Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Georgian Food: A Culinary Journey In Tbilisi (Part 6)

It took a long time to get back to Freedom Square and the road that led to Mariam’s shed. On the way, I walked down an alley to a kebab shop that specialised in Iranian and Afghan dishes. I sat at a table near the door and ordered a “chicken on the bone kebab” when a fight broke out. Two large men burst into the restaurant, yelling and baying for blood. One of them looked like a Viking in a blue puffer jacket, the other was equally broad and had a red pug nose. A Georgian man finishing his meal looked at them and shook his head. The other customers looked on nervously.

A scrum formed and the restaurant staff – five or six Arabic men with large bellies, making up in weight what they lacked in height - slowly pushed the pair backwards towards the sliding glass door. The shouting went on for several minutes and finally the intruders were pushed out of the restaurant. The owner locked the door. “Georgia!” he said. The waiter returned to finish my order and made an apologetic gesture about the noise.

The dish came in an unnervingly quick time to cook chicken on the bone. There were bony pieces from the back of the chicken, and a couple of wings and drumsticks. The meat looked nicely cooked on the outside, but was red and jelly-like close to the bone, and had the gamey smell of pheasant. I figured they’d had too bad a night already to complain. I ate the salad and the naan bread and then thought what the hell and ate some of the whiter chicken meat. I paid and headed off to Mariam’s shed. It was 1.20am. I’d arrived at a similar time the night before and the iron portcullis that led to the courtyard garden and noticeboard of compliments had been open, but this time it was shut. I pushed a few times but it was definitely locked.

I began to think about all sorts of horrible possibilities, knowing my bag and passport were inside. I knocked a few more times and pressed my ear to the gate but there was no sound from within. Next door was a basement bar. Three customers came out to smoke. I asked one of them for help. He was an olive-skinned man in his early 20s and spoke good English. I asked if he could see a buzzer on the gate. “A bell?” he said. I nodded and in our drunken state we felt round the gate. He turned on the light on his phone. But there was no bell or knocker, only the name Hostel Mariam with a phone number underneath. It was printed on A4 paper and stuck to the door with sticky tape.

“You live here?” he asked. “How long?” I told him it was my second night. “You have your clothes here?” He shook his head and clicked his throat in disgust. We both knocked again on the iron gate. My knuckles were getting raw and the banging made very little sound. I shoved the door a few more times. The night before, the gate had been wedged open with a brick and I was wondering whether the brick had become wedged under it, but it was definitely locked.

I started getting a horrible anxious feeling, and the winter air seemed to bite much harder. The thought of spending a night on the street wasn’t a pleasant one. The man blearily examined the gate again, then typed the number on the wall into his phone. I thanked him a couple more times. The phone kept ringing and cutting off as he made disgusted shakes of his head. He was definitely on my side.

Suddenly there was an answer and he started babbling away in Georgian. His tone slowly got aggressive. It wasn’t a good sound to hear. After a minute, there was a pause while he flicked away at his cigarette. There was a barrage at the other end. It sounded like a dragon breathing fire. “Is it a woman?” I asked. “Yes, it’s an old woman,” he said. “But I don’t know what she do. I think she’s lying. She says you only have a small bag there and you move out.”

He dialled the number again, crushed his cigarette with his foot, and then lit another one. A voice came back on the phone, and his tone got more aggressive. He checked with me again. “You sleep there?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “You have your clothes there?” “Yes,” I said. Then the phone went dead. He swore and began to redial. “What happened?” I asked. “She says you check out. She not come to the door. She has a bad heart – it’s hard for her to get up. I think she’s lazy.” He tried the number again but there was no answer. I was already thinking about the park bench I’d sleep on. Without my passport, it would be very difficult getting a hotel. Then I thought about Babar’s hostel and whether there might be a spare bed there. Did they still keep the door open when Babar wasn’t turning up in the middle of the night?

My new friend, and I really don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been there, tried the number a few more times and finally got through. The conversation quickly turned into an argument. I could hear a hurricane coming down the phone. He kept checking with me that I “had my clothes there,” and kept shaking his head. Eventually he said: “I think she’s coming.” I thought I could hear distant noises from inside the courtyard, but after 10 minutes just put it down to hope. Then finally the door opened and there was Mariam, her orange hair stuck up in rollers like a medusa, hailing a torrent of abuse.

She was leaning on her stick and rubbing her back much more than I’d seen her do before, making whimpering noises interspersed with full-blown rages of hate. I stepped through the gate, afraid it would shut again, and for a minute she swore at the young man and his friend who had wandered up to watch the spectacle. She slammed the door shut and clenched her fist, making hammering gestures in the direction of my nose. She carried on shouting and I did my best to rectify the situation. I helped her as she hobbled back through the courtyard to my shed door. My bag was on the table outside, underneath the vines. My toothbrush and toothpaste were on a chair next to it. She’d cleaned out my room. I panicked, thinking about my belt pouch containing my passport and money that I’d hidden under the mattress.

Mariam continued to rant at me, pretending to hammer my face with her right fist, as she gripped her stick with the other. I kept telling her I hadn’t said anything about checking out. Her punching motions got closer to my nose. One slip of her walking stick, and my nose would be as flat as a khachapuri. Eventually she unlocked the door to the shed and we walked in. I kept saying “no check-out” as she continued her attack. She said nothing about the English being “number one” this time, and the only thumbs-ups signs were the ones directed at my face. I realised she was probably mad.

She pointed at the beds and I pointed to the one I’d slept in, and she turned back the cover. While her back was turned, I checked under the mattress and found my belt pouch. Nothing appeared to be missing. The cash seemed to be about the right amount and the passport and bank cards were there. I handed her 25 laris for the room, then she left. The shed was freezing. The water jug had a slight sheen to it as though it was about to ice over. I shut the door and found she’d taken the remote control for the air conditioning, which when you put it up to its maximum of 16C was the only way to heat the room. I took the blankets from the other beds and piled them on top of me. I decided to check my emails and realised she’d turned off the wifi as well.

I woke early. There was no banging on the door this time and there was no sign of Mariam in the courtyard. I dressed and wandered out to the other shed to brush my teeth. It was far too cold to shower. I stood outside my shed for a few minutes gathering my thoughts. There was still no sign of Mariam. Normally she would be peeking through the net curtains, but there was no light in her kitchen. I found a plug outside my shed that led to a bundle of wires and managed to put the wifi back on. It also turned on the porch light.

I lay on my bed, shivering and searching on my tablet for hotels. It was still a few hours before check-in times. I went to the toilet. I heard no noise in the courtyard, but returned to find the outside light was off and so was the wifi. The plug had been taken out and the bundle of spaghetti was dangling down as it had been before. I took it as a sign that I was definitely no longer welcome.

I packed my bag and walked past the mandarin plant and the noticeboard with all those cheery messages. I could feel eyes on my back. Mariam’s black cat was sitting on a chair near the gate and was watching me with narrowed eyes. It hadn’t liked me when I first turned up, but now it looked particularly unfriendly.

I pulled the gate open and ventured out into the rain-drenched street. The basement bar next door was shut. At the end of the road was a small hotel with Christmas lights in the window, but I wanted one further away from Mariam. That cat had put the chill into me, and in my bleary state I began wondering whether Mariam had ailuranthropic powers – she certainly had the temper for it.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Georgian Food: A Culinary Journey In Tbilisi (Part 5)

(Read part one of trip HERE)

After another 20 minutes, Babar still hadn’t come out of the sulphur springs. He’d told me not to wait for him so I went off to look for a hotel. I couldn’t do another night in that hostel. I walked past a gorge to the famous Orbeliani Baths, set in a beautiful, Turkish-style building decorated with blue, white and brown mosaics. Outside was a plaque with a quote from Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, written in 1829: “Never before have I seen, neither in Russia nor in Turkey, anything that can surpass the magnificent baths of Tiflis.” I’d read somewhere about how he’d also been a big fan of the local food: “Every Georgian dish is a poem.

In a side street, a woman was selling pomegranate juice. She crushed a couple and handed me a paper cup full of red juice. It was delicious – a hundred times better than the stuff you get in cartons, and I wondered how it would taste with a shot of vodka to keep out the biting January wind.

I checked a few hotels but they were all full. Then I saw Babar hobbling up the road. He said there was a cheap hotel around the corner that might have a bed. We walked through a metal gate into a courtyard cluttered with old furniture and pot plants. An elderly woman with dyed orange hair came out to meet us. Babar chatted away to her and told her I was English. She gave a thumbs-up and said: “English number one.” Mariam, as her name turned out to be, said her brother’s son was working as a doctor in London.

“She’s got a shed that’s free,” Babar said. Mariam grabbed my arm, making another thumbs-up gesture, and opened the shed door. A small electric heater hung from the ceiling. It was colder in there than the courtyard. The inside was lined with hardboard and psychedelic grey wallpaper. There were three beds. The largest had a duvet covered in shiny gold fabric. I asked about the other beds, and Mariam said I could have the whole shed to myself for 25 laris (about £7). I handed her the cash. “Are you only paying one night? If you’re going to stay longer, I’d pay her in advance,” Babar said. I told him I’d see how the first night turned out and whether I’d survive the cold. “Well, it’s up to you – but this is Georgia,” he said. If only I’d known how prophetic his advice would turn out to be.

I told Babar I’d buy him lunch for helping me out. He said he’d been to Georgia five times but still hadn’t tried khinkali – the country’s famous dumpling dish. Mariam sat down on a courtyard chair, winced, held her back, then got up again. “Oh khinkali,” she laughed. “Restaurant there, there and there,” she said pointing in all directions.

We found a cellar restaurant up the road and headed in. I’d heard the Georgians weren’t that fond of fish, but there were several fish dishes on the menu, including roasted red mullet for the ridiculously cheap price of 9 laris (just over £2) and trout with pomegranate sauce for 11 laris. There was a whole page devoted to khinkali. We ordered four types - beef, lamb, cheese and mushroom. They came with a ramekin of mild chilli sauce. The lamb ones were the best. The meat had been minced and flavoured with fresh coriander, cumin and garlic from what I could tell. Babar finished his bottle of Coke, insisted on paying half the bill, then headed back to his hostel. I ordered another beer. “You’re not going to drink in here all afternoon being miserable are you?” he asked. I said I’d go for a walk round the city later. 

But my plans changed when a folk band came in and did a soundcheck for the evening. One of them played a panduri – a three-stringed, lute-like Georgian instrument - strummed with the fingers in a raking, clawed action, often at high speed. They swapped instruments and took it in turns to sing. The accordion filled out the sound and the bass played intermittent, sparse notes.

But what made it was the interweaving vocal melodies. It wouldn’t be much without the singing you might think, but they played some beautiful instrumental Georgian folk songs too. They were great players. Towards the end of the night, they let me have a go on the panduri. I plucked a few strings, but they said it had to be strummed. When I got back to my shed that night I watched a video on the internet of a Georgian man described as the Jimi Hendrix of the panduri. He played at such breath-taking speed you could hardly see his strumming hand move. It was a blur - the faster he strummed, the slower his hand seemed to move, like one of those ‘thumb cinema’ flip books.

It was bitterly cold in that shed, even with the blankets from the other beds piled on top of me. I got to sleep when the sun came up, and woke about noon. Mariam was frantically knocking at my door, shouting: “English! English! Alexander! Alexander!” I dressed quickly and found her clutching her walking stick, slumped in a garden chair outside my shed. We had some sort of conversation delivered through mime and the occasional word we both understood. I told her I was staying for another three nights. I pulled out a 100-lari note and asked if she had change. But she just brushed it away, and the way I understood it, said there was no hurry about paying. She gave another thumbs-up and said: “English number one.”

I rolled a cigarette and two large, bald men walked into the courtyard, eyeing the place up and down. They looked like gangsters. The first one, who was clearly in charge, was puffing at a cigarette and stubbed it out in a flowerpot. I was mid-sentence, or at least mid-mime, when he butted in. At first I thought they were Mariam’s relatives, perhaps cousins of the mystery doctor. They looked at me as I smoked my roll-up and I heard Mariam say: “Cigarette!”

I began examining my city map, then had trouble folding it back up again. She followed them outside and was gone for a few minutes. I’d finally folded up the map by the time she came back. “Polizia,” she said. “They look. Good,” she said giving another thumbs-up. “Good to look.” I told her again I’d stay three more nights. I said I was going to get change for the 100 lari note, but she waved the note away and smiled.

Then she clutched her spine, grimaced as she got to her feet, and pointed at one of the plants. “Mandarin,” she said. It was a broad-leafed plant in an old paint tub. It was barely two feet high in height and I was amazed it could survive such freezing temperatures, but it looked healthy enough. “Orange?” I said, forming a small circle with my hand. “Yes, yes,” she said looking at me as though I was an idiot for not knowing what a mandarin was. 

I’d liked to have seen her courtyard garden in the summer. There were vines running across the ceiling and the place would have been filled with leaves and grapes. Now they were just thin strips of wood snaking around the walls and the lean-to next to my shed. There was a stocking of dried black grapes on the table, showing what they produced when the leaves returned in the spring. On the wall was a noticeboard with pieces of paper pinned to it. Messages written by previous residents. Most were in Russian or Georgian, but there were one or two in mangled English which basically said Mariam was a saint who ran a five-star establishment and there were few fit to pray at her feet.

I wandered around the city and finally found a place I’d been told to visit – Fabrika, a trendy backpacker spot and haven of industrial chic. Put it this way if there was ever a shortage of beards in the world, they could always go to Fabrika. It was an old sewing factory that had been converted into a huge hostel complex with 24/7 working hubs for geeks in beanie hats and head wraps who do things on computers and talk about servers, algorithms and time zones.

At the back was a courtyard of bars, restaurants and trendy shops. In the middle was a vintage car, light blue in colour and suitably Instagrammable. I wondered how many social media accounts it had appeared on around the world. At the far end was a VW Camper van that had been turned into a photo booth. Next to it was what looked like a giant ship mine. The factory brickwork was daubed with graffiti – one scrawl in vibrant yellow said: “Kids are the best humans in the world.”

Not that there were many kids there. The youngest people seemed to be the trendy Georgians working in the restaurants and bars. Most of the hipster customers were older and had seen better days. Their skateboards did little to conceal their age. Some of them were old enough to remember when beards were fashionable first time round. The women favoured fake leopard skin coats and fur-lined parkas.

You could tell it was Tbilisi’s place to be from the prices. Although it was still very reasonable by European standards, there were far cheaper restaurants – and hostels - in the city beyond the concrete and glass. But what right-minded flashpacker wanted to brave the traffic and stray dogs out there? Why weave your way through the narrow, dark streets when you could drink in the courtyard bars and crash in one of the factory’s bunk beds?

There was a burger bar offering the usual fanfare and ridiculously-named “hand-crafted” patties. Next to it was a bar specialising in board games, and a ramen noodle joint whose owners had clearly studied the Wagamama format. I settled for the busiest bar – the Moulin Electrique. It was a great place. A bar that promised Georgian food and a moody playlist. Massive Attack, Portishead and occasional acoustic guitar skits from Nick Cave wannabes. Clearly knowing the age of its customers, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came on and all was going well before Jamiroquai took a turn.

The food came quickly and was pretty good. If you wanted to see a future direction of Georgian food, then the menu was probably a pretty good indication. They still had the traditional dishes, but some had been tweaked and were described as in the “Moulin style”. I noticed avocado and coconut had crept into the menu too. There were cold dishes like cheese plates, pickle plates and what they called bread tapas – a platter of khachapuri. There were also 14 salads and 14 soups, including the intriguing-sounding pea soup with smoked ribs.

I ordered chicken broth with meatballs and egg, and something called a Georgian sandwich. The broth was a light chicken bouillon, that I suspected had come from a packet, with five grey meatballs made from minced chicken, onion and herbs, half a boiled egg buried at the bottom, a dill garnish, and slices of toasted baguette on the side. The sandwich was excellent – cheese slices and peppery mayonnaise stuffed in a fat, oval-shaped roll, somewhere between naan bread and airy panini. I asked a waitress whether it was a traditional Georgian sandwich, and she shrugged and said: “Well, it’s Georgian bread.” 

I washed it down with glasses of the local Black Lion draft lager, which I had taken quite a liking to. It was delightfully sour for a lager with the sort of hoppy notes a craft beer enthusiast could drone on about for an hour. It tasted more like those pale ales the Americans favour rather than a typical bland European lager, but thankfully the bubbles lasted to the end of the glass, and it was disturbingly easy to drink. But at four laris for 400ml, who cared.

The Christmas lights came on as the sun set and glistened in the factory glass. Outside, a giant tin of Campbell’s tomato soup that served as a beer table sparkled in green light. The wind picked up and a man walked down the steps from the work hub, clutching at his head. He was trying to stop his combover flapping in the wind as he put his beanie hat on.

The place was achingly cool, but somehow less pretentious than the industrial chic hipster joints you get in Sofia or Berlin, and far less so than those in Shoreditch and Hoxton. I was beginning to see what all the fuss was about and why Georgia was increasingly becoming the place to say you’d travelled through. I sat in the Moulin Electrique all evening, slowly building up a tab. I saw the customers come and go and felt happy. I sat there scribbling into my notebook, listening as the music went from shoegaze guitar bands to trance to a lengthy stint of Bob Marley to James Brown and then more modern funk.

Most of the night-time customers were Georgians and what beautiful people they were. It was a pleasure to be among them. But I wasn’t looking forward to navigating the tortuous route home. Finding your way through Tbilisi in daylight is hard enough, but late at night it was near impossible. I was doing well for a few streets, and then I got lost searching for the bridge that would take me back across the river to the old town.

I found myself in a dark underpass, lit only by the pink lights of a strip show. Dodgy-looking men were huddled in corners. I turned round, went under a flyover, past another strip club and found myself at a brightly-lit square with a McDonald’s and Subway restaurant. These were the first Western fast food chains I’d seen since I’d got there. I walked into the McDonald’s to use the toilet. There was a security man on the door. The place was packed and chaotic. No-one seemed to know where the queue began and there were not enough staff to cope with the orders.

I looked at the menu and was shocked at the prices. A Big Mac meal was 18 laris (nearly £5), about the same price it is in the UK. Yet the average salary in Georgia was barely £350 a month, and the place – all two storeys of it – was filled with locals ravenously munching burgers as though they’d just spent a fortnight fruitlessly hunting deer in the mountains. For the same money, they could get a proper meal in a Georgian tavern with a couple of beers thrown in - and yet here they were in numbers. I hadn’t the heart to look at the Subway menu, but I imagine the prices were much the same. What was it that made Georgians pay so much to eat under the glow of the golden arches? It couldn’t just be the marketing and branding.