Salobie AKA “The Bean Place”
Let’s talk beans. Beans, mountain-style from Mtskheta about 15 km from Tbilisi. Street food which puts the gorge into gorgeous Georgia and the goo into good, so goo-d that Emperor Mung Bean The Merciless would surely give his last disintegrator ray for a pot of this vivid red stuff. The sun is high in the sky, the local beer is ambering in the glasses and there is a bottle of Tavkvevi rosé on the table waiting for us to graduate to a more refined thirst – what more could one want, especially if you had, like me, just stepped off a plane, in a state of fugged semi-consciousness and feeble comprehension.
For we are lunching at Restaurant Salobie, the best-known secret indoor/outdoor casual bean-eatery that on initial inspection seems nothing more than a car-park decked out with large wooden picnic tables, but is more than worth the detour and all that vestigial jetlag. For although Mtskheta’s beans have not yet joined the town’s UNESCO monuments, they are as much a part of the local culture as the glorious churches and monasteries – and more edible.
Our table is groaning with clay bowls containing a dark brown thickened stew, plates piled with hot cornbread scones to crumble into the mix and divers accoutrements including platters of tarragon, radish, cucumber, splendid sweet tomatoes, garlic bulbs, spring onions, mushrooms stewed with wild herbs, a sublime aubergine dish, hot greeny-yellow pickled peppers and the most incredible puffy bread with an egg, melting cheese and rivulets of butter. Adjarian – the so-called “Love Boat” of khachapuri designed to harden further the hardest of arteries. As if that wasn’t enough we finished with some fist-sized hand-made meat dumplings (khinkali) oozing with hot stock and peppery meat filling. The way to eat this is to invert it so it resembles a big toadstool, nibble round the edges like Alice (as in Wonderland) and then bite into it and slurp the broth as it gushes out onto your defenceless shirt.
Back to the beans. John informs us that there are many local variants of this dish but this one takes the cornbread biscuit. In Mtskheta, the specialty lobio (as it is known throughout Georgia) is made from red kidney beans, slow-cooked and pounded to a mush with a mortar and pestle, but what is normally simple fare is elevated to another level, being packed with herbs, heat and subtle flavours; ingredients including onions, garlic, coriander seed, black pepper and fresh coriander leaf. Traditionally, lobio is served in small clay jars with handles and its table-partner is the abovementioned mtchadi, a piping-hot dense, savoury cornbread scone which visually resembles a mini-quern stone, yet humbly crumbles to soak up all the flavours of the bean-ooze.
A recipe for Lobio
Ingredients (4 servings):
400 g of dried red kidney beans
1 white onion
Handful of fresh green coriander (optional)
2 cloves of garlic, salt, a pinch of dried coriander
spoonful of dried blue fenugreek
3 bay leaves
1 tsp black pepper
Soak beans in cold water for two hours prior to cooking. Drain water and add beans, bay leaves and salt to a deep pot containing 1.5 litres of water.
Cook on a medium heat until the beans are tender.
Chop the fresh coriander and onions.
Add fresh and dried coriander, blue fenugreek, garlic, black pepper and a pinch of salt to a mortar.
Grind the ingredients with a pestle.
Fry the chopped onions in a pan of hot oil.
Drain the water from the cooked kidney beans but keep 200 mls (approx) in a separate jug to use later. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mash the beans on the side of the pot. Add the ingredients that were crushed in a mortar, together with fried onions and the oil they were fried in.
Mash all ingredients until completely mixed, add the 200 ml of bean-infused water (saved when draining the beans). Transfer the ingredients to a pot and cook on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. We baked ours in individual clay pots in the oven.
Serving: Serve in individual clay pots with the traditional accompaniment
Of hosts and toasts – part one
“What an enormous magnifier is tradition! How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it.” —Thomas Carlyle
After a stroll along Rustaveli Avenue we pop into Ghvino Underground for a pre-prandial, a wine bar showcasing the best of Georgian natural wines with a few waifs and strays from French vin natur heroes. Then on to dinner at Azarpesha wine restaurant. Azarpesha is the Georgian word for a wine ladle from which the tamada drinks his wine and the eponymous restaurant is owned by the charismatic Luarsab Togonidze who is an ethnographer, historian of national costumes and dresses, polyphonic chanter as well as a gastronomic entrepreneur.
According to a Georgian proverb, “A guest is sent by God.” We were to experience the legendary Georgian hospitality time and again in our brief visit to this country. Guests are always treated generously in a Georgian home, whether or not the host can afford it. The best way to show respect for guests is to honour them with a keipi, or feast. We were duly honoured.
Food appears magically on the table along with jugs of amber liquid. Wines to the jug, for the jug and by the jug. Wine not only lubricates their meals, it is sacramental, marks a special occasion and is rich in symbolism for the Georgians. For this is a people that delights in language and ideas and cherishes its traditions and rituals. Which brings me tangentially to bread:
“Bread is an object of reverence in Georgia, where until recently most families were close enough to the land to appreciate the labours of growing, harvesting, threshing and milling wheat. Many rituals grew up around the storage of grain and the preparation of bread. In highland households, wheat flower was kept in a special chest, which only the eldest woman in the family was allowed to open. As added precaution a piece of charcoal was frequently buried in the flour to keep out the devil. So respected was bread that even the dough left in the kneading trough and on the baker’s hands was meticulously scraped clean and formed into a small loaf that was handled with particular care.
… Most Georgian breads are baked in a t’one, although certain kinds of bread may be fried in a skillet or baked in a clay ketsi over an open flame.”
The Georgian Feast: the vibrant culture and savory food of the Republic of Georgia by Darra Goldstein
The table was a colourful blur of food. Although the memories of meals during our visit merge, certain dishes stand out. I recall Soko – wild mushrooms with herbs and spices and Ispanakhi – spinach with ground walnut seasoning, herbs, and spices. Hard sheep’s cheese (sulguni) and soft curds were rarely absent from the table. Then wave after wave, dish after dish, be it veg, flesh or fowl seasoned with walnut paste, pomegranate, oregano, marigold flowers, tarragon, mint, wild garlic…
A swift word about sauces that accompany many Georgian meals. Firstly, Adjika – a red spice paste with an addictive poke, based on a boiled preparation of hot red peppers, garlic, herbs and spices such as coriander, dill, blue fenugreek and walnut – Satsivi – a type of sauce made of walnuts and served cold either as a dip for bread, or sauce for boiled or fried game or fish, and the ubiquitous Tkemali – a sour green cherry-plum chutney with dill that one slathers over chicken or pork dishes with alacrity.
Of Tamadas and Gaumarjos!
While browsing and sluicing wines at the Azarpesha wine restaurant we were introduced to the role of the tamada. The tamada orchestrates the festivities – he must be a man of humour with a capacity for verbal improvisation and the wisdom of a philosopher with the ability to seamlessly weave a thought into a prayer – and vice versa. John Wurdeman was our host with the most on this first night – the toasts were eloquent and generous and rained down thick and fast. We raise our glasses to the vine that puts its roots into the earth (the temporal/physical) and presents itself to the sun (celestial/spiritual), a synthesis embodied in the very wine itself. We are enjoined to celebrate the different kinds of love, friendship old and new, to participate in a prayer for peace and to recognise the inestimable value of family, tradition and culture.
Poetry is, first of all, a branch of divine wisdom,
Conceived by and known by the godly edifying to all who hear it.
It pleases the ear of the listener if he be a virtuous man.
A poem uttered with surfeit of words lacks grace and excellence.
The Knight In The Panther’s Skin – Shota Rustaveli
The restaurant has a fantastic collection of traditional drinking vessels and we move seamlessly from draining glasses to toasting each other with wine served in bull horns (called kantsi). These horns would have been cleaned, boiled and polished, creating a unique and durable drinking vessel. For the novice, linking arms and chugging from a vast horn, is a recipe for spilt Rkatsiteli; you tend to end up poking your fellow horny drinker with the sharp end whilst drippily diverting the amber fluid in a southerly direction.
All toasts naturally end with the salutation “gaumarjos” (literally “victory”) – sometimes followed by “Sakartvelos”. And one toast leads to another and another… and another. And I won’t even mention the cha-cha. Oh, I just did.
Fire my mind and tongue with skill and power for utterance
Which I need, Oh Lord, for the making of majestic and praiseworthy verses; . . . Generous deeds adorn a monarch as does a cypress Eden;
Even the traitor is won when the hand of the ruler is generous.
Spending on feasting and wine is better than hoarding our substance.
That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost.
~ Shota Rustaveli