One of the most unforgettable meals I’ve eaten was with a Georgian wine-making family, the Vatsadzes, at their home in Racha, in the foothills of the Caucasus. It was a magical-feeling place of clear streams, mountains and meadows tinkling with the sound of cow bells.
The family invited us, along with friends and neighbours, to a feast that included dishes of chicken in garlic, braised aubergines, stewed beans, a variety of homemade breads and a casserole of what they claimed was bear meat. Our host, Murad, served his own red and white wines in pitchers. I watched him drawing them beforehand from enormous clay vessels called qvevri buried in the floor of his cellar.
Each qvevri held about 1,000 litres of wine and there must have been at least 10 of them. Murad also passed around a drinking horn that we took it in turns to drain. A toastmaster – a tamada – proposed a series of formal toasts to peace, friendship, the hosts, women, loved ones, and the ancestors who had the foresight to plant the vines.
After a few pulls at the drinking horn, the Georgian guests began singing polyphonic table songs. Murad told me that one of these songs, Chakrulo, had been etched on to a gold LP and sent into space aboard the Voyager missions to give other galaxies a flavour of human civilisation. The song is so stirring and defiant that I felt sure that any hostile aliens hearing it would immediately give up any plans to attack Earth and begin looking for a less challenging planet to invade. Around this point, my shy British companion got to his feet, made an impassioned speech about his love for Georgia and then passed out.
I would love to relive the joy and camaraderie of that evening. Unfortunately, there are a few obstacles to constructing a simulacrum of it in lockdown, not the least of which is finding an ethical supplier of bear meat.
However, Georgian wine can be found in the UK fairly easily, there’s Georgian singing on the internet, and a few Georgian staples are within the competence of a home cook. One is chicken tabaka – a spatchcocked chicken that’s slowly fried in butter under a heavy weight. And then there are these: khachapuri, Georgia’s national dish – warm, soft flatbreads stuffed with molten cheese. They’re frankly delicious and the perfect foil for a big glass of qvevri-fermented red wine.
There are many different varieties of khachapuri. The most famous type outside the country is the boat-shaped Adjaruli khachapuri, often served with an egg baked on to the molten cheese in the middle. I like this circular one, made with a simple, unyeasted dough. The original recipe called for matsoni, a thin Georgian yoghurt. I reckon normal yoghurt would work, but you can also use a combination of kefir and smetana, which I get from my local eastern European deli. Georgian cheese is another stumbling block. It’s supposed to be imereti cheese, or a mixture of suluguni and adygei. I go for a dry mozzarella and feta instead. Adjust the proportions for the sharpness that you prefer.
For the dough
125ml kefir and 125 ml smetana (sour cream)
300g plain flour (you may need a bit more as you work the dough)
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g butter plus some for brushing
For the filling
350g mixed mozzarella and feta cheese
2 tbsp smetana
Salt to taste
25g softened butter
Melt the 100g butter for the dough. Combine the kefir and smetana in mixing bowl, add the salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda. Pour in the melted butter and mix the ingredients until they’re blended together and slightly frothy. Add the flour bit by bit to form the dough. Eventually you’ll want to start working it with your hands. You’re looking for a soft, smooth non-sticky texture. Let the dough rest while you make the filling.
Grate the cheeses and mix them in a bowl with the softened butter and the smetanauntil it forms a homogeneous mass that you can divide into four blobs.
Divide the dough into four pieces. Flatten each piece on a floured board and roll out into a disc between 0.5 and 1 cm thick. Put a quarter of the cheese mixture into the middle of the dough. Now comes the fun bit: draw up the sides of the disc around the cheese and join them to make a pouch. The dough will join at the top like a navel. If there’s too much dough, trim it.
Gently flatten the pouch with the rolling pin until it’s roughly disc-shaped and between 1 and 2 cm thick. The cheese layer should be entirely enveloped by the dough. Repeat with the rest of the dough to make four khachapuri.
Place one khachapuri in a preheated dry frying pan and cook for a few minutes on medium heat. The dough will puff up a little. Flip it over and cook the other side. The finished khachapuri should be speckled on both sides with brown, giraffe-like spots, and the concealed cheese core should be unctuous and melted. Remove and brush with melted butter.
Serve with Georgian wine.