Georgia is famed for its traditional home cooking, but watch your weight
Guilty pleasures abound in this former Soviet republic
The Quiet Woman pub, in Georgia's Black Sea resort of Batumi, was celebrating its recent reopening. A strong smell of fresh paint was cloaked by thick cigarette smoke. From behind the bar, a teenage girl in a tartan miniskirt yelled "free beer" over the din of a cover band warbling Angels by Robbie Williams into a scratchy microphone.
Tables of chain-smoking men swayed with their pints in hand, as a Spanish football match played on big screens overhead. If there was a place to try authentic Georgian food, this pub, with its menu of burgers and chips, probably wasn't it. I left the inappropriately named pub behind, and headed out onto the deserted Piazza, Batumi's newly built town square. Its 10-storey clock tower, which doubles as a boutique hotel, was lit up and shone centre stage, but all the tables and chairs of the cafes had been moved inside until a fierce storm blew over.
Opposite the pub, freshly painted in wave-crest white, was a modern Georgian restaurant called Mimino, offering a beacon of light. Inside, cheery waitresses, this time in turquoise airline-style uniforms, stood ready to serve traditional food.
The port city of Batumi is the capital of Ajara, an autonomous corner of southwestern Georgia, which proudly has its own culinary heritage. At first glance, the menu did not appear easy on the hips. I pointed and ordered a selection, not knowing what to expect, except inevitable weight gain.
First up was a steaming hot plate of Ajarian khachapuri, perfect wet-weather food. A cross between a canoe-shaped pizza and naan bread, it arrived awash with cheese and on the top wobbled an almost raw egg, swimming in a pool of butter.
Finger-thin sulguni rolls filled with cottage cheese and mint arrived on plain white plates and were moist and light, like fresh spring rolls. Still at the appetiser stage, the airline waitresses next delivered small plates of pkhali, vegetarian meatball-shaped patties, which were made of spinach, beetroot and leek. This was accompanied by plump tomatoes, balsamic glaze and lashings of dill.
Main courses were meat-centric, with signature dishes of veal chakapuli (braised chops, although usually lamb), pork odjakhuri (pork with potatoes and tomatoes, baked in a clay pot) and fried lambs' brains. I opted for filleted trout, which was flaky and filled with finely chopped walnuts and herbs.
Lakes, rivers, mountain valleys and fertile land provide a year-round bounty for Georgia and the fruits of this natural abundance can be seen daily at every meal time. During Soviet times, Georgia (the republic declared independence in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union) was famed for its home cooking and it remains the most foodie destination in the region.
Georgia's viticulture methods were developed 8,000 years ago and, of about 1,500 or so original and historical grape varieties, a whopping 525 still survive.
Wine plays an almost constant role in Georgian culture. Christian icons, including vine motifs, can be spotted around the country, and in many households home-made wine is drunk with abandon.
On my next stop, in Tbilisi, a city devoid of decent, affordable hotels, a friend suggested I stay with a woman by the name of Manana Skhirtladze, who occasionally takes in guests. Amid a flurry of unpacking on arrival, the telephone in my bedroom rang.
"Come downstairs, I want you to try this sturgeon."
Following Manana's cheery, but firm order, I tracked the smell of garlicky cooking down the stairs.
On the kitchen table - large and centre-stage - lay skewers of fatty, chargrilled sturgeon, alongside stuffed peppers, lavash flatbread, freshly fried chips and traditional Georgian clay ketsi dishes full of chopped salads. I bit off chunks of sturgeon, surely the most "fishy" fish I've ever tried, and we raised tiny but full glasses of red wine, toasting guests and Georgia.
I finished this warm welcome - and significant mid-afternoon snack - with thin slices of pickled and dimpled sulguni cheese, which with its sour, salty, and incredibly moreish taste, a bit like fine feta, combined perfectly with sliced gherkins.
Inevitably, we ended with a glass of chacha. Manana, a formidable character and cook, stopped me as I was about to take a sip, and warned "this is not for taste, this is medicinal".
It was so strong it almost blew my head off.
As I retired, Manana was already thinking about breakfast. "Tomorrow, I'll make for you special pancakes. When people eat these, they say 'Oh my God, these are fantastic', so I shortened the name to 'Manana's oh-my-God pancakes'." She said all this very quickly, gently shoved a bottle of home-made wine into my hand, and sent me back upstairs.
Breakfast was predictably tasty. The pancakes, dusted with sugar, loaded with grated, cooked apples and topped with a long grape the shape of a bullet, were delicious. The melon, which was the size of a football, was sliced, while pickled green walnuts - doused in brown sugar, allspice, cloves and cinnamon - tasted like Christmas.
Manana spoke about her special rustic honey, which she bought from a man "who only once came to the city, 30 years ago", before adding that she considers it so good, that she "bought 70 kilograms of it" in a huge vat.
On the breakfast table, sour cherry and blackberry jam in glass jars were placed next to a big helping of this special aged honey. Georgian television news flickered in the background, and out the window I could see the famous Radisson Blu hotel.
Serving as a centre-point for the city, in the 1960s the then Iveria Hotel was a favourite for well-heeled families from the USSR who'd travel there to soak in the city's thermal baths.
Russians stopped coming when Georgia became independent, and occupancy dropped at the hotel. Then, shortly after, the hotel found a new, somewhat darker purpose.
During the Abkhazia war, ethnic Georgians found refuge in Tbilisi, and specifically in the Iveria, which became a vertical city centre refugee camp housing about 800 people.
Later, in 2004, the refugees were rehoused and, after a major refurbishment in 2008, the hotel reopened as luxury accommodation. Today, it shows little of its gritty past.
In modern day Tbilisi, the streets are mainly peaceful. By tumbledown buildings fat green figs fall from the trees onto streets where children play on roller skates and shiny, red pomegranates hang heavy from branches.
Through good times and bad, the carefully strung-up vines of age-old grape varieties that circle residential houses have remained - a perfect reminder to the visitor of Georgia's devotion to food and wine.
Rich and full-bodied Georgian wine claims an 8,000-year-old heritage
Kevin Ho, one of three co-founders of GHVino ghvinohk.com once lived in France, and used the country as a base for exploring Eastern Europe. That's why, although Ho likes French wine, the company specialises in wine from Georgia and Moldova.
Ho says Georgian food is almost impossible to get in Hong Kong, but there is an overlap with some dishes from neighbouring Turkey - the Georgian khatchapuri is similar to some forms of Turkish pide (a type of flatbread pizza), for example.
Georgia's key grapes are saperavi for red wine and rkatsiteli for white or "amber" wine. In her book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson says that saperavi comes from a Georgian word meaning "dye", due to its dark black skin and pinkish juice. The grape produces wines that are "high in colour, acidity, and tannin, full-bodied, rich in dark fruit".
GHVino's Mukuzani, dry red 2010 from Teliani Valley is certainly dark and high in tannins, with a plum flavour. This is a good match for roast meats, although it would probably overpower a Peking duck.
Robinson says that DNA testing shows that rkatsiteli might be related to local wild vines, which could back up the claim that vines were first domesticated in Georgia 8,000 years ago. But she says more work needs to be done to prove the theory.
GHVino's Samshvenisi Kvevris 2010, also from Teliani Valley, is made by an ancient technique of fermentation in an amphora.
The must is in contact with the skins for six weeks, leaving the wine amber rather than white, and fairly tannic.
This example has an apple-like flavour when cold but when warm tastes almost sherry-like. In fact, the grape can be used to make a fortified wine.