Georgia on my mind

by Wendell Steavenson

There is a taste of place that you cannot replace. But we try, we try! We are at home and cannot travel, but we miss, we miss! Friends and open roads and hot foreign skies, the whispering of cathedral canopies in forests, murmuring sea shores, a rough wooden tables laden with dishes and label-less bottles of wine, all empty.

I miss Georgia. I can tell because I have been trying to eat my way back to it from lockdown in Paddington. It is difficult. I cannot find blue fenugreek or the squeaky salty sulguni cheese, or lavash bread which is crunchy and chewy and puffy and charred all at the same time. I cannot parse the translation for the vital ingredient known as ‘yellow flower’ from the Georgian spice blend khmeli suneli — it is not saffron, it is not marigold. I can’t find the right kind of pork that cooks fatty and juicy and crispy, my gas stove is not banked with the wood from vine clippings which Zaliko, master of mtsvadi, once told me produced the correct, very hot heat needed for a fine barbecue.

Still, with a small pot of diminishing Svaneti salt, scattered pomegranate seeds and pounding walnuts with garlic in a pestle and mortar I have made tsatsivi, chicken with walnut sauce, shkmeruli, chicken baked with a tons of garlic and a little milk and stock and phkali, roasted aubergine stuffed with walnut paste. And then last week, joy joy, nosing about the Lebanese Iraqi Syrian shops on Edgeware Road, I found a big bag of small green plums.

These special green plums are hard and unripe, crunchy like apples, sour like gooseberries. They are not greengages, they are not crabapples. In Georgian I know them as tkemali, and they appear in market in springtime in the Caucasus, in Turkey and Lebanon and around the Eastern Med.

I made the famous Georgian sauce from them, also known as tkemali, an all purpose Caucasian ketchup. Stew down the plums with a little white wine (so they don’t catch on the bottom of the pan, and garlic and salt and a spoonful of sugar, then take out the stones with your fingers (therapeutically squishy) and stir in copious quantities of fresh coriander and tarragon and dill.

And then I made the great spring lamb stew called chakapuli, browning pieces of lamb neck and then cooking them slowly in the oven with whole tkemaliplums, a bit of sweated onion, quite a lot of garlic and white wine and chicken stock to cover. Cook in the oven for two or three hours, low and slow. Some of the plums will collapse into the sauce, people can pretty easily pick out the stones as they eat. The stew should be light and brothy in consistency rather than thick and winter sludgy. When it is finished you stir in great handfuls of tarragon, dill coriander and mint. The plums are sour and tangy and chakapuli shines as brightly as a spring canopy of bright new budded leaves.

It was very good, but it is not Georgia. I will go, just as soon as I can. Perhaps, I hope, in time for the season of tomatoes …