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NINA BENDUKIDZE & DZEMAL GUGUNAVA: the Georgian and her husband

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

I met Nina Bendukidze and her husband, Dzemal Gugunava through the leader of the Georgian choir I used to sing in. This is another interview that first appeared in Fork magazine as the first in a series called Off the Beaten Track under the name Walnuts, Wine & Song. There is a strong food slant to this one. In a way, I wish I could have asked Nina and Dzemal, especially, about so much more than I did. They were both remarkably generous and welcoming to me in their little house on the outskirts of Bristol. Perhaps I could go back.

I spend the day with Nina who is from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and lives in Bristol. Tbilisi is twinned with Bristol – a connection that Nina takes seriously. The Bristol Tbilisi Association brings Georgian culture to the good people of the West Country. We cook and eat spiced kidney-bean pastries (lobiani), garlic and walnut purée with spinach or beetroot (pxali) and two kinds of xach’ap’uri, Georgia’s national dish. This cheese pie is so intrinsic to the national diet that inflation in Georgia is calculated against its cost – the so-called xach’ap’uri index. Each region has its own version, just as it has its own language or dialect and traditional harmonies. We make a plain version from Imereti and an all-singing-and-dancing one from Ajaria on the Black Sea coast.

Nina and her artist husband, Dzemal, communicate in a mixture of Russian and Georgian, while me and Dzemal get by with sign language and smiling. Whatever the language, eyes sparkle whenever Georgia is mentioned. In her little red car on the way to buy ingredients, Nina tells me about the market near her home in Tbilisi; “We used to buy everything by smell,” she holds an imaginary tomato up to her nose and breathes in its scent, “but now, there’s a modern supermarket there instead.” Though the Georgian grapevine in the UK informs on where to buy the tastiest beets or the best walnuts, Georgian food is all about great fresh produce and so there are obvious compromises to be made here in the UK. Xach’ap’uri should be made with suluguni cheese but Nina makes hers with a mixture including Cheshire, mozzarella and Stilton. “Does it taste the same?” I ask her. “No,” she replies, “but it’s close.”

Cornmeal, tomatoes, aubergines, herbs, spices and walnuts – those are the main ingredients in Georgian food,” she says, back in her kitchen, sealing the cheese mixture inside neat little pastry parcels. I get the impression that she really means fine golden cornmeal ripened under Georgian skies, ruby-red, fist-sized tomatoes grown in Georgian soil, walnuts from a tree that’s served generations of the same family. “There’s a saying in Georgia,” she says, putting the first tray of xach’ap’uri into the oven, “every man should raise a son, build a house and plant a walnut tree.” Walnuts feature heavily in Georgian cooking – me and Dzemal mince walnuts for pxali in an old metal meat mincer which evidently does a better job than any modern electrical contraption.

“In Georgia,” Nina smiles and tests the pxali, adding another glug of vinegar, “we always cook for at least twenty … neighbours, friends, family … you invite everyone. And everyone helps out too. When we went back home to visit, we didn’t have to buy food or cook for the whole two weeks! The neighbours had let themselves in and loaded the fridge and kitchen table with more food than we could ever eat!” Next are the lobiani. “These just have to be round,” Nina says, “I made them square once, but they didn’t taste the same.” Vast quantities of xmeli suneli, Georgian mixed spice, go into the kidney bean filling. Nina shows me the different spices she uses – complex orange and mustard-yellow blends sent over from Georgia in hand-labelled jars.

Finally, we make the Ajarian cheese pastries (ajaruli xach’ap’uri)boat-shaped open-topped pastries with an egg cracked inside then returned to the oven. As she pleats the pastry she counts to 23, “There should always be 23 pleats – the same with xinkali,” Nina tells me, “Georgian dumplings.” But neither she nor Dzemal know why 23 is significant. They both shrug and laugh.

Before eating, in true Georgian style over good Georgian red, Nina proposes a toast. It’s no quick ‘cheers’ but rather a heartfelt speech that quite simply delights me. The food is magnificent – even though both Nina and Dzemal assure me that in Georgia it’s so much better. The undoubted highlight, even better than the powerfully earthy pxali, are the ajaruli xach’ap’uri. Dzemal shows me how to eat them by breaking off the prow and stern of the pastry boat and dipping them into the molten cheese and egg filling.

“In Batumi (seaside capital of Ajaria), they eat these for breakfast with Turkish-style coffee in copper pots heated, over hot sand. It’s so beautiful there,” Nina says with far-off eyes, “it’s paradise, you know?”

“Chto ‘paradise’?” Dzemal asks.

Rai,” she translates and Dzemal nods in sober agreement.

After dinner, as we drink coffee and listen to Georgian polyphonic music in Dzemal’s studio I realise that Georgian food means so much more than the total of its ingredients. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat it and with whom. It means family, tradition, ritual and identity all rolled into one and a vital social glue. Above all, it means home.

This interview is an extract from issue 18 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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