Tbilisi-based journalist (and frequent Eurasianet contributor) Paul Rimple has a very interesting take on billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream party was the big winner of Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary elections. How to understand the surprise contender? sit down with him for dinner, suggests Rimple. From an excellent post of his on the Roads & Kingdoms blog:
Dozens of guests are sitting around a table that is at least 20 meters long, piled high with plates of earthy east Georgian dishes. More home-cooked food is coming. I’ve got one eye on a bowl of khashlama that was just set down. So does the billionaire.
We are in Kakheti, the hilly wine region of eastern Georgia, where khashlama is the signature dish. It might look like boiled beef, but that’s like saying wine looks like vinegar. It’s actually a heroic mix of fresh herbs, salt and beef, slow-cooked in an open cauldron. The billionaire, sitting across from me, spoons a chunk onto his plate. He is the only person holding his utensils upright, like a proper European (the English journalist with us might have done the same, I suppose, but he was still holding a pen and notebook). It’s not that I hadn’t expected such upstanding usage of the cutlery—earlier I watched him taste the homemade wine as if it had been corked in France in 1981—but there are plenty of foods, including some of the herbs on the table, that are just expected to be eaten by hand in Georgia. There’s something unsettling about a man, no matter what his tax bracket, using knife and fork at a country table in Kakheti.
Are elected officials in Yerevan trying to take any local color out of the city's food scene? That certainly seems to be the case. Last year, the city's mayor issued a ban on street vendors -- many of them fruit and vegetable sellers -- in an effort to "clean up" Yerevan. More worrisome for Yerevan residents, it now looks like local leaders are turning a blind eye while the city's well-known indoor market, the now shuttered Pak Shuka, is in danger of being demolished by a businessman cum politician who reportedly wants to turn it into a supermarket.
In a detail-rich report, The Armenian Weekly lays out the whole sordid tale:
At this point, it's widely accepted that the 2006 embargo imposed by Russia on the import of Georgian wine ended up being a good thing for Georgia's wine industry. Previously dependent on a Russian market that favored low-quality, semi-sweet wine, Georgian wine makers have been forced to improve the quality of their product as they tried to break into other markets, especially in Europe and the United States.
In a very informative blog post on the website of the Wine Spectator, the publication's associate editor, Robert Taylor, takes a look at how the Georgian wine industry has evolved since the embargo and what its future might look like if the Russian market opens up to it again. From his post:
After independence, despite privatization, Georgian wine did not become better since, like many other industries, it suffered from disorientation, insufficient financing and a lack of regulation, Kaffka said. Russia's declaration of a sanitary embargo "was not completely groundless," he noted. "In the huge flow of what was marketed as 'Georgian wine' in the 1990s, surely there was a large amount of low quality and plain fake product."
But the 2006 embargo forced the Republic's wine industry to improve quality and seek out new markets, competing with—and hoping to join—the world's fine wine regions. Up to that point, more than 90 percent of its wine production had gone to Russia.
The end of summer and the return of cooler weather has traditionally signaled the beginning of fishing season in the waters around Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. These days, this time of the year also means the return of controversy and debate over the future of the country's fishing industry and government efforts to make sure that industry even has a future.
As reported in a previous Kebabistan blog post and in a subsequent Eursianet article, the previous fishing season turned violent after the government imposed a minimum catch-size limitation on certain types of fish. Following the imposition of the new regulations, the head of an Istanbul fisheries union that supported the change was shot in the face last January by a gunman who challenged him about it (the union leader survived, although he did lose an eye).
This year, the Turkish government is proposing more new regulations designed to prevent overfishing, most significantly forbidding dragnet fishing in waters that are less than 24-meters(78 feet) deep and completely banning the use of dragnets in certain sensitive areas, such as the waters around the Princes' Islands near Istanbul.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the the European Union's decision to grant Georgia the exclusive right to market its wine bottles with the slogan "Georgia - The Cradle of Wine" to create some controversy in the Caucasus.
As the Hvino News website, which covers the Georgian wine scene, reports, the Union of Winemakers of Armenia is looking into how it might appeal Brussels' decision. From Hvino's report:
As noted by the Chairman of Union Mr. Avag Harutyunyan, not only Georgia can claim the status of "the cradle of wine", but also other countries in the region, primarily Armenia.
Armenian archeologists agree that in Georgia there are facts which prove the antiquity of the local wine. But for the moment the wine-making complex in Areni is considered the world's oldest, discovered during excavations "Areni-1" in 2011. According to the Director of Academic Institute of Archeology and Ethnography Mr. Pavel Avetisyan, both Georgia and Armenia can be considered the cradle of wine, as well as Iran, and even part of Azerbaijan, in view of the fact that the relevant archaeological materials have been found in all these countries.
This would not be the first time wine is dragged into the region's rivalries. In late June, Azeri hackers took over the website of an Armenian wine company in order to score some political points. More on that in this previous post.
In a previous post, Kebabistan reported on how in order to protest rising food prices in Iran (the result of the western-led sanctions against the country), shoppers recently participated in a "spontaneous" three-day boycott of grocery stores and bakeries.
The issue of the cost of food has clearly caught the attention of the Iranian authorities, particularly, it appears, regarding chicken, a staple of Persian cuisine whose price has skyrocketed in recent months, making it unaffordable for many average Iranians. The solution being offered by one official? Not to make more chickens available, but to make them invisible. Reports RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari:
Chickens and their rising cost could soon join the list of censored topics in Iran.
Over the weekend, police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam criticized state-controlled television for broadcasting images of people eating chicken. He suggested such footage could spur the underprivileged to revolt against affluent Iranians.
“Films are now the vitrine of the society, and some individuals witnessing this class gap might say, ‘We will take knives and take our rights from the rich,'” Ahmadi Moghadam warned during a July 14 press conference by law-enforcement officials.
In Iran, the government fixes the price of chicken at a point lower than the market rate, which has risen by some 60 percent since last year, presumably as a result of inflation and unprecedented tough Western sanctions imposed on Tehran for its controversial nuclear program. Nowadays Iranians pay as much as $5 for a kilogram of chicken. Pre-sanctions prices hovered around $2.
Georgia’s ongoing flirtation with Iran may be raising eyebrows in Washington, but there are signs Tbilisi and Tehran are taking their courtship to the next level: culinary affairs.
Iranian restaurants are popping up in Tbilisi’s popular dining districts, with eateries ranging from the height of touristy kitsch to night clubs. While there are just four in the central district so far, they appear to be taking root.
On Akhvlediani Street, a café-filled side street that runs parallel to the capital’s main boulevard, Farsi ads and Iranian flags are the newest addition to an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants.
A large Iranian flag stakes out a swath of prime clubbing space for New Mask, an Iranian restaurant/night club. While the ambiance is thin – generic carnival masks make up the bulk of the décor – Iranian pop music sets a certain mood. Plus, at an average of 18 lari ($10.84) an entrée, sampling Iranian comfort food like zereshk polow ba morgh (roasted chicken with a sweet tomato sauce served with rice and barberries) is an affordably exotic treat.
The baby step from tourism to restaurants seems like a safe move in the diplomatic minefield of fostering relations with Iran. Georgia, long considered Washington’s main ally in the region - and recipient of $1billion in aid money over the past four years – has been understandably circumspect about forming close ties with Tehran.
In 2010, Tbilisi lifted visa requirements for Iranians – a move that has helped bolster tourism between the two countries and led to a small, but noticeable, increase in bilateral trade.
But Georgia has also been careful to seek a balance between closer commercial ties with Iran and its diplomatic responsibility with the West: during an interview with CNN on July 9, Economy Minister Vera Kobalia sidestepped a question about Georgia’s increasing ties with Iran.
Perhaps following the Latin proverb "in vino veritas," a group of Azeri hackers decided to recently use the website of a major Armenian wine producer to spread their version of the "truth." Reports Armenia's News.am:
Azerbaijani hackers cracked the website of Armenia-based “Armenia Wine” factory on the night of June 25.
A group of hackers calling themselves “Anti-Armenia team” posted an article about alleged Armenia’s “aggression” towards Azerbaijan, photos, videos about Azerbaijani leader and armed forces.
In response, the Armenia Wine company said the hack was not fueled by the political tensions that exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but rather by Azeri sour grapes over the recent growth of the Armenian wine industry. Again, from News.am's article:
In its statement the company said Azerbaijanis are angered by Armenia’s ability to develop production and enter international market even being under the blockade. The company representatives assured that promotion of Armenian wines in the international market will continue regardless of any attempts.
Indeed, as previously reported on this blog, the Armenian wine industry has been making strides lately, with the creation of a handful of new wineries that are working to bottle world-class wines and with several older wineries also revamping their production to boost the quality of their product.
The international sanctions against Iran were designed to punish the country for the continuing efforts to develop its controversial nuclear program. But it appears the sanctions are also starting to impact the daily life -- and eating habits -- of average Iranians. As the Wall Street Journal reports, rising food prices have led to a spontaneous three-day boycott of grocery stores and bakeries that a surprising number of Iranians appear to have joined. From the WSJ's report:
Iranians protesting soaring food prices launched a spontaneous three-day boycott of milk and bread purchases, in a sign that growing economic hardship could lead to more civil disobedience.
The grass-roots campaign, which ran from Saturday through Monday, wasn't affiliated with any opposition group. Dozens of Iranians said in interviews and on social-networking sites and blogs that they had participated in the boycott, and a number of bakeries and grocery stores across Tehran, the capital, reported declines in milk and bread sales of as much as 90%.
Iran's economy has been deteriorating amid domestic mismanagement, corruption and international sanctions that have made it difficult for manufacturers to import raw material and to conduct banking transactions. A European Union embargo on Iranian oil is set to start July 1.
Prices of basic goods rise almost daily. Independent economists estimate annual inflation is hovering between 50% and 60%. In the past two weeks, the price of bread has increased 33%, chicken 28.5% and milk prices are climbing daily, according to Iranian newspapers and semiofficial news websites.
As Eurasianet's Justin Vela recently pointed out, the dispute over who has the right to explore for oil and gas in the waters off the divided island of Cyprus has all the ingredients for a major geopolitical confrontation. But oil and gas are not the only natural resources that are fueling the Cyprus conflict. Turns out cheese is also one of the island's disputed commodities.
As anyone who has visited Cyprus knows, the island essentially runs on one kind of cheese, the rubbery, briny white kind known as "halloumi" in the Greek-speaking south and "hellim" in the Turkish north. As one Greek Cypriot website puts it, the cheese is "the flagship of Cyprus’s authentic cuisine." On both sides, the cheese -- made from a combination of goat, sheep and cow's milk -- is often fried or grilled in chunky strips.
The cheese of either side of Cyprus's dividing Green Line might taste the same, but the issue of who gets to claim halloumi/hellim as their own is pitting the two parts of the island against each other. Greek Cyprus, which is a member of the European Union, has asked Brussels to give halloumi Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which would mean that only Cypriot cheese could be given that name. Similar protection is offered to Stilton cheese from England and other European cheeses and food products.