are great and well worth the discomfort. My trip was called The Route of Flavors, but Caucasus Travel also organizes programs around horseback riding, bird-watching, wine-tasting, and skiing. This is travel at its most basic: Lodgings are modest, although the outpouring of warmth from the host families more than makes up for the absence of luxury. (011-995-32-931692; caucasustravel.com; $1,940 for seven nights, double occupancy, including meals)
What I Learned
Making lasagne the Georgian way involves dunking whole sheets of pasta (instead of strips) into water. Brilliant.
How untouched it all is. After the Iron Curtain lifted, Georgia entered a period of civil unrest, so it’s only recently that Western tourism has been cultivated.
Before You Go
Pack an adapter with thin, round prongs (the kind used in southern Europe) and clothes you can layer. Take your camera and chargers with you on the plane, just in case your bag doesn’t arrive when you do.