It is not the best wine I've drunk since arriving in Tbilisi the week before, not even close. Lightly effervescent, with a distinctly sour edge. Also, it is 10 AM, and I'm not a morning drinker. Not so the men clustered around Dave and I, watching with keen interest our every sip, our every nibble from the dishes on the counter in front of us. One shortish fellow with a stubbled head and double chin breathes alcoholic fumes on my cheek, then leans back on his heels and smiles, swaying like a Weeble.
I don't know what to make of him, or of this mid-morning liquor-fueled scene in the near-dark of Dezertiri Market's rear recesses. And that pretty much describes my state of mind for most of our short time in Georgia. We'd come from eastern Turkey, a place of big smiles, bigger welcomes, outsized hospitality. In eastern Turkey turning down invites to tea, to lunch, to dinner, to a night or five on the spare bed or couch of a perfect stranger has become normal. In Tbilisi, people smile .... or scowl. Shopkeepers are gracious ... or rude. Trying to smooth the way with a nicety uttered in (my mangled) Georgian are met with a thumbs-up .... or a cluck of the tongue, a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head. They love you or are annoyed by you (some seem to despise you), these Georgians, and it is near impossible to predict which it will be. But here, in Dezertiri's boozy back room, we are most decidedly welcome.
Food, of course, has brought us to Dezertiri this day, our last in town. We'd been introduced to the market the morning after we arrived in Tbilisi by a guide named Nadja. When we met Nadja outside our AirBnB morning what popped into my mind was a phrase that my mother uses to describe strong women who exude serious "Don't %#$% with me" vibes: 'She looks like she could chew nails.'
That day Nadja's nails are painted coral; they match her leather jacket and her dyed hair. She swaggers through Dezertiri's nuts and dried fruits zone with assurance. I follow behind, asking questions and taking notes. Nadja doesn't look like what probably comes to mind when most people imagine a culinary guide, but she clearly loves food, and I understand quickly that she really really knows how to cook. She points out the lighter coloured walnuts used for sauces, tells me how to grind them with unfiltered sunflower oil and seasonings to make a dressing for blanched romano beans. (Save the tough fiber that lies between the walnut halves to flavor cha-cha, she advises.) Oyster mushrooms, Nadja says, should be stewed with herbs. She pinches a plump dried fig and suggests I buy half a kilo to stash away for when I come down a cold (Georgians soak figs in milk and drink the liquid to cure a cough). She steers me to stacks of folded jewel-toned sheets of fruit leather (made from kiwi, pear, plum, peach, cherry, fejioa...) and stalls displaying churchkhela, garlanded walnut halves thickly cloaked in wheat starch or corn meal-thickened fruit juice.
"Georgian Snickers!" says the churchkhela vendor, waving a magenta nut-and-fruit log in front of Nadja's face and waggling his eyebrows. She smiles wanly, sighs and turns away to light a cigarette. It's not the first time he's tried to flirt with her and failed, I think.
In the cheese hall, a proud seller lovingly handles with his product
Dezertiri is a dream of a market, a rambling expanse (20,000 square feet, I think I read somewhere -- though I have no idea if that's accurate) of exposed and tarp-shaded tables, lean-tos and shacks housing permanent and temporary stalls, a parking lot where vendors sell fruits, plum and herb sauces and fresh and dried chilies from bins set up in front of their trucks and a hulking, multi-storied bordering-on-decrepit concrete building with areas devoted to -- among other things --cheese, ghostly pale pink suckling pigs, cured meats and smoked fish and corn meal, for Georgian grits.
The Georgian culinary attention to detail, to origin, to regionality is succinctly illustrated in what I call the Corn Meal Corner. In this square room with sandpaper-textured walls the color of extra-fatty cream hung with wood-framed round metal sieves and complemented by pale lavender shutters, men and women stand behind a 'U' of stalls, each displaying exactly the same thing: wide shallow bowls supporting gravity-defying towers of corn meal. Despite appearances each vendor sells a different product -- something you understand when you read the labels (or ask your Georgian guide to translate for you): here is 'Jusuna and Fotola's' corn meal, there corn meal 'watermill-ground from Abasha' and, just opposite, 'Best corn meal from Eliko and Guliver, Kuchukhidze.' (Also for sale: corn silk, to boil with water for a drink that Nadja tells us is good for the kidneys.)
In Georgia there seemingly is nothing that cannot be pickled; the national ardor for fermented fruits, vegetables and flowers is on exhibit in the warren of lanes directly behind the market building. With a prompt from Nadja vendors offer samples of pickled cucumber and garlic, chilies, cabbage, plums .... My favourite pickles are the delicate, crunchy pickled flowers called jonjoli (second from right, bottom) -- which I gladly encounter again and again in Tbilisi and beyond as an appetiser, served with and without onions, always drizzled with raw sunflower oil. (Good for digestion, says Nadja.)
On that morning we are a good three and a half hours at Dezertiri Market before Nadja is able to nudge us into a taxi. But today, our last morning, our last chance to take in Dezertiri's delectable vastness, we have no time to spare. We are here to stock up, so we breeze past the persimmon and raspberry sellers (the equivalent of 5 US dollars for a small pail full of berries!) and the scarved Azeri women selling tarragon, dill, cilantro, parsley, purple basil, delicate lettuces and tangles of wild purslane. Unfortunately fresh items don't travel well.
We head instead to the alley off Tsinamdzghvrishvili Street where a taciturn man sells lovely hand-carved walnut cutting boards and bowls. We buy an armful of churchkhela in a variety of flavors, and plastic bags of spices and ground dried chilies from a shop next door run by a woman in black who carries herself with an elegance I've come to associate with Georgian women.
In the market building we fill our canvas shopping bag with sausages and smoked salmon and cheese. And then, on our way to the stairs leading back to the ground floor, we pass a vendor cooking brunch behind her stall. Nothing special, just potatoes and onions. But it smells tremendous, and suddenly we're very hungry.
"Where can we eat?" we pantomime to shoppers and vendors on the ground floor. (First rule of culinary travel: If you don't speak the language get comfortable making an ass of yourself.) "Back there," seems to be the general sign language response, back to the back of the market. So we head out of the building into the pickle alley. No food. We keep asking, making our way further and further into the market's darker sections, and continue to be waved on. Finally, when we are about as far to the rear of Dezertiri as we can go we find a gaggle of men, all with delicate glasses in their hands, standing before a long counter groaning with plates. Drinking food.
And that is how we end up standing before Nata, a bosomy woman with white-blond hair swept high into an unruly bun who, I learn, is two years my senior.
We gather that neither option will be of the finest quality, so since even good cha-cha (sometimes compared to grappa, sometimes to moonshine) can be challenging for the novice drinker we opt for the former. Nate siphons golden liquid from a plastic jug, via a plastic tube, into glasses, hands tour beverages to us and sweeps her plan over the counter in a gesture that clearly means EAT.
There is the Georgian hot sauce ajika, in several versions; and the sweet-sour plum sauces Georgians cook with and eat gallons of; smoked salmon and the Georgian equivalent of bastirma (aka Turkish pastrami); super salty crumbly sheep cheese and another softer, milder cheese; raw onions and garlic; gorgeous tomatoes and sliced cucumbers; preserves and jams. Nate saws at a loaf of bread and lays the slices on a plate; they disappear almost instantaneously. No one speaks English, except for us. We speak no Georgian. But somehow we're communicating with Nata and her customers about food and Georgia and America and George W Bush (Georgians love him; there is a George W Bush Boulevard in Tbilisi), and about how one should eat the salty sheep's cheese -- for one particularly garrulous man, on a slice of bread, marooned in a puddle of plum sauce.
Georgia has been a challenge -- a delicious, fascinating, I-could-see-myself-falling-for-this-place sort of challenge. But right now I'm grateful for the warm welcome of these enthusiastic drinkers. "We'll be back," I tell Dave, who is still nursing his first glass of wine while I'm on my second, or maybe third. "We must return to this fabulous city! Sooner rather than later!" It's mid-October, cold and damp, and I have been shivering all week, but I feel a warm glow.
It's possible that I'm a little drunk.