Vodka, brandy and wine from Russia, Armenia and Georgia….and then chacha!

If anyone asked me what I thought of cha cha I would immediately thought of the dance!  That Cuban dance with great rhythm and wonderful to watch.  But then there was talk of the drink called chacha so it was time to try it.  It is a drink from Georgia with 40 % alcohol (or 65 % home brew) made from grape residue.  Sometimes referred to as Georgian vodka or grape vodka.

20190831_031248But first things first and that was Russia! What is it renounded for?  Well vodka would be close to the top of the list surely and by the look of the varieties and prices of the drink in supermarkets you can be sure there is one for every taste.

Sadly I am not into spirits as I prefer wine but when in Russia do what the Russians do.  Vodka was not sipped it seemed as we do in the west…with a meal or snack but with a toast at the beginning of the meal.  Our first experience of this was when we were entertained in Moscow who provided us with lunch (yes you guessed it with bortch and a meal of tough meat with a lot of boiled potatoes).  We were instructed with the history of toasting with two types of vodka….one plain and the other a herbed one which was also drunk for its ‘health’ benefits.

But our real introduction was perhaps in Moscow which I feel could only be called a ‘ vodka crawl ‘.  A night where we visited three different establishments serving vodka of course.  The first one was an underground bar with history and memorabilia from various wars in the time of USSR.  Had it not been in Russian it would have made an interesting historical lesson.  But we were here to try different flavoured vodkas.  Small tastes fortunately as we were in for a long night.  There were fruit flavoured vodkas – raspberry, blackberry, etc before we struck one almost undrinkable we concurred.  Someone said it tasted of paint stripper but who had actually painted this.  It was from pine cones!  Ones with ginger, garlic, horseradish, onion were those apparently used for health benefits.  This would have been obvious in the past living in Siberia with a cold, sore throat or illness but fortunately not for us.  Our second tasting was in a bar/ restaurant next to a group of tourists from Odessa  who enjoyed singing traditional songs.  Here our vodka was matched with food. Fortunately just two different types.   Some pate with fish,  cream cheese with herbs,  and sliced meats (horse, bear or deer we were unsure).  An eggplant dip, some cucumbers, dark rye bread.  Nice dishes actually and possibly my favourite part of the night.

Our final vodka tasting was underground as well in a bar where there were art creations from a well known Russian artist or satirist.  Although our guide gave us his name it has been lost in translation.   More vodka with herring, sliced onion, horseradish or mustard on dark bread.  There was a band playing and couples dancing.   But we were exhausted by now and were keen to head off to bed when a hearty and tasty dish appeared…a generous meaty, mushroom serving with mashed potato which we just could not do justice to.  When we made the suggestion to our guide that perhaps it needed to be served earlier in the night, she said this is the way in Russia.  Now I reflect on it I can imagine in the hard winters this is probably the dish one needs before venturing out in the snow and cold to travel home.  It was an interesting evening.  No one needed to be carried home as a result of the consumption of alcohol!

And I have been asked if it was ever served as a long drink as we do in the west ….say with tonic or orange juice!   I think not!

In Armenia we visited a brandy tasting establishment with a tour and a tasting.  It was a professional and well run tour with a tasting of two brandies at the end …one aged and one newer.  I have mentioned previously that small chocolate drops were given as an accompaniment which provided some confusion.  The company was also proud of the illustrious visitors who had visited the factory previously as walls were decorated with photos of well known politicians, actors, dignitaries and ‘ important people.’  George Clooney was the only one I recognized (have I lead such a sheltered life?)  But I do understand that his wife has contributed to the education of girls ìn a school in Armenia.

With the help of our excellent guide I purchased a bottle of what was the most popular brandy.  Well it was in a lovely box so I figured it should travel well.  It did and remains unopened in storage waiting for a special occasion or more likely cooking!

Georgia is fast becoming popular for its wine and history goes back to the thousands of years where the wine has been made and kept underground in large clay pots.  Most wine is fermented in these pots without any additives which make it considered ‘ natural wine’.  I remember reading that that well known writer of my favourite cook books Yothan Ottolenghi’s wine of choice is from Georgia.  Georgian wine is exported to many parts of the world but not to Australia.  I did mention in an earlier blog that our Russian food guide told us that wine in Georgia is almost cheaper than water after we commented that Georgian wine in Russia was expensive.  During the Soviet era only a few varietals of over the 500 types were allowed to be grown in Georgia.

We made two visits to wineries in Georgia which were very different. The first was very professional and well patronised.  After a tour of the winery with great history and knowledge we sampled six types (three red and three whites) all with matching cheeses.  This is the first time I had seen this.  Often wine and cheese are shared with other foods (olives, pate, vegetables etc) but this was exclusively with cheese.  Needless there was a rush to purchase for the remainder some bottles to share or take home as not only were they excellent but competitive prices.  And then was the chacha which we did not sample but were encouraged to take home. My bottle too remains unopened but is a souvenir of a trip well enjoyed.

The other winery was more home grown and wine was served directly from the underground clay pots (called qvevris).  This was a more robust wine and was sold to visiting tourists our guide told us.  It was an interesting visit however and a very different type of wine.

I have since seen exclusive wine tours from Australia to Georgia which makes me ponder of the growing interest of wine production.  And as much as I would love to join this trip I plan to head back to Russia for a visit to a different area (after all it is such a vast country) and follow it with a tour of Uzbekistan.  I love this part of the world which is now opened up to the rest of the world.  Now doubt with more tastes to enjoy.

 

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Bird Seed Crackers

This recipe comes to you from Quite Good Food ‘ homemade five seed crackers’ via my friend Sally Rose who was kind enough to gift me the recipe after I scoffed half a tray.

Ingredients

1 cup sunflower seeds

3/4 cup pumpkin seeds

1/2 cup chia seeds

1/2 cup sesame seeds ( a mix of black & white if possible)

1/4 cup linseed (flaxseed)

1 1/4 cups water

1 teas salt

1 Tbs dried herbs (I used oregano but thyme is nice)

1 teas chilli flakes (optional)

Method

Preheat oven to 170C

Mix all ingredients together and leave for 10 -15 minutes so water will absorb the chia seeds.  Mix well and pour the mixture in 2 trays or as I did a large one lined with baking paper.  Spread thinly but evenly.

Bake for one hour but switch tin around so it cooks evenally until crisp and golden brown.  If not crisp give them another 5 or so minutes.  All ovens are different!

Remove from oven, cool and break up into shards and keep in an airtight container.

Yum!

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Underground….st Petersburg or Russia?

 

The Metro system in St Petersburg and Moscow impressed me before we visited the well known beautiful decorated stations.  To compare them is impossible as they were stunning.  But what was also impressive was the cleanliness of the stations with no graffiti or litter.  The regularity of the services was extraordinary…..every ninety seconds our guide told us.  One price per journey regardless of the distance. The escalator ride to the actual station varied from in seconds to minutes.  In st Petersburg our guide advised that it was because of the number of waterways.

Perhaps what was a surprise was being offered a seat the moment you stepped on the train regardless of your sex or age.   This was done as a perfectly gesture and one that we were not expecting.

We visited both undergrounds in these huge cities and although very different were  spectacular.  Tours were offered but we managed to create our own tours with help from our mobile phones.  Whilst we may have missed out on history of the various stations we still appreciated on their grandeur and made sure our tours did not have to compete with rush hour!

Here are just some of the stations we visited.  Whilst Moscow has the reputation of having a perhaps a more grand metro I loved them both.   After all it is like choosing a favourite child!   You adore them both!

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The Tatar family visit in Kazan, Russia

 

20190829_183049One of the highlights of our trip to Russia was a visit to a Tatar family in Kazan.

Not only was it the first trip for this family to host a bunch of foreigners but there was no English being spoken by the lovely family and our Russian was nonexistent.

Our guide was incredible and the only link between the two groups.  Their welcome was very sweet and when we saw the lunch table our stomachs groaned.   It wasn’t long since we had breakfast!  A beautiful table laden with flowers and fruits, sweets, bread and every other dish one could think of decorated the a table.

But first there was a recitation from the cutest five year old ever and a dance with his big sister.   One of the most fascinating family tree was shown to us.  Seven generations from both parents or grandparents.  A lot of research has been done to preserve the family history.

Food starting arriving at our table.  Chicken soup, a savoury meat pie, salad to start.  All home made and delicious. A crepe with mashed potato!  Dont knock it as it was a favourite amongst the group.  The table alone was groaning and so were we.  And then came cake.

This day was certainly the highlight of our Russian food tours.  It was not just about food but  so much more with their kindness and generosity.  Being welcomed into a family home with such friendliness was a memory that we will always remember.

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Breakfast in Russia, Armenia & Georgia

Hotel breakfasts can be hit and miss.  They cater to most tastes and although can be a bit same old they are included in the tariff and it is a convenient way to start the day.  It means you have the opportunity to start the day with a cup or two or coffee or tea!  Vodka was not on offer at this time of day.

My favourite breakfast on our tour was in Yeravan.  Apart from the variation of food it was  a beautifully different eggplant (also called aubergine in parts of the world) dip that I enjoyed.  Tomato, cucumber, olives and cheese was always offered across the countries as they were in Turkey and Greece as was variations of processed meats Boiled eggs were common and a variety of bread.  There was porridge, sausages of sort and interesting vegetable dishes.  Cauliflower for breakfast?   Why not!  There were pastries and various types of bread.  There was yogurt and another favourite were figs in a sugar syrup  Whatever takes your fancy.  No judgment here and a far cry from toast and vegemite at home!

Then then was cake!  This was on our first morning in St Petersburg and a large platter of pastries were on display.  We found out later that they were baked locally in a restaurant.  It was my travelling companion’s birthday and this was the closest that there was to a birthday cake!  So we did not starve in Russia or Armenia or Georgia.  And this was a small sample of the delights of breakfast!

Enjoy!

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Georgia on my mind

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The Georgian flag

Crossing from Armenia into Georgia proved simple enough.  We bade farewell to our guide and driver and queued with our luggage (mostly backpacks) we quickly and painlessly passed through into Georgia.  Our new guide met us and we were ushered to our new transit van and headed to Tbilisi.  New language and new currency and new adventures!

After checking into our hotel we were taken on our city tour which is always welcome in a new city.  Same same but different!  The night was free so my friend went off to find a restaurant with a nice view of the river Mtkvari,  great food and some of the famous and popular Georgian wine that this country is famous for. We were informed by our guide in Russia that although Georgian wine in Russia was expensive it was inexpensive here.  She actually said it was cheaper than water!  A slight exaggeration.  A few days later we enjoyed a wine tasting and yes the wine was excellent and good value but sadly not exported to Australia though it is across Europe and the US.  More of that later.  We also changed money at a money changer successfully which proved an easier way of trying to withdraw money from an ATM in Russia.

A long city walk was scheduled after breakfast with diverse architecture, street art, quirky cafes, good museums and lots of history.  There is an inexpensive cable car, the peace bridge and the museum of modern art and the Museum of Georgia.   Our guide suggested a spot for lunch Cafe Kala in the old town.  We had already tried khachapuri  in Russia…admittedly in st Petersburg where I loved the Georgian restaurants.  Now it was time for our American friends on the trip to try it.  Bread dough fashioned in the shape of a boat ridiculously  smothered with cheese and baked with an egg yolk and butter added to make a cheesy cheesy dish.  You break off a piece of bread and dip it in the cheese, egg and butter mix.  You get the picture.  More of this in my upcoming food blog on Russia, Armenia and Georgia.

Dinner was a lovely private dinner in the garden with a Georgian family about 30 minutes out of town.  We enjoyed the outdoor setting and the purpose built kitchen for our first lesson in kinkali,  those cute little dumplings with the pleated design.  We were also shown  the making of a chicken dish called ‘chakhokhbili’.  This

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Outdoor dinner outside Tbilisi

was simple but delicious as were the salads which accompanied the chicken and the dumplings and did I say dessert.  Always cake!

Leaving Tbilisi we headed out of town to one of the many religious icons in Georgia.   I thought it was me who was disappointed with the number of historical sites we visited daily when we were on a food tour but felt relieved that the rest of the group felt similarly.   It appeared that even though we were on a food tour we were shuffled on to see various religious icons daily.  If we had chosen a historical tour then I am sure it would have been fabulous.  I realised though as time went on regardless of the tour we took they were all the same as they were run by the tourist Georgian company.  Disappointment spread through the group as we felt we were not a specific food tour.  Since our return I have enquired from Intrepid if they are not allowed to have their own tours and guides but have not received a reply.   This was made evident when our group were excited to be having a hands on cooking class making the khapauria (the boat shaped bread with cheese baked and then an egg yolk and slice of butter was added) and when we arrived at a restaurant there was no class but a table laden with various types of khachapuri fir our lunch.  No demonstration in sight.  The khapauria was delicious if served at room temperature.   When I made mention of our disappointment on Facebook and Instagram a friend from a previous mentioned (four months previously) tour said they too had complained of this disappointment but nothing had been changed for subsequent trips.

We enjoyed some delicious food however and the scenery in the Caucasus was spectacular and some of the most  beautiful I have ever seen especially on the Georgian Military Highway which leads to the Russian Georgian border where we stopped in freezing weather to photograph a memorial to the Russian/Georgian Frienship Monument built in 1983 to celebrate the ongoing frienship between the two countries.  Make it what you want but it is a beautiful monument.

Our visit to two very diverse wineries was a highlight due to the ever increasing popularity quality.   In fact I remembered that Yotham Ottolenghi’s favourite wine was from Georgia.   After a tour of the winery we were invited to sample several white and red wines with matching cheese who was s first for me. It was where also the popular drink  Chacha was  available.  Not for the faint hearted it is a pomade brandy with a 40% alcohol and made from the residue left after making wine  and also called Georgian vodka or grappa.  The other winery we visited was a home brew and kept underground in large vats.  It was in contrast to the previous winery.

We headed back to Tbilisi after our interesting tour of the mountains, the ski fields and trekking.  One last day to seek out some souvenirs, checking out

local street art and a farewell meal.

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Hello Yerevan

Probably a year ago if you asked me to point to Yerevan on a world map I would have found it difficult.  Yerevan Armenia! And the capital of Georgia!   Tbilisi!   How do you pronounce that?  What a difference a year makes and when we decided to go to take the  Russian food trip, this food trip beckoned!  And the dates suited our itinerary.  Let’s do it I thought!  We may not be this way again.

Meeting a new leader and group on our Armenian and Georgian Real Food Tour is always exciting.  We were to have two leaders here…one for Armenia and once we got through customs on the border to Georgia we would have a new one.  Unfortunately neither worked for the company we booked with – Intrepid but an independent one.  This certainly did affect our trip as both leaders and the group did not get to know each other as their time with us was quite limited but it was an enjoyable trip nevertheless.

I did regret not having more knowledge about the Armenian Genocide with an estimated extermination of between 700,000 to 1,000,000 about a hundred ago.  How does a country ever overcome  such a tragedy?  I have spent most of my life living in an area in Sydney where there was a large Armenian population but did not realise that there are only three million Armenians live in their own country of the eleven million who live in other countries.   Many live in Russia, in The USA, Argentina and many European countries.   We became aware of many companies, schools and buildings in Yerevan had been built with finance from many of these countries.   The most common language was both Russian and Armenian.  Most of this knowledge was offered by our excellent guide in her perfect English.

 

And so to the food!  Our first night we share a meal at a local restaurant where we tasted our first freshly made lavash.  It is a soft, thin, unleavened flatbread that is now on the UNESCO  list of the Intangible Cultural of Humanity!  The lavash was often filled with salad and cheese (sometimes a salty string cheese) and rolled up and eaten like a sandwich.  Lots of fresh herbs included with the salad.   Delicious and healthy.

 

Across from our hotel was a wonderful market.  Apart from the mountains of lavash and mounds of cheese we were excited to find stalls of decorated dried fruits and nuts beautifully decorated.  And many different spices.  Living in Australia we knew we could only admire them and enjoy samples generously offered.  They are usually purchased for gifts.

Although I will write a separate blog on breakfasts it was here at our hotel in Yerevan that we enjoyed the best breakfasts on our three week adventure.  Not only was the food at the buffet there was such a variety and served beautifully by staff who took pride in their work and presentation.

But back to our tour! Our guide advised us that traffic in Yerevan was always chaotic as there was a very limited underground do most people had to rely on cars for transport.  However, another problem our guide revealed to us was that there were a lot of drivers who did not have a legal licence so crossing a road was done with a degree of risk.

 

We visited a lovely park with wonderful sculptures from artists around the world and an excellent gallery. The gallery called Cafesjian Center which was funded  by an American-Armenian a philanthropist.  Inside there were five exhibition halls which were accessed by an internal escalator.  It was stunning and well worth a visit.

There was an imposing statue we visited which was originally of Stalin but was replaced by one of a woman overnight.  This was post communism. The new monument was called Mother Armenia.  Time restraints prevented us from a visit to the Museum but our guide told us that during the removal of the monument one soldier died and the comment was that Stalin was still killing from the grave.  It was a sombre monument and gave us snippets of the life of the Armenians under Communist rule.  Unfortunately given more time I would have appreciated a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum.  Yertrvan is a very walkable city however though our next port of call was a tasting of Armenian brandy factory to taste various aged of the classic type.  The Ararat variety is considered the pride of many generations  and symbol of Armenia.  We were privileged to try two varieties which interestingly was served with chocolate.   I purchased a bottle and managed to bring it safely home.  Still unopened by the way.

Another part of our very busy schedule was a cooking class making an Arnenian dish called tolma which was rice and ground spiced meat wrapped in cabbage or grape leaves.  This seems to be a popular dish as we also cooked this in Turkey though it was a vegetarian version

 

Our free evening and we were recommended an Arnenian restaurant where I was happy to try a local dumpling called khinkali We actually made these little morsels later in Georgia.  They were made with a simple unyeasted dough rolled thinly and a filling added with a charming pleated  way of enclosing the mixture.   And they were delicious! The mixture was a blend of spicy meat and vegetable and then boiled till cooked.  Delicious.

We visited several historic sites including well known Geghard Monastry a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This was one of the many religious sites we were to visit over the next week.  But it was time to make our way to the border between Armenia and Georgia where we would say goodbye to our guide and trade her for a new one.  A new language, new currency and new country.

 

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