Georgian joke . . . So, a Georgian fellow is heading to America and customs has decided to search his bags. The custom agent comes across a number of long, dark, odd-looking items, lifts one and gruffly demands to know, “What’s this?” The Georgian gentleman struggles with his English as he nervously tries to explain the object so common to him, which now suddenly look like a great place for hiding drugs. After many failed attempts, he triumphantly blurts out - “It’s a Georgian Snickers!”
So “What is a “Georgian Snickers?” you ask. Why Churchkhela, of course.
And, “What pray tell is Churchkhela?”
It’s an ancient, simple food that, I’ve been told, helped mountain men survive in the past and continues to delight Georgians of all ages today. You see, the ingredients and longevity of the Churchkhela made it perfect for long journeys; it was healthy, tasted good, provided nourishment, and was easy to carry and store. Today it reminds folks of simpler times and still tastes good.
Pronounced “church-kella”, it’s not a pretty thing at first glance; it looks like a sausage left hanging to dry, and is made in a similar fashion to hand-dipped candles!
Without further ado, I present Churchkhela . . .
My first encounter with this delightful treat was on a Sunday drive to the special mountain village Sighnaghi (Signagi) with my wonderful Georgian host family. Once the traffic of Tbilisi was far behind us, and our car seemed perpetually inclined upward, I started seeing what I assumed was sausage hanging along the roadside. Just when I decided to ask, “What’s that?”, our car began pulling off the road. I wasn’t sure why, but hoped it had something to do with the “sausage.”
Here’s where we stopped because, and as you can see, this enterprising Grandma had covered her Churchkhela with lace to keep the dust from the road to a minimum.
She assured my hosts that her Churchkhela was natural, and made without water. “Hmm, without water,” I said to myself after they translated for me. I assumed the lack of water was a good thing because the woman was excitedly repeating that phrase.
By this time I knew were weren’t dealing with sausage, but had no clue what the waxy looking substance was. We bought two, and climbed back into the car. By now I was brimming with anticipation, like a child waiting for the wrapper to be removed from a Halloween candy bar. A few seconds later a chunk of Churchkhela was plopped into my hand, and my excitement waned as I felt the hard wax surface in my fingers. I was thinking, “Hmm, looks like bumpy wax, feels like bumpy wax,” as I was being urged from the back seat to “Take a bite.”
Moments like these are common during Peace Corps service, anticipation and trepidation meld into one, as your stomach and soul shout don’t do it and your heart and mind say “Go ahead”, tempting you with the implicit dare in the age-old question “How bad can it be? You are poised on the edge of a gastronomical diving board, you want to take the plunge, and yet, you can’t quite dive in.
After repeated urgings from numerous family members, and guarantees it wasn’t hot – I had already fallen for that one earlier in the week – my teeth broke through the waxy substance, which quickly brought to mind a childhood Halloween favorite, waxed lips.
My taste buds seemed to recognize a flavor that I couldn’t place. I bit all the way through the candle/sausage and tasted walnuts along the way. Hmm, familiar with this territory I chewed on. Nice texture, not too sweet, chewy without being sticky. I dove in with full force and was soon enjoying my first Churchkhela on my first road trip in Georgia.
I quickly began asking “What is it?” “How is it made?” I was delighted to hear, that later that day I would get to see the process first-hand.
After our trip to Sighnaghi, a beautifully renovated mountain town in eastern Georgia, where more Churchkhela and these lovely handmade items were offered for sale . . .
. . . we arrived at the home of another warm and welcoming family member, and the Churchkhela-making fun began.
The process of making Churchkhela started outdoors on an ancient wooden table under a grape arbor. Freshly made white grape juice (no water) was poured into a large pot, and what seemed like cups and cups of flour was tossed in. My host sister began the slow process of stirring the mixture to make sure not a single lump – large or small – remained.
The same pot was then transferred to the stove and again stirred until it reached a rich dark caramel color paste-like consistency; then we dipped/plunged these hand threaded walnut ropes into the piping hot mixture.
Then we very gently maneuvered the boiling hot treat across the kitchen to the broom handle laying across the back of two chairs, lift one end of the broom handle and slid the latest Churchkhela into place, which I quickly learned is much, much easier said than done. (See first photo.)
I also learned that the long and delicate caramel-looking thread at the dipped end of the Churchkhela is the mark of an accomplished Churchkhela maker. Mine were stumpy, but still tasted great – I’ve been knawing on one as I write this post. It is mighty tasty, less sweet then dried fruit or a fruit roll-up. I’ve decided it is the beef-jerky of dried fruit – it tires out your jaws, but is as much fun eat as it is to make.
And, thus ends the tale of my first adventure in the beautiful, surprising country of Georgia. Hope your week is full of sweet surprises, too.