A Meal with Barbare
A trek through Tbilisi to eat a dish from the cookbook of Georgia’s first famed feminist (who also happened to be a princess).
I recently embarked on a journey to a land of soft, cheesy bread; sumptuous, pillowy dumplings; and free-flowing wine, Georgia. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a ‘food pilgrimage’, but food was without a doubt the catalyst for the trip.
After reading about khachapuri (a glorious bread gondola filled with sulguni cheese, a soft egg and butter) I was intrigued. It’s a dish so celebrated, bakers are known to sing and coo to the dough to get the best results. A depth of bread appreciation I could get behind, it led me into a hazy internet trance, researching Georgia’s culinary delights. Naturally, the country in the Caucasus got a spot right at the top of the Bucket List.
Six months past and my partner and I found ourselves sipping on amber wine and indulging in a lovingly prepared adjaruli khachapuri, happily sapping up the last of our teaching savings, in Tbilisi. While there; eating, drinking, exploring and generally being merry, I learnt about Barbare Jorjadze. A Georgian princess from the 1800s, she’s considered to be the country’s first feminist. She also wrote a trailblazing cookbook that became a staple in Georgian homes across the country: Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes. First published in 1874, the book holds over 800 recipes, covering Georgian classics along with a range of other internationally-influenced dishes. Written in Georgian, it was the first of its kind.
Made to marry at 12, recalling “I was so young at my wedding that I thought it was some sort of game,” Barbare took issue with the lack of agency extended to Georgian women. She didn’t shy away from voicing her frustrations and was a talented poet, essayist and playwright who incorporated her concerns into her work. Despite continuous contestation, she fought her way into an all-male literati circle and got herself published in a popular literary magazine Tsiskari. One of her most profound pieces was a letter published in Kvali magazine in 1893. A condemnation of how men maintained the sexist status quo, “A Few Words to the Attention of Young Men” is considered to be a Georgian feminist manifesto of sorts.
Barbare questioned society’s hypocrisy, expressing that “From a very young age, we are told, ‘Since God made you a woman, you must sit silently, look at nobody, go nowhere, shut your ears and your eyes, and just sit there. Education and learning of languages is none of your concern.’… Now you tell me, if this creature, kept uneducated and confined, ends up being less than perfect, who is to blame?”.
Even though she was a strong advocate for female education and greater roles for women in Georgian public life, Barbare is more famous for her culinary prowess: her book on Georgian cooking and homemaker tips.
While researching her story, a restaurant came to my attention: Barbarestan, an establishment inspired by and dedicated to Barbare, her cookbook and her entire life’s work. This was something unique. One of the top-rated restaurants in Tbilisi, Barbarestan is a fine-dining darling with rave reviews. Despite the gnawing sense that a visit would burn a massive hole in my pocket, on our last day in Georgia, we made the decision to go.
Arriving after a long walk in 37-degree heat, sweaty and dishevelled, in creased, re-worn clothing, we entered into another world. The restaurant was simply beautiful, with each detail fitting the time and style of dining when Barbare first released her cookbook. An antique dream, every piece of furniture along with cutlery, wall hangings and ornaments, were selected with care to match the era. As we stepped through the door we received a warm welcome from the manager, something I’m sure Barbare would applaud, considering the wealth of wisdom on the art of hospitality in her mammoth of a book. As we sat at an elegantly set table beside her framed image, we learnt more about Jorjadze’s story and listened to detailed descriptions of almost all the menu items. Each dish came straight from her cookbook and every recipe chosen for the menu had the number of its place in the original book beside it.
The restaurant’s version of Barbare’s cookbook, the inspiration for the entire operation, was kept in an ornate wooden box. Barbarestan was formed after a serendipitous moment in a flea market when a restauranteur couple found the antique copy. The husband and wife team, who had been struggling to support their large family on the profits from their Khinkali eatery, saw this as a sign. They threw themselves into creating Barbarestan as an ode to Barbare Jorjadze and her gastronomic genius. Looking through the book, admiring the Georgian written language with its magical alphabet printed on delicate, aged pages, its significance was not lost.
The starter arrived swiftly and was delicious, four different dips – although the word ‘dip’ does not do them justice – with crispy almond bread, nutty and light. Almond baje, pumpkin seed nadugi, fried onions and walnuts, and ghandzili (wild garlic) spiced. I sipped my wine slowly and savoured each bite while taking in the surrounds, as Jorjadze herself looked down on us from her golden frame. My main; the mushroom boglama, made up of wild forest mushrooms with dambal’khacho cheese sauce, caramelised peas and carrot purée was home-style excellence. My partner’s walnut-stuffed trout with cherry sauce was hideously beautiful, and deboned right next to the table by an impeccably dressed server.
After the initial trepidation – being travellers who lean towards street-side snacks and humble hole-in-the-wall type eateries over formal fine-dining – it was marvellous. Embodying a form of living history, Barbarestan tapped into something exciting: female history in a tangible form. Our ten-day trip had incorporated a multitude of impressive old churches, monuments and museums; yet sitting down to enjoy a simple dish taken from an antique cookbook would undoubtedly be the historical experience that would stick with me the most.
Amber Rose Cowie is a travel and food enthusiast who loves documenting her experiences through photography, video and writing.