A Taste-Test of History

Well, it’s officially spring. But with freezing temperatures still snapping and nipping away early buds in the night, I’m yearning for high summer. Warm days with green bursting out of the landscape, blooming trees and blushing sky. 

This winter I was given a respite from the northern cold and a taste of midsummer in the form of Armenian Toorshi. Featured at an intimate dinner as part of a charcuterie spread, these pickles stole the show. Green cherry tomatoes became little saturated pockets of tart garlic and salty brine. The simple, savoury vinegar clung to fibrous heads of cauliflower cut into perfect snackable bites.

Freshly baked choreg
Freshly baked choreg

Next best were the choreg, classic Armenian yeast bread, braided and topped with sesame. Each family recipe for choreg is slightly different, some leaning more savoury while others yield to a subtle, comforting sweetness. This family’s recipe toes the line, almost insidiously. Their choreg rolls are near impossible to walk away from they’re so delicious, and beautiful, to beat.

Armenian cooking is a fascinating blend of familiar and distinct. Armenia and Georgia were crossroads in the channeled web of the Silk Road. A global artery of trade, culture, and food, these two countries have had their pick of flavours and spices for millennia. It’s no surprise, then, that European, Asian, and Levantine influences intermingle on plates in these two countries.

Take Armenian paklava, similar in appearance and phenology to well known baklava. Greek baklava is traditionally sweetened with honey, but the Armenian version uses a clove- and cinnamon-infused simple syrup that lends the flaky desert even warmer flavors, making paklava a favourite Christmas time treat.

Or taste the favorite Georgian boiled dumplings, khinkali, paired with a light beer (Megobrebi is the most popular brewery these days). Anyone who’s traveled through China might recognize it, or think  they do, as xiaolongbao, steamed soup dumplings. And that’s not far off–the Georgian’s have the Mongols to thank for this national favourite. This Georgian version is boiled, not steamed, and filled with minced pork, beef, mushroom, or cheese, along with a heavy dose of black pepper.

Food is a stronghold of cultural history, importance, and pride. Whatever the history and global context, from the colonized indigenous nations of the Americas and Africa to the checkered history of occupation and injustice in Asia or the pacific, cuisine remains as a living history. Food tells, by the most understated and eloquent means, who a people are and what they have endured.

Across recent history, Georgia and Armenia have faced dire circumstances. From 1915-1917, an estimated 1.5 million Armenian lives were lost in the under-reported Armenian Genocide. Not long after, Russia first invaded Georgia and remained part of the Soviet Union until their independence in 1991.

Kinkali, the national dish of Georgia
Kinkali, the national dish of Georgia

Food being a living history, absorbing every experience, it’s sometimes difficult to discern precisely how events impact a nations’ culinary context. But, if you do notice, or are shown, it can give a great meal even greater meaning. 

By the end of the genocide, only an estimated 200,000 Armenians were left living. Ensuring Armenian traditions and dishes survived rested with them. The importance and care taken in the transference of family recipes and familial knowledge is potent enough to taste.

During the Soviet period, arable land in Georgia functioned through large-scale collective farms, averaging over 400 hectares in size. In the wake of independence, these large collectives were dissolved and distributed to rural households, usually only about a hectare in size. 

Across the country, food production is so local that almost all produce meets organic standards. Not only that, but practically every restaurant is farm-to-table just by nature of location and access.

The history of this region amounts to so much more than recent trials or travesties. This is one of the longest-settled regions in the world, with the Georgian city of Mtskheta standing testament as one of the longest-continuously-occupied cities in the region. Not to mention that Georgia is the birthplace of wine. 

The people of South Caucasus–spanning Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan–were the accidental creators of our modern ambrosia. Early evidence of wine dates back to 6,000 B.C. when early Georgians buried grape juice in clay jars called Kvevri

Huge kvevri in Kakheti, Georgia
Huge kvevri in Kakheti, Georgia

Wine motifs in art and wine paraphernalia have been excavated at ancient burial sites from those times, and even modern-day Georgians drink and feast at grave-sides to celebrate their departed. Today, the classic Georgian wine is also the same hue as days of yore–orange. It’s gaining popularity as a boutique wine in the west, its colour resulting from fermenting white grapes with the skins on.

I invite you to take on some of these recipes, or peruse your favourite wine and cheese store for a rare but burgeoning Georgian orange. Indulge in an Armenian mezze spread of hummus and eggplant dip (ikra), pomegranate seeds and dried apricots, rich olives and salted nuts. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can find some of the famed Armenian string cheese made from goat or sheep’s milk, braided and speckled with nigella seeds. And of course, don’t forget the tourshi.

Join Wheel & Anchor to explore the flavours and take in the landscapes of Georgia & Armenia in Oct 2023 – more info here!

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