[Photo credit: Oliver Bullough]
I had written about the standoff between Georgia and Abkhazia for the best part of a decade without a hitch. But then I wrote about adjika for Roads & Kingdoms and the conflict caught up with me last.
My praise of Abkhazian adjika, a spicy red condiment of chilli, herbs and garlic, proved uncontroversial, but the same cannot be said for my throwaway remark that “the Georgian version isn’t as nice”.
Georgians wrote in from all over. Often people who object to my articles question my parentage, my sexuality or my personal hygiene; but most of these just remarked with wounded pride that I had been unfair. They said Mingrelians, who live to the southeast of Abkhazia along the Black Sea coast, make adjika at least as well as their neighbours.
I was in Mingrelia last week and, for the sake of justice, decided to take my correspondents at their word. I took a bus to Zugdidi, the region’s bustling and ramshackle capital, to taste the local wares. It was a day of torrential showers and the roads glistened. Vendors outside the market had rigged up awnings of blue plastic to keep them dry. I had met an English teacher on the bus, and she helped me pick my way past women selling tomato and courgette seedlings and into the gloom of the vast complex.
I smelled the adjika hall before I reached it. It was a thick, unmistakable, almost menthol-like aroma; I thanked the teacher for her help and allowed my nose to take me the rest of the way. Corinthian pilasters held up the roof, but they were the only pretensions the hall had. The floor was shattered concrete, and water was gushing onto it from a broken gutter. The hall was 15 metres by 10, with stalls along the wall and a central island made of yet more stalls. And every one of the 40-odd vendors was selling just three things: church candles; spices; and piles upon piles of adjika.
Liana Sakvaralidze, 60, was the first vendor facing me as I came through the door, so I approached and asked for some of her sauce. While Abkhazian adjika tends to be a dark maroon, almost purple, this was a straightforward red. It was firmer of texture too, and I dabbed a little onto my finger and placed it on my tongue.
It was a shock. Abkhazia’s condiment creeps up on your senses before dropping its chili payload, but this was an immediate explosion. There was no subtlety in it. It was a hammer blow of spice up from my tongue and down my throat. And the aftertaste was salty, far too salty, like seawater up your nose. I coughed, and my eyes smarted. It was a good few seconds before I could say anything at all.
She asked if I liked it, and I stammered that it was a bit strong. She smiled and I could see what she was thinking. I was a foreigner; of course it was too strong.
“Try this one,” she said, “it’s green adjika.”
Now, I had tried this green cousin of the sauce in Abkhazia. As far as I was concerned, it was proper adjika’s poor relation, a disappointing concoction of parsley and spices that has no clear function and, to my mind, takes up shelf space that could more profitably be given over to the red side of the family.
I was reluctant to get involved with it but, I thought, I had not come all this way just to be proved right, so I scooped a dab of green adjika off her spoon with my finger. I scrutinised it. It was not so much green, as brown with green flecks. It smelled earthy, with a rich edge like roast chicken. I cautiously lowered the dab onto the middle of my tongue, spread it around my mouth, and waited.
The first taste was fresh coriander, then came the garlic and an edge of parsley. Last of all came the chili, which kept growing and growing. The lingering aftertaste burned pleasantly, while the taste of the herbs remained, like a perfect fresh curry on a warm evening. I picked up the pot and just looked at it.
“You like it?” she asked. I nodded, and took some more.
My arrival had caused something of a stir in the hall. This was probably at first only because they were not very busy, but it was heightened when I got out a notebook and began writing down recipes. I could hear the ripple of conversation spreading. I do not speak Mingrelian, but the Russian loan words – England, camera, journalist – made it clear who they were discussing.
The vendors began to compete with each other to sell me their adjikas, and to offer me lifestyle advice.
“You should marry a Mingrelian girl, then you’d have a permanent supply,” said Mzisa Dzhichonaia, whose delicious adjika was as green as cut grass and tasted like fresh coriander chutney.
I pointed out that my wife might disapprove if I married again, which led inevitably to us comparing photos — my son against her grandchildren – and the buzz spread. What with tasting adjika, scribbling notes, taking photos and explaining the reason for my visit, it took me some two hours to do the complete circle of the room. By the end I had bought seven different adjikas, all of them delicious in different ways.
I collected recipes too, though linguistic difficulties made precision hard. I asked what one herb was called in Russian. After some debate, I was told it was “herb for adjika”. I bought some of that too, and have no idea what it is, though its sweet tangy smell is strangely familiar.
Long before the end, I had realised only one course was open to me. I would have to apologise to my Georgian readers. Mingrelians’ green adjika is complex, powerful, subtle and forceful, far better than the Abkhazian version. They really need to work on the red one though.