Carlo Catani, an activist with the Slow Food movement, was at a wine show in Italy two years ago tasting some bottles from Georgia when an idea struck him: what if he were able to convince Italian winemakers to make wine using the traditional Georgian method of fermenting it in large clay vessels known as kvevri?
The initial idea was something of a joke, says Catani, who works on promoting wine culture in his native region of Romagna. But the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he was about the idea. “We talked to some producers in our region, and 15 of them agreed to try doing it. Our goal was to help spread Georgian wine culture, but another goal was to get the producers to collaborate among themselves, which was something they usually didn’t do. This was the only way they could make this kind of wine in a good way,” Catani says.
And so was born what is still an ongoing experiment – to make Italian wine with a Georgian accent (or is it Georgian wine with an Italian accent)?
The experiment is not so far fetched, Catani says. Turns out making wine in clay vessels was once done in Italy – in Roman times, that is. “The Romans stopped using this method more or less after the Barbarian invasion. After that they started using wooden barrels,” he explains. “So we more or less have some 1,500 years of a gap in using kvevris. The Georgians have been using kvevris from the beginning, from when wine grapes were domesticated until now. So they have good knowledge in how to use this.”
With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
Yerevan-based Marianna Grigoryan finished 2013 off with what might be Eurasianet's wildest story of the year: an article about one Armenian supermarket that is offering up an entire smoked crocodile as an item for the traditional New Year's feast.
Here's a taste of her great article:
Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.
“Who can afford such luxury?” fumed 48-year-old Yerevan dressmaker Silva Alexanian. “Once the markets used to be full with people before New Year’s nowadays; now they are empty. People have either left the country, or cannot afford celebrating New Year’s. Most of them hope for the money their relatives working abroad send them.”
With roughly one-third of Armenia’s approximate population of 3 million people now officially living in poverty, for some, the crocodile symbolizes all that has gone wrong economically with this South Caucasus country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Migration has increased by 12 percent this year, while remittances increased fivefold in the first six months of the year to $1.2 billion, according to official data.
Grigoryan's smoked crocodile tale was so intriguing that I followed up with to get more details about the story and some of the economic and sociological background to it. Our exchange is below:
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the area around eastern Turkey's Erzincan, for a story about local dairy making traditions in the home village of Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the very successful Chobani yogurt brand. That story, from which the photos in the above slideshow were taken, can be found here.
A recent New Yorker profile of Ulukaya, who went from shepherd boy in the mountains near Erzincan to prosperous entrepreneur in the United States, can be found here.
What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
Fast food entrepreneur Kadir Nurman recently died in Germany, leaving this world with what may be one of the finest titles ever bestowed on any man: "Inventor of the doner kebab."
Nurman, born in Istanbul, was part of the wave of Turkish migrants who came to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960's and 70's. Settling in West Berlin, he set a food stall selling sandwiches of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit and, as they say, the rest is history. Or is it? As the Guardian points out in an article written in the wake of Nurman's death, attributing the "invention" of doner to him might be a bit misleading. From the Guardian:
The doner – or shawarma or gyros, as it's also known –differs from other familiar kebabby preparations, such as shish, by being layered up on a spit and grilled vertically. This in itself wasn't particularly novel; 18th-century Ottoman travel books talk of meat being cooked this way, while in the kebab's spiritual home of Bursa, the vertically grilled Iskender is perhaps Turkey's finest mouthful.
Nurman's supposed innovation came in sticking the shaved pieces of meat into a flatbread with the saladings, making kebabs a moveable feast for busy Berliners. Until then, in theory, they had been shoved on a plate. While few seem convinced by Nurman's claim to have invented what is essentially a sandwich, in 2011 a slightly mysterious Berlin-based organisation called the Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers made it official, and so it passed into history.
After centuries of being looked down on as wine’s poor moonshine cousin, Georgian chacha is finally getting the chance to unveil its smoother, more urbane self.
Created by distilling the waste left over from making wine, chacha is better known for its powerful punch and “medicinal” value than its taste – making it an odd choice to showcase at the rebirth of the Mtatsminda restaurant, a former icon of Tbilisi culinary life that reopened this summer for the first time in nearly two decades.
But its legacy as a purely Georgian beverage tempted a team of consulting drinkmasters from the United Kingdom, brought in by the GMT Group to create a tableau of Georgian cocktails for Mtatsminda’s new Funicular Lounge.
A grappa-like drink made from the grape skins and pulp left over from wine production, chacha normally clocks in at around 60 proof and is consumed neat, in 100 ml shots to fight off colds and/or catch a fast buzz by Georgians of nearly every age, sex, and economic class. Those who are too young to drink it are, in western Georgia at least, forced to rub it on their arms and legs to fight off the sting of mosquitos in the summer.
The clear, sweet smelling liquor is so popular the Saakashvili administration decided to build a tower in its honor in a bid to attract tourists to Batumi. That, and use its waste material to feed cows in hopes of producing more milk.
The GMT Group spent $20 million and six years to renovate the crumbling Mtatsminda restaurant and funicular station, originally commissioned by Lavrentiy Beria in the 1930s, when he was the head of the Communist Party in the Caucasus before he moved on to lead the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.
Food writer and blogger Katie Parla certainly leads an enviable life, splitting her time between Italy and Turkey and chronicling traditional food culture in both countries.
Recently, Parla had a chance to visit eastern Turkey's Kars, a city famed throughout the country for its cheese (and, among the more literary-minded, for being the setting for Orhan Pamuk's "Snow"), where she had a chance to work side-by-side with some of the city's local cheese makers.
I asked Parla is she could share some thoughts about her experience in Kars (which she wrote about here). Our exchange is below:
How did you end up in Kars making cheese?
I was invited to Kars by my friend chef Şemsa Denizsel of Kantin. She has been making outrageously good sourdough bread with heirloom wheats from Kars for three years and was eager to see the grain fields and visit the water-powered mill that grinds grains for her flour. While in Kars, we called on her friend İlhan Koçulu who makes gravyer (gruyere) in his village. He showed us the process of his own cheese as well as that of kaşar. While visiting the kaşar workshop I was invited to try my hand at making this cheese. It looked difficult to make and turned out to be even harder than it looked.
Did anything in particular stick out about the cheesmaking in Kars?
Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti has been traveling around the world in the name of a project that is both admirable and ambitious (and certainly not without its perks): capturing images of the globe's grandmothers at work in their kitchens. The results of his project, "Delicatessen with Love," can be found here.
I recently reached out to Galimberti, who spent part of his project photographing grannies in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, to find out more about his project and its origins. Our exchange is below:
1. Why did you decide to do this project?
When I started my trip around the world with the idea of making a documentary about CouchSurfing all my family was a little worried for the fact that I was going away from home for two years. I was going to travel in many different countries, sleeping at somebody's house, hosted by people that I didn't know. I then realized though that my grandmother was mostly worried about the food that I was going to eat. She told me something like: “Are you sure you want to go? What are you going to eat in Africa? And in China? You should stay at home. I can cook for you.”
All this made me laugh a lot and I told to my grandma: You know grandma? There are many grandmothers all over the world and I'm sure they will be happy to feed me and cook something special for me. This is the way I had the idea for this project!
2. Considering this blog's geographic interests, what stood out the most to you about the grandmas you met in Turkey and the Caucasus and their cooking?
As an Italian, I have to say that the places where I felt more like if I was at home are actually Turkey and Georgia. I feel the grandmothers there really similar and close to the Italian grandmothers... the way the treated me, the taste of their food. I really felt like I was at home in these places.
Photographer Dave Hagerman is the picture-taking half of the visually-arresting and wonderfully-written EatingAsia blog. Lately, Dave and his partner, Robyn Eckhardt, have been spending a lot of time in Turkey and chronicling their travels in a drool-inducing Tumblr called EatingTurkey.
During his most recent stay in Turkey, Hagerman also managed to make it down to Gaziantep, a city near the Syria border famed for its kebabs and baklava, on assignment for Saveur magazine to shoot a story about the city's grill masters.
I recently sent Hagerman some questions about his impressions of the trip to Gaziantep and the the role of the city's ustas ("masters" in Turkish) in keeping the local culinary culture alive. Our exchange is below:
1. You've travelled and eaten your way through much of Turkey -- what stood out for you about Gaziantep and its food culture?
For starters the minute you walk out your door it smells like grilling meat. You know you are in kebab country and it is everywhere - street corners, shops - indoors and out. You might not think you are hungry for kebab morning, noon and night but somehow you just are.
Also, the ustas display a certain amount of precision as they prepare/cook their kebabs, as if to say ' people in other parts of Turkey might do it that way, but we Antepians do it this way' -- in other words, the right way. Ingredients are key, meat -- particularly lamb -- must be sourced from only the best suppliers. It is an obsession. People would say that if it is not going to be the best, then don't bother.