“You know there is an old story in Georgia” a friend Lela tells me as we drive out of Tbilisi, “A Georgian sends their German friend churchkhela as a gift. A few weeks later, they receive a phone call from said friend – “thank you so much for the gift, we loved it!” they declare. “We tried it boiled…which was nice, fried was okay. We even tried it in the oven which didn’t go as well – but raw, raw was definitely the nicest.”
To newcomers, churchkhela is a bit of a shapeshifter of a food – candle-like in one light, a hanging saucisson in the next. You’d be excused for not immediately knowing what to do with it. Bunched like dried flowers you’ll find them dangled from the frames of market stalls across Georgia. Not sausage, not wax, they are instead a sweet combination of grape juice, flour and a filling of nuts – typically walnuts or hazelnuts. Playfully referred to as the ‘Georgian Snickers’ it far out-lives its Mars Inc. counterpart in history, where love for this sweet-treat has endured the centuries. Enjoyed in variations across neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkey, all the way to Iraq and Greece, it is Georgian churchkhela that earns its place on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.
In the sum of its parts, churchkhela is a proud emblem of Georgia’s agronomic diversity and gastronomic history: 8000 years of viticulture, over 500 endemic grape varieties and abundant biodiversity across 12 microclimates. Usually prepared in autumn it coincides with the ripening of nuts on trees, and the annual grape harvest. In east Georgia’s ancient wine country, wheat flour is used to thicken condensed grape juice from the vineyards of Kakheti, forming a thick, naturally sweet custard called ‘tatara’. 25-30cm of roasted nuts are delicately laced onto string by hand and needle. These nut rosaries are then dipped into tatara, and air dried over several days to become soft, chewy fruit leather. Regional diversities substitute wheat flour for corn, and the nuts for seeds or dried fruit. It’s then enjoyed as is – zero cooking required.
Churchkhela is still widely eaten across the country, a staple of any Christmas or New Year’s table, which begs the question as to why it really needs to board the Ark. Ask any Georgian and they’ll gladly tell you it’s long history as battle fuel, tucked in the pockets of great warriors. Ask again for the recipe and you’ll easily get an answer. Food scholar Darra Goldstein, wrote in ‘The Georgian Feast’ in 1993 – just two years into Georgian independence from the USSR – “even as consumer culture has grown… most Georgians remain partial to real foods, by which I mean wholesome foods prepared by hand.”
The name was protected geographically in 2011, and the traditional technology of Kakhetian churchkhela inscribed on the Georgian Intangible Cultural Heritage Register in 2015. But you’ll likely find versions of churchkhela produced at home and abroad that still bypass the traditional, preferring instead to import grapes, use pre-concentrated juice, or add artificial colour.
Its greatest defense then relies on the continued transference of this intangible value of ‘real food’ that Darra Goldstein refers to. “Local people know which is natural easily – it doesn’t have different colours. If you see green, blue churchkhela – it’s not natural it’s not real churchkhela” explains Giorgi Machavariani. White grapes naturally produce a lighter brownish churchkhela, where red grapes produce a darker maroon. “When they see ours it’s the natural colour of Rkatsiteli grape, and when they taste it they know it’s the traditional, natural flavour.” Giorgi produces traditional churchkhela in Kakheti under the name ‘Nugbari.’ The recipe, comes from Eka Bokolishvili their founder, with a story not so far from our tale of puzzled Germans melting churchkhelas in the oven.
A cousin working in Hungary requested proper Georgian churchkhela he could introduce to international friends. Enthusiastic praise prompted Eka to start selling her well-loved churchkhela out of one pot in her kitchen. And so began a mission to fill homesick bellies of Georgian diaspora with real food, whilst opening the world’s eyes to Georgian churchkhela along the way. From one pot in her kitchen she grew ‘Nugbari’, which now exports to 5 continents as well as at home in Georgia. But, each churchkhela remains uncompromisingly authentic: Georgian nuts threaded and dunked in tatara by hand, locally grown white Rkatsiteli grapes from Kakhetian vineyards from which they concentrate the juice themselves.
Georgia’s cuisine has become increasingly better known, with a larger global diaspora sharing Georgian food culture following post-soviet growth since the 1990s. London will see a Georgian inspired restaurant open in Fitzrovia this autumn to join the near twenty strong now in the city. Thirty years on, its own foodscape has globalised too, but a pride in home-grown, real Georgian food still feels present. A firm part of national identity. “It’s an affirmation of their history and enduring sense of community” Darra Goldstein said in a more recent interview in 2019.
It’s place on the Silk Roads, means Georgia has been trading flavours and sharing culture for centuries– the legacy of which is littered throughout its culinary heritage. How does Georgian food heritage still remain so intact? In part a response to complex invasions and occupations where history has demanded Georgia defend its identity – we can’t overlook the fact that Georgian people eat together. The culture of feasting and hosting is fiercely respected and maintained. But how to preserve this love of wholesome food and the sharing of it, in an inevitably growing foodscape? With around 93% of national and international agricultural business in Georgia carried out by small scale family farms, by default Georgian food systems could be considered more closely entwined with Georgian food culture.
Robust food culture can be applied across all elements of our food systems. Picture a national food system propped up by an inherent respect for whole, heritage foods and maintaining the land that produces them – from consumption habits to production approaches. Easily dismissed as a challenging feat in fast growing economy – some producers are already doing it. Mutually enhancing a food system and culture all at once. From a nation comparable in size to our own, seeing the value in preserving a strong food culture could provide some learning at home. And in searching for one bite that speaks to the depth of Georgian natural and cultural heritage: Eka’s churchkhela might be a good place to start.
Emma Taylor is a writer focused on cultural heritage, food and the environment. She is also Ark of Taste Coordinator for England. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org