Few travellers west of the Black Sea venture to the Caucasus on their holidays, but in Georgia you can find one of the world’s most richly historical nations, best explored by tucking into its unique and ancient cuisine.
The expansive landscapes of Georgia, towered over by the majesty of the Caucasus Mountains, have seen about as much history as any place on Earth. This is where the oldest human remains outside of Africa have been found. In Greek mythology, when Jason and the Argonauts go in search of the Golden Fleece, it’s to Georgia – or the Kingdom of Colchis back then – that they go.
It’s also a natural geographic gateway between Europe and Asia, a sneaky backdoor route to avoid the treachery of mountains to the north and barren deserts further south. Its capital, Tbilisi, was a bustling hub for global trade, and a stop on the famous Silk Road route. This has placed Georgia at the core of cultural exchange for millenia, with huge influence from Persia, as well as encounters with Ancient Greece, Rome, and many other empires, kingdoms and cultures.
Not only does this unique place – both literally on the map and figuratively in the history books – make Georgian museums among the most interesting you can visit, but it has also forged a society rich in global influences and a sense of exchange inherent, particularly in Tbilisi, where the mingling of cultures hasn’t had an eyelid batted at for centuries.
There is no better expression of this nation’s unique geography and vibrant history than in its ancient culinary traditions.
Georgia is without doubt one of the great undiscovered foodie destinations. This is the cradle of wine, where humans have been fermenting grapes longer than anywhere else on the planet. Evidence of early winemaking techniques date back a whopping 8,000 years, when locals buried grapes underground in shapely clay vessels named qvevri, a technique still maintained by many wineries to this day.
If wine – or for hardier souls Chacha, the punchy spirit made with grape residues left behind in the winemaking process – is the flowing blood of Georgian culture, then its flesh and bone consists of a rich and delectable variety of dishes often unique to this specific part of the world. Georgian cuisine blends the hearty earthiness of Central and Eastern European dishes with the fresh, seasonal qualities of the Mediterranean and the subtle spice trail left by passing Silk Road merchants.
Bread still made with ancient techniques, high-quality cheese produced in the mountains and fresh, locally grown seasonal vegetables that combine – usually with walnuts or walnut oil – to perfectly balance the hearty meat dishes that take centre stage.
It is impossible to speak about Georgian food without starting, much like most meals do here, with khachapuri. The national dish is advertised in the shop window of every other restaurant in Tbilisi, and barely a meal will pass by during your visit without a plate arriving at your table. It is a quite simple, hearty leavened bread dish filled with delicious Georgian cheese. It is the ultimate staple of Georgian culture and an ever-present in the daily lives of locals. There are plenty of variations on the theme, with different cheeses adding alternative flavours, puff pastry bringing an err of luxury, or perhaps an egg to add a different element altogether.
Khachapuri might be the leader of the pack, but there is a full lineup of dishes that act as a gateway to the soul of Georgia. Said lineup almost always features khinkali dumplings, a minced vegetable concoction called pkhali, and canoe-shaped shoti bread, not to mention the extremely odd-looking candy treat, churchkhela, made with grape juice and walnuts and originally designed to keep soldiers energised throughout their expeditions.
So, if food and wine is your route into the real Georgia, where do you take your first steps? Well, the obvious answer, especially for first-time visitors, is to pair a visit to Tbilisi with an excursion to the wine region of Kakheti.
The capital is naturally the best place to dive head first into Georgian cuisine. It’s where you’ll find countless markets and local shops stocked with fresh seasonal veg, hanging rows of churchkhela and nuts by the bucketload. Wander randomly into unassuming lunch spots in search of the best khachapuri in town, or set up shop for the evening in the dimly lit corner of a moody wine bar – often serving wine made by the owners themselves.
Break up your city strolling discoveries with lunch at the lovely Cafe Leila, a veggie spot just steps away from the city’s surreal clock tower and puppet theatre on Shavteli St. Embark on a dumpling bonanza at the trendy Klike’s Khinkali, or opt for fine dining at Barbarestan, a high end Georgian joint based on classic family recipes. Don’t forget to pop into Wine Gallery for a perusal and a mini tasting session – just be prepared to leave with a couple of bottles for the road.
A great starting point for your culinary journey is Republic 24, aptly found on Republic Square, across the road from our recommended Tbilisi travel HQ, the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, which boasts spectacular views of the city from every single room. The restaurant is a stylish modern establishment offering the full gamut of classic Georgian dishes. Highlights include the puff pastry khachapuri and the sumptuous Adjika butter, which is to be scooped up indulgently with shoti bread. The best thing about Republic 24 is that it stays open all night long on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can flock here for some hearty eats after a night spent partying across the road at Noble Savage.
Tbilisi is a true nighttime city so, if you can drag yourself away from that cosy wine bar, be sure to dance the night away at Bassiani, a spectacular techno club situated, quite remarkably, underneath the city’s football stadium.
After a healthy dose of urban excitement, you’re going to want to escape to more tranquil surrounds. This is when Kakheti calls. Georgia’s primary wine region is only a couple of hours from Tbilisi by car, so we recommend booking yourself a stay in the magical grounds of Tsinandali Estate, A Radisson Collection Hotel.
This striking complex brings modern luxury to a site steeped in Georgian history. It’s built on the former home of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, a nobleman who put great care into the sprawling gardens of Tsinandali Estate, but also played a huge part in revitalising and modernising wine culture in Georgia. His vintage wine collection was around 16,000 bottles strong, and you can still visit his cellar to observe bottles dating back as far as 1841.
You can learn more about the Chavchavadze family at the onsite museum, while the surrounding gardens and central structures have been maintained beautifully to retain the aesthetic pleasures and cultural value of the estate. The wine production traditions have also been kept alive, with Tsinandali now producing over 100,000 bottles a year on their vineyard – mostly endemic grape varieties, with some traditional qvevri techniques used alongside modern processes. You can tour the vineyard during your stay, while the delicious end product can be sampled across the hotel’s multiple bars and restaurants, as well as some high-end establishments around Europe. There’s even a shop within the hotel, so you can take a little piece of Tsinandali home with you.
Natella Restaurant, set within the gorgeous stone walls of the original building, serves up excellent Kakhetian cuisine, which you can learn to master yourself during culinary masterclasses put on by the hotel – an experience which pairs beautifully with a wine tasting.
So this is a hotel that homes you in the heart of Georgia’s wine region, gives you easy access to traditional and modern winemaking insights, and serves up some of the finest ferments in the country alongside top class local cuisine. All the while placing you in a site of great historical and cultural significance, all of which has been retained despite the addition of an indulgent luxury hotel, most notable for its stunning rooftop infinity pool and spa, which looks up and out over the epic silhouette of the Caucasus Mountains.
The estate has even managed to continue the rich cultural traditions established by Prince Alexander, including an annual 11-day classical music festival, as well as a variety of theatre performances, live music gigs and other cultural festivities held in the amphitheatre, the ballroom or across the grounds. It’s also one of the most glamorous wedding venues in Caucasia, so expect to see a stunning white dress or two, especially if you’re staying in summer.
Remember to arrive in Georgia with an empty stomach and an open mind. Start with a punchy, flavourful introduction to the capital’s vibrant nightlife and tuck into a hearty entrée of culture and local cuisine. For dessert, wind your way to the luscious surrounds of Tsinandali Estate for some high-end luxury, a shot of history and lots of very good wine. Now that is one meal plan that will leave you very satisfied as you return to Tbilisi Airport a few pounds heavier, with a suitcase full of Georgian wine.
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