As some people connect particular events or periods in their lives with favorite songs or outfits or books, I mark time in meals. They form a series of guideposts in my memory, where flavors, aromas, and dishes stand in for events and inspirations that moved me in some way.
Often I don’t realize until after the fact that a meal has imprinted itself in my mind in connection with some larger turning point. Those where I can consciously put another “dot on the map” as I sat at the table are rare and precious things. They depend as much on the atmosphere, the company and the circumstances as on the food and drink. Recently, I found myself at just such a meal.
It was a wine tasting and birthday dinner hosted by Georgian friends of a friend in the area, including the winemaker himself. Though the food was served in the American/European style (in distinct courses rather than all at once, with wine pairings and plenty of tablecloth visible around the dinner plates and serving platters), the menu was Georgian through and through.
For starters, there was the ubiquitous khachapuri (cheese bread), fried eggplant slices rolled around garlic-walnut paste, and my favorite type of gvezeli, layers of puff pastry stuffed with sautéed mushrooms, heaps of tarragon, and hard-boiled eggs. Then our chef for the evening (the winemaker’s wife Nino) brought out a huge platter holding three whole arctic char, each easily 18 inches long and 4 inches thick, stuffed with cilantro leaves, ground walnuts, and Georgian spices. Their succulent flesh melted on my tongue: it was among the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Next, a meat course: chunks of beef, cooked long and slow to tenderize them and served simply au jus with potatoes. Finally, a decadent chocolate mousse cake, rich enough to put a point on the meal in just a few bites.
The wines were made from native Georgian grape varieties: mtsvane, rkatsiteli, kikhvi, and saperavi. Most had been fermented in the classic Georgian style: inside huge clay amphora lined with beeswax and buried in the ground, the grape juice macerated together with the skins, stems, and pits. In European tradition, the skins are left in only when making red wines, tinting grape juice that would otherwise be transparent. Because Georgians leave the skins on white grapes as well, the resulting wines turn out amber or honey-colored rather than clear. The presence of the skins and stems during fermentation also lends a tannic pucker to both reds and whites, and almost vegetal, barklike notes to some.
Soliko, who made the wine, adds few sulfites (used as preservatives) to his wines, both because organic standards don’t allow him to and because Georgia has never had such a tradition. I’ve heard that sulfites are often the culprit behind the wine-induced headaches many of us suffer from, myself included. While I can’t be sure that’s the case, I thankfully woke up headache-free the next morning.
At one point during the meal, I stepped out onto the back porch for some fresh air. (This is typical at Georgian meals, which spread leisurely over a period of hours and look kindly on the fact that diners’ stomachs (and buttocks and livers) may need periodic rests.) I hadn’t realized that the backyard opened directly onto the Chesapeake Bay. It was too dark to see much except the stars, which shined starkly against the sky, brighter than they’ll ever appear in the city. Inside the house, someone was playing a flamenco riff on the guitar he’d been handed across the table. The voices were a mix of Georgian, Russian, and English, flowing in and out of one another without concern for politics or nationalism. Laughter resonated. People were toasting.
I thought about how this dinner represented a coming-together of so many threads in my life: Georgia, Russia, my involvement with the Slow Food movement (the winemaker is a founding member of Slow Food Georgia), and my slow transition from a Midwesterner (which I will always remain at heart) into an East Coaster.
Hearing Georgian again for the first time since I had left the country–kitchen Georgian, which is the only Georgian I know anything about—I felt something settle, as if an experience that seemed to have no mirror in the States had suddenly come full circle. It felt like the culmination of one chapter and the opening of a new one: perhaps one of the many turning points that will inspire a book, or at least a few of the recipes in it. If nothing else, this meal will symbolize the beginning of what I hope will become a lifelong love affair with arctic char.
We closed the meal with tiny glasses of Soliko’s chacha (Georgian grappa, liquor distilled from the solids left in the fermentation vessel after the wine has been poured off), which is a transparent pink from the hawthorn berries (kuneli, in Georgian) he adds to it. It tasted caramely and cut through the intense sweetness of the cake, burning pleasantly down my throat.
There is a wonderful line from MFK Fisher’s 1943 essay collection The Gastronomical Me. She writes: “It seems to me that our three most basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot rightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”
I arrived home after two in the morning, stuffed and happy and still a little tipsy, and I knew exactly what she meant.