An Old Sweet Song


As you fly into Tbilisi the morning sky is the colour of just-poached trout and the only buildings to be seen are tower-blocks of a dense Soviet gray which give way to the flimsier gray of office and mall as the bus circles its way into the city but as soon as you come up through the underpass the gray refracts into a gentle riot of mint, peach, aquamarine and marigold, the air smells of tarragon and charcoal, and there you are, surrounded by cats, on a street you can’t pronounce at the north end of the Old Town of Tbilisi, already thinking about dinner.

If, the three or four books already published this year on Georgian cuisine notwithstanding, Tbilisi is not yet a major destination for European food-lovers or indeed for European tourists in general then I think the variegated shades of its culture are partly to blame, sat as it is seemingly at a trading post between Europe, Russia, Asia Minor and the Middle East, both exotic and eerily familiar. At first glance, in fact, most of its food seems borrowed from elsewhere, cucumbers pickled with dill and garlic, little money-bag dumplings, pilafs, kebabs both shish- and kofte-, the boat-shaped breads of the Black Sea, though it’s hard, of course, to say where these things originated and who took them where; who knows what came from Georgia?

Perhaps the round translucent leaves of fruit leather, which, folded neatly into albums, are sold in backstreet market and tourist emporium alike, find their way into dense meat broths, a little sharpener to complement or replace the sour plum sauce which is used also as a table condiment, sharp with garlic and spices, to lift up some grilled pork or a little chicken, crisped under hot weights and served with all its juices; perhaps wine, all wine, although I believe some Armenians would dispute that. Certainly there is no doubt in the Georgian mind that their country is the cradle of wine-making, that their qvevri were turned into amphorae and their techniques taken around the civilised world, altered, bastardised, forgotten. Certainly the newer generation of Georgian vintners, having thrown off the travesties of the Soviet years, make wines which feel correspondingly ancient – intense, spicy, dry, of the rich ambers and dusty reds of a sunset across the Caucasus or the Black Sea or anywhere at all.


Wild Ferment

Although I’m still learning and experimenting, I’ve done enough fermentation now, I think, to consider myself reasonably experienced, at least when it comes to solid, savoury foods; in the field of fermented drinks, I’m still a complete beginner, at least in my adult life. The first ferment I made, in fact, was Binger Geer fromĀ The Weird And Wonderful Cookbook, a comically fizzy and powerfully gingered concoction made first with the help of, and then, as I got bored with the lengthy, repetitive process and realised I didn’t much like the stuff, almost entirely by my dad, himself a keen home brewer. He makes a fine dark ale, and a number of more or less experimental and palatable country wines; the blackberry has, in years past, made an excellent mull for Christmas Eve.

Brewing beer has always seemed like a complex and arcane process to me, requiring large investments of time, skill and equipment, and so, in fact, it is; you can buy one of those can kits and make yourself a batch of indifferent bitter with relative ease, but as you can easily buy indifferent bitter at any supermarket, cornershop or pub, it seems a little pointless. Making anything decent or interesting is hard, and best left to professionals or dedicated hobbyists; making country wines is much easier. This is obvious, when you think about it. With beer, you take a sweet-smelling but fairly unpalatable mash and coax it gently into a complex deliciousness; wine-making lets you start with something delicious and basically leave it alone, your only input being to not cock it up. Moreover, light, gluggable wines are something I generally want to drink, and they’re quite hard to come by in this country. So.

With this in mind, and with the help of Sandor Katz, I thought I’d try making honey wine. Given that honey is basically the tastiest natural thing, this is very easy. You just mix honey with water (1:4) in a bucket and leave it to do its thing; once it’s done that, you put it in a sequence of bottles until you want to drink it. There’s a little more to it than that, but those are the basics. Deciding when you want to drink it – that is, when it is at its best – is the hard part, but since it’s your wine you can sort of decide what its supposed to taste like anyway. There, that was easy, wasn’t it? Even if it goes really wrong, you’ll probably end up with vinegar, and fresh, unpasteurised vinegar is a lovely thing. You can, if you want, use it to makeĀ more drinkables, in the form of shrubs or sipping vinegars; or you can pickle things in it, taking the all-my-own-work glow of preserving up a notch. Or you can just use it as vinegar, in dressings and sauces and marinades. Honey wine vinegar is bloody lovely. Next time you find yourself with a lot of something sweet, I urge you – stick in a bucket and wait. You might not be disappointed.

Act Natural

I’ve been reading a lot about natural wines recently. This style, as distinct from organic winemaking, which bars chemical intervention in the vineyard, requires a more or less additive-free approach to the brewing process itself, barring added yeasts, sugars, and various other chemicals and techniques which have become standard in the industrial wine trade. While I wouldn’t call myself a fanatical convert – for one thing, I’ve barely tried any natural wines – it’s certainly been interesting to learn about the various practices which are allowed, and frequently used, in even very high-end wine making.

The wine industry, more, perhaps, than any other part of the food industry, is a large, efficient, modernised engine which still masquerades as small-scale, artisanal, somehow, in essence, natural. Much is made of terroir, of vintages, of the vast differences which aspect and soil and wind make to each bottle; but when yeast can be added to practically guarantee a certain body and mouthfeel, when wine can be physically ripped into its component parts to correct levels of sugar, water, alcohol, how much can terroir matter? The various DOP groups exist more to guarantee a certain quality and adherence to a sort of imagined local style than to actually ensure local individualism.

The real triumph, in fact, of modern winemaking – as with industrially brewed beer – has been the slow annihilation of variance from the norm, the sad reliance on weather and air – in other words, quality control. Even bad wines, now, aren’t really bad. They might be bad for you – the high levels of sulphites allowed in industrial wine can cause health problems – and they are certainly bad for the environment, especially in France, where their natural tendency to shoot or poison anything that moves is given free rein in vineyards; then again, they never claim not to be. The assumed ‘natural’ component of winemaking is much more nebulous than that.

Part of the current ‘clean’ ‘natural’ eating movement is a railing against processed foods, which is patently ridiculous. Nearly everything which ensures the continued existence of our species is processed in some way. As yer man (citation needed) found when he tried to live like a chimpanzee, we simply aren’t good enough at chewing to live off raw foods; without cooking and further processing, we would die. Bread, for example, is heavily processed, the base ingredient dried, ground, fermented, and held at various temperatures before consumption; because of this, it is pretty much a complete food, the staff of life, rightly holy to various cultures. The problem with industrially-produced bread is not that it has been processed, but that it has been processed very badly, with little reference to taste or nutrition.

The same could be said of wine, of cured meats, of cheese and of pickles. All of them have undergone a heavy process of industrialisation, resulting in a product which is much worse for you than it should be; but I don’t think that necessarily means the idea of industrialisation is bad. Cheaper, larger scale food production can only be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s inevitable that industrialisation throws out the good parts, the ferment, the yeast, the bacteria; perhaps, though, the success of natural winemakers, of raw-milk cheesemakers, who combine traditional techniques with a scientific understanding entirely born of industrial food processing, points a way for today’s artisans to feed us all.