Georgia: Where Cheese Pizza Is The National Dish
Imagine a country where the national dish you're implored to eat, time and again, is essentially the best cheese pizza you've ever tasted. Welcome to Georgia. It may not yet be that familiar to many, but the country lying between Turkey and Russia doesn't fail to win over visitors thanks to its incredible dish, khachapuri.
It's difficult to pronounce, (think hatch-a-pooree) but then again your mouth is too busy enjoying the heady mix of local cheeses which fill - both outside and inside - the soft dough that is baked to perfection. Such is the volume of cheese, this is more of a "rip" than a slice, as molten goodness oozes and spills everywhere. Romantic dining it isn't.
Incredibly, the enormous pies are not even the main dish at a meal, but actually an accompaniment, the mother of all side dishes. A Georgian feast called a supra will feature at least 20 plates of food on the table when you sit down, even before the khachapuri arrives - always hot, always straight from the clay oven. Then it's on to the entrees, usually skewered lamb, pork or chicken, grilled slowly over charcoal and marinated in heady local herbs and spices.
The beauty of this admittedly calorific sensation is that no two are the same. There are countless cheeses made across the fertile Georgian countryside, all of which can be used in kachapuri either solo or, more often, in combination. Like apple pie in the U.S., every home has their own recipe and special take on it.
One of the most common type features Imeruli, a curd-like cheese mixed with beaten egg, all in a flatbread. Adjarian is an odd, canoe-shaped bread filled with cheese and topped with butter and a raw egg before being bought to you. Because your cholesterol isn't high enough.
But the most decadent, outrageous and sinful is Mingrelian, a veritable dairy tsunami flooding the bread, inside and out. How Georgians generally remain in such svelte form is a mystery, given the vast amounts of khachapuri that they consume. And while everyone loves pizza - 88% of Georgians say they prefer khachapuri. I'm with them.
In the capital Tbilisi, you'll find it in every local restaurant you go to. The standout version in a cheese-filled week was at Barberastan, a restaurant which takes every recipe they serve from a 1914 cookbook written by a Georgian Duchess. She wrote it to save recipes from hundreds of years previously, so essentially their version of Georgian pizza is centuries old.
Georgia is one of the most exciting new food frontiers as it melds the very best of its own recipes and ingredients along with Persian, Arab, Turkish, Russian and Asian influences. It's also, remarkably, the original home of wine, where it was first made more than 8,000 years ago and stored in underground earthenware jars called kvevri. But that's another story - and I've got a khachapuri waiting.