Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some Seasons are Meant to Celebrate

Georgia is beautiful; a strange mix of wild spaces and barely-tamed places.

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Its striking mountains, carefully-cultivated vineyards mesh into identity-challenged fields of hay with sunflowers sprouting about, and unfettered cattle roaming the roadsides. (Combine that with Georgian speeding vehicles and you've got steak tartar -- on the hoof.) The land under cultivation is both hard-won and generous. “Georgians,” Nic says, “say that just about anything will grow here, if you just drop it on the ground.”

I have visions of the the Narnian lamp post falling from the sky and taking root here, not as a lone sentinel, but becoming a forest of gas lights!

Our pace on the return is interspersed with produce negotiations.
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The third truth of Kakheti is that when produce comes into season – it is time to celebrate the harvest! The roadsides are lined with families selling watermelons from the trunks of their cars. The sun is merciless. Town elders in long-sleeve shirts perch on wooden benches and crude hand-made chairs, holding umbrellas or squinting beneath make-shift sun shades, next to crates of cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, onions, garlics, leeks, peppers, corn, squash.

Women, dresses mostly in black, fan themselves next to boxes of strawberries, buckets of peaches, heaps of the first grapes and "churchkhela," the Georgian confection created by threading the nuts on long strings,dipping them repeatedly in concentrated grape juice, then rolled in confectionary sugar and hung to dry.

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The result looks a lot like a bumpy stick of licorice or a skinny stick of sausage and is said to contain enough concentrated energy that they were carried on military campaigns. (It must be the original energy bar!)

Sadly, we are too early to attend the traditional, autumn rtveli (wine harvest). The Kakheti wine processing is like no other in the world – labor-intensive and quite different than European practices. After pressing, the grapes, the juices, skins, stems and seeds are all fermented together, yielding a wine that is raisin y, and Madeira-like, with a clear, amber hue. The method is dying out in the region's commercial vineyards, but the family plots and family vintages continue in the traditional way.

A fortuitous stop in a tiny village – well actually it was a few buildings and a lane running back from the highway—proved fruitful. At that juncture stood four village matrons surrounded by buckets of peaches. “Peaches!” Nic exclaimed from his interpreter's seat beside our driver. “Pull over!”
(or at least that's what I assume he said, since he spoke it in Russian.)

The driver braked and careened to the side of the road and out we piled.

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