Rhys and I pedalled as slowly as possible towards Lagodekhi. We had a day to cover 30 km so turtle pace best did it… I attempted to absorb as much of the last few kilometres of Georgia as possible, trying to intimate some kind of lesson from the low houses, their ornate metallic rain gutter systems, the way the light filtered through tall trees. And we had one special mission: to eat a last khachapuri (Georgian cheese-filled flatbread).
We cycled around Lagodekhi at freeze-frame speed, peering into each shop and open doorway, hoping to glimpse a little mountain of stuffed bread but nothing appeared to soothe our mono-thematic hunger. I therefore cycled up to a couple of elderly men and uttered “gamarjoba [hello], khachapuri?”. I hoped the kindly eyes I was peering at them with would sweeten my two-word question… One of them got it straight away. He knew our gut bacteria, combined with a couple of hours in the saddle, had communicated up to our neurones and that the resulting chemical reaction had equated bread + cheese, Georgian-style please. He pointed back down to the main street and said something that sounded like “after the market”. I led Rhys, sure I had understood…. and yes! There was a little café decorated with a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and an upside-down pink umbrella where a ceiling lamp should be (but without a lightbulb). An elderly lady was busily frying things in a kitchen that was separated from the small, rectangular café by a counter where different types of khachapuri were aligned. We pointed to a few each and she heated them up for us.
Our handful of kilometres rewarded exorbitantly by the fried bread, we spent an hour or two at a Gulf service station, the location of choice in Georgia for free wifi. Then on to find a campsite in the Natural Park above Lagodekhi, quickly though as big clouds were looming and a couple of fat raindrops had already fallen.
The raindrops didn’t hold back. They poured down on us as we tried unsuccessfully to find somewhere to pitch up the tent. It was on the forlorn way down from Natural Park that we got stopped by an elderly gentleman. He led us into his garden, seemingly proposing that we pitch up our tents there… but he was stopped in his tracks by a stern-looking lady, his wife. She was definitely not happy to see her husband disappointing her so, leading two hobos with muddy feet and muddier wheels into their domain. What exasperation at a husband who looked so childishly pleased with himself and excited at having met travellers! He turned back to us and proposed that we pay a few lari for their rooms, most likely at her insistence. We explained that we had tents and finally it seemed that it would be fine for us to just set up in their garden. I attempted to show her that I was careful not to muddy anything further, putting my flip-flops on her patio to show that I would change shoes (she had pointedly swept it clean again). I think that clinched it. She seemed to like me and my soft spot for her (I had quite understood her sternness) simply grew.
It is sad not to be able to speak the language of the country you are visiting. Aleksandr, the husband, and I had an engaged, lively conversation about where he and Nina, his wife, were from (Czech Republic). I thought I understood that they had fled there, but then he also mentioned Ceaușescu and my understanding muddied. We persisted on speaking, and later with Nina too. I understood that they had three children, that Aleksandr was 80 and Nina turning 76. I connected with what I understood to be the hardships that had befallen them and brought them to Lagodekhi. Perhaps these are conjectures I made, from the intonation of their voice, from what I assumed from history.
But warmth transcends language. My most basic and persistent feeling was love for the two. Nina made my doubts about my trip evaporate as I pedalled away the next day, on her birthday (which she had told us about by humming Happy Birthday To You). It was energising to have met them, I was grateful, but I wish I had recorded what they said to translate it later…
KHACHAPURI RECIPEMakes five 7-inch flatbreads
For the doughOlive oil, for greasing4 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour2 tsp. Kosher salt2 tsp. sugar3⁄4 tsp. dry instant yeast
For the filling4 cups shredded low moisture mozzarella (16 oz.)1 1⁄2 cups crumbled feta cheese (10 oz.)
Make the dough: Lightly oil a large bowl with olive oil and set aside. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, add the flour, 1 ½ cups tepid water, the salt, sugar, and yeast. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are completely hydrated, 2-3 minutes. Increase the speed slightly and mix until a smooth, wet dough forms, 3-4 minutes more.
Transfer the dough to the oiled bowl and cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap. Set in a warm place until the dough is almost doubled in size, 50-60 minutes.
Make the filling: In a large bowl, combine the cheeses and set aside.
Use a bench scraper or knife to divide the dough into five equal pieces (about 6 ounces each). Loosely shape each into a ball and cover with a clean towel to prevent from drying out.
On a lightly floured work surface using a rolling pin, roll out one ball of dough into a 10-inch round. Place a generous half cup of the cheese filling into the center of the round, then fold and stretch the edges up to meet at the center. Pleat and pinch the dough to create a tidy center knot. Press the bundle down gently and carefully roll it down to an even, 7-inch disk. Pop any pockets of trapped air with a skewer or the tip of a sharp knife and set the khachapuri back under the towel. Repeat with the remaining 4 disks and the rest of the filling, re-flouring the work surface as needed.
Heat a large griddle or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add as many khachapuri as will fit in a single layer without crowding or overlapping. Cook on one side until the breads are well browned and lightly charred in some places, 3-4 minutes. Using a wide spatula, turn and repeat on the remaining side.
Serve immediately, or remove the breads to a baking sheet and cover with a dry towel as you repeat with the remaining breads.
Recipe via Saveur.com