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.
A this blog wrote about in a previous post, apricots hold a particularly important place in Armenian life, both culturally and economically. Writing for the wonderful Mashallah News website, journalist Liana Aghajanian delves deeper into this story, producing a beautiful ode to the apricot. From Aghajanian's piece:
Indeed, there is not an apricot in the world that tastes like the ones found in Armenia. It is more than just a piece of fruit – the weight of a country and a diaspora’s national psyche, with equal parts tragedy and nostalgia, rests on its shoulders.
Scattered across the world by the horrors of a genocide at the turn of the 20th century, the Armenian Diaspora’s feet have always been on the move, planted elsewhere by accident and circumstance, but constantly pulled back by the heavy gravitational force of Armenia. As immigrants in faraway lands struggling with a collective, passed down trauma and relishing in the nostalgic notions of homeland – a place kept neatly framed in scenic oil paintings hung on walls from Beirut to Boston, there is an intense longing for home, a place to feel grounded and whole in again, a place where an apricot can be so delicious, that no other apricot found in any other corner of the world will do.
The feeling can only be described in words that have no direct English translation. One of them is the Portuguese “Saudade”, a deeply melancholic state for the absence of something or someone. The other is a Welsh word, “Hiraeth”, defined by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.”
Forever homesick, Armenians are always searching for that fulfillment of home, for what was lost to be found.
Before Cola Turka, Turkey's domestic answer to Coke, the country's soft drink imagination revolved around gazoz, a vaguely fruit-flavored carbonated beverage. Like wine and its regional variations, almost every Turkish province and large city once had its own favorite brand of locally-made gazoz, said to be imbued with something of its home district's flavor and character. Before "small batch," "artisanal," and "local" became such foodie buzzwords, gazoz was quietly and unassumingly serving as the real real thing.
These days, most of these small gazoz brands have gone the way of the dodo bird, unable to compete with Coca Cola and other big soft drink producers. But, as Culinary Backstreets' Ansel Mullins reports, one cafe in Istanbul is working hard to keep the spirit of gazoz fizzing. From Mullins' writeup:
Avam Kahvesi’s owner, Barış Aydın, came of age in the 1980s drinking the now-defunct Elvan Gazozu, and even experimented with homemade gazoz back then. He believes drinking gazoz is a statement against cultural imperialism, a “provokasyon.” The menu at Avam, which boasts 14 different kinds of gazoz, includes notes on the flavor, origin and history of each producer in Turkish and English. Aroma Meltem Gazozu, for example, was big in the 1970s and is featured in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Barış admits that there are some flavors of gazoz that he doesn’t even like, but he says they all “taste of nostalgia.”
While Europe continues to reel from the ever-widening horsemeat-in-the-food-supply scandal that has gripped the continent for the last several weeks, attention is now also being paid to those places in the world where eating the meat is the norm.
Among those places, of course, is Kazakhstan, the world's number two producer of horsemeat and probably one of the few countries whose national dish -- beshparmak -- is made using horsemeat. The topic of Kazakhs' fondness for horsemeat has frequently entered Borat territory, more the butt of jokes than the subject of serious discussion, but a new article published by Steppe magazine offers what is a refreshingly sober and unsqueamish look at this culinary tradition. From the article, by author Robert Chenciner:
So, what does horsemeat taste like? The extremely lean cuts are rich, dark and deep-red, slightly sweet, redolent of venison but much more tender. Because the horses are steppe reared, in what must be an original source of the term ‘free range’, there is little fat. In the great intestinal sausage the fat tastes like the richest butter.
At the rear of the market in Stepnogorsk, arranged in rows of wooden stalls, was the covered, refrigerated meat section. Through plastic cold doors there were about 40 stalls in a clean and chilly room. Only one sold horsemeat (and beef). The others sold beef, chicken, and mutton.
EurasiaNet's photoessay from the other day about how the supra -- the traditional eating and drinking feast that is a bedrock of social life in Georgia -- is evolving and modernizing is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how Georgian society itself is changing.
Interested in getting more details about the story and the evolution of the supra, I sent several questions to its author, the Tbilsi-based Molly Corso, an American married to a Georgian. Our exchange is below:
1. What gave you the idea for this story?
I first started wondering about changes to the supra after I read a blog post on changing views toward the funeral feast on ISET.ge, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. After I read it, I started noticing that, fairly often, when my husband and I met up with friends, there would be an argument about who should be tamada (the toast master) since no one wanted to be saddled with the role of drinking so much. Sometimes there would be little disputes over whether or not it is necessary to say all of the traditional toasts. I started to wonder if it was something isolated, just among my husband's circle of friends and relations, or if it was a wider trend.
2. Based on your own experience, how would you describe the role of the supra in Georgian life?