Just before Christmas I was invited to Georgia, the tiny country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, by my good friend Nathan Moss. He has been living there several years, has married a Georgian, and works at the famous Pheasant’s Tears restaurant and vineyard in the far east of the country. Knowing my passion for bread he was keen to show me around, and to learn even more about the bread culture of his adopted homeland, whilst introducing me to the wonderful world of natural winemaking he had embraced with gusto.
As we careered along the old Russian S5 highway eastwards (the European funded E30 has motorway has petered out at Tbilisi) it soon became clear that Nathan had embraced Georgian culture wholeheartedly. Driving like a local (MOT’s and insurance optional extras) swerving donkeys, dogs, potholes and on coming minibuses whilst enthusing about the Georgian puri bread. Screeching to a halt beside a row of wooden roadside shacks he suggested we try some there and then at his favourite bakery. There were in fact a whole row of bake shacks to choose from. From every serving hatch a “babushka” beckoned us to buy their bread.
Smiling at them all, we strode up to Nathan’s favourite, where we were promptly seen as foreigners to be fleeced, until Nathan in fluent Georgian asked if his friend, a famous baker from England could watch as they made some bread for us. Or even at a push make his own shoti bread.
The Georgian shoti bread is ubiquitous; like the French baguette it is baked all day, it is long and thin, stales quickly, it is cheap, and it is also being mass produced in factories using cheap ultra white flour. The only difference is in Georgia it is made in a round oven so it is curved, and it is mainly the women who bake. The men do the singing.
Using smiles, praise and money I persuaded the women to let me use their sacred tone oven. With more luck than skill I managed to bake my first shoti, scooping it off the wall just before it fell into the all consuming embers. The babushkas laughed at my misshapen loaves and the gullibility with which I had paid the “tourist” price.
Back on the road Nathan floored the 4 x 4 and we sped off to catch the sunset at the desert monastery of Davod Gareji. It’s amazing how long the smell of fresh bread lingers in an air conditioned car. At the monastery all we needed was some wine and sackcloth to really embrace our inner monk.
In the past decade Georgia has become a significant tourist destination and is modernising fast – too fast. Stunning scenery, friendly people, great food and hospitality have brought thousands of tourists. And then there’s the wine.
It has been scientifically proven that Georgia and its neighbor Armenia is the birthplace of wine making. What i also discovered before and during my time there is that Georgia is also the cradle of wheat and bread as we now know it. Wine was first made there approximately 4000 years before Christ; leavened modern bread took a roughly another 1500 years. The early eneolithic cereal farmers carefully selecting the best wild wheat varieties to make the best leavened bread flour. Georgia is still home to over half the world’s wheat species, and still grows dozens of ancient “heritage” varieties, most notably Tsiteli Doli.
On arrival at Pheasant’s Tears that evening i was treated like a member of the family. Georgia is rightfully famous for its hospitality, no one is a stranger, and the food and wine is almost limitless.
The next day i was introduced to Julia, the baker at the restaurant. Her bake house and oven were in a garden shed. Although she spoke no English and I no Georgian, we were com’panions instantly; she embraced the role of the matriarchal baker, and i, the eager apprentice. With Nathan around to translate Julia and i got on like an oven on fire, once she could see that i was not another tourist who wanted a bread making instagram opportunity . We made dough, chopped wood, made fire, laughed alo, t gossipped and finally made some bread. That’s what bakers do.
John Wurdeman the American owner/patron of Pheasant’s Tears is not just committed to preserving the old ways of making natural wine and bread, he also insists on preserving the pre biblical varieties of grape and wheat.
We used locally grown Tsiteli Doli wheat, a close relative of ancient spelt, to make the dough by hand;I learnt from Julia that in her dialect the bread we were making was known as Dedas Puri, or Mother’s bread; the sourdough starter being the “mother” much the same as the madre in Italian baking or the mother dough in English baking.
After firing up the tone, aka torne/turne with huge bunches of brittle vine clippings we allowed the embers to subside to a gentle glow, these were then covered with a rusty dustbin lid. Then the real fun began, the shaping of the dough and sticking it to the red hot inner wall of the oven. Unlike many other tandoor Central Asian style breads the Georgian shoti bread is placed on the wall without the use of a cushion, it is stuck on with bare hands. The larger pieces of dough were placed near the top where the temperature is cooler, i estimated around 200c, hence they got enough time to bake through before they were done and fall off the wall. As Julia and her increasingly confident apprentice filled the oven the dough pieces got smaller the further down into the volcano we reached. Timing and skill was of the essence as it was so hot near the bubbling lava that one had to attach the dough and retreat asap. Right at the bottom where the walls were around 300c and the bake time only 3 minutes, we attached round lavash style flatbreads. The tone is stone built but does not retain much thermal mass, consequently the walls cool down quickly and after two or three bakes it needs re firing again.
The resulting bread was shaped like a boat keel with the texture and crumb of a baguette L’ancienne, and a similar taste. The crust was leathery due to the absence of steam. It does not stale as quickly as a baguette and the following day there was a deeper sour note, that was even more pronounced due to the excessive mastication required. This is what i call real bread, it has no pretence at being in any way modern or God forbid “Modernist” One could even go so far to call it primitive or heathen bread.
Accompanied by a glass of the house red wine I got the sense of genuinely communing with the earth and the people who lived off it rather than on it.