Last year I went to Georgia; a country I would never have considered visiting had I not been invited. As is often the way when one doesn’t expect these things, I completely fell in love with the place; the people, the culture, the wine and most of all, the food. Since then it’s been a mission to try and perfect recipes and also to seek out Georgian food in London. On the cooking front, khachapuri has been something of an obsession; it’s basically a cheese-stuffed bread, made with an incredibly salty Georgian cheese – we’re talking more salty than halloumi; being a complete and utter salt whore, I adored it. I lugged 6 khachapuri back on the plane with me and ate them, cold, for several days after my return, mourning their diminishing number with every bite.
Khachapuri in Georgia
Also on the Georgia trip with me was Kerstin Rodgers, who took a similar liking to this supremely comforting bread. We tried cooking a recipe from The Georgian Feast, an award winning cook book, but it just wasn’t right at all. We didn’t have the correct cheese but it wasn’t just that. Not the kind of people to give up, we got together recently to give khachapuri another try, using Ottolenghi’s recipe from Jerusalem. It worked a treat. I even managed to find sulguni in a Russian deli in Queensway (Kalinka), which I believe is one of the only if not the only place in London that sells it. They also sell Armenian cognac in bottles shaped like AK47s. One of those got bought, obviously; the last in the shop. When we requested to buy it the lady behind the counter got her walkie talkie out and started speaking frantically in Russian.
Oh how we feasted. Ottolenghi also includes a substitute cheese filling, and that also tastes really quite authentic. Read Kerstin’s post about our khachapuri making evening here; we tried just about every type of random cheese London had to offer (you’ll also get a story about my love life while you’re over there).
Magnificent ‘Ajarian’ (boat shaped) khachapuri cooked in Kerstin’s Aga (and served on a very beautiful tray…)
‘Megruli’ (circular, stuffed) khachapuri, again cooked in the Aga
I also had great success cooking a recipe for BBQ pork and plum sauce in the summer; these spice rubbed skewers was everywhere in Georgia, grilled over hot coals in a pit in the ground and served with sliced raw shallots and a sour/sweet, dill heavy plum sauce. I was amazed at how authentic my plum sauce tasted; although our plums are completely different, the unripe ones we get in the supermarkets are perfect as they’re just as sour. A use for unripe supermarket fruit. Who knew?
Pork grilling in Georgia
The finished pork in Georgia
My Georgian BBQ pork
My Georgian plum sauce
Seeking out authentic tasting Georgian food in London has been much more hit and miss. First I visited Colchis, which is a kind of poshed up Georgian restaurant in Notting Hill; each to their own, but having visited the country, that’s just the most bizarre concept and it didn’t sit well or indeed taste particularly good. My next experience was completely unexpected, coming as it did from the Pasha Hotel in Camberwell, where I spotted khachapuri on the menu in their Kazakh Kyrgyz restaurant. It was nothing at all like the examples I tasted in Georgia, made from a flaky pastry rather than a bread. It did taste rather nice however and I liked the idea of serving it with raw onion.
And so to my best restaurant experience yet: The Georgian in Clapham South. During the day it’s a somewhat run of the mill cafe serving the usual sandwiches and hot drinks but during the evening they serve Georgian food. I’ll be honest, they seemed surprised to see me when I walked in at 6.30 and a woman initially tried to speak to me in Georgian.
All the classics were there on the menu and I was properly excited. The khachapuri was rather good; nowhere near as oily as the real thing (I really liked the supreme unhealthiness of the oil) but very tasty nonetheless. The best I’ve had in a restaurant by miles.
Pkhali are pureed vegetables mixed with walnuts, which are abundant in Georgia; we chose spinach and beetroot. They’re like a rich vegetable spread, intense with garlic and dotted with pomegranate seeds. In Georgia each ball is always studded with just one pomegranate seed, like a little jewel nestling in the top.
We stuffed ourselves full of traditional Georgian dumplings, called khinkali, which have very thick and rustic casings, filled with minced meats and their juices and heavily flavoured with black pepper. They take some careful eating; the way to do it is to hold them by the nipple at the top and carefully bite in. We ate them with a green chilli sauce, which was really fierce.
Dumplings with green chilli sauce at The Georgian
The Georgian is the best Georgian place I’ve been to in London so far and I want more people to visit because we were the only evening diners. At the moment they’re clearly frequented more for coffee and cakes which is sad, they ought to be serving many more of their excellent Georgian dishes.
I’ll continue working my way around London’s Georgian restaurants however; I’ve heard that Little Georgia is good. Does anyone have any favourite places?