It’s early afternoon, the sun is less intense, but we’re still enjoying the shade that the grapes above the table provide. We’ve had khinkali (dumplings with meat and herbs), lobio (stewed red beans), pkhali (a spinach or beetroot spread), local cheese, salad and wine, and are about to tuck into churchkhela that Irma brings to the table: walnuts dipped in grape juice and flour, dried up and sliced, served on a beautiful platter.
Irma lives in a small village in Georgia’s wine region, Kakheti. She shares the small house and yard with her mum Marine, some chooks and a couple of cats. They eat the food they grow and buy at the market in nearby town Signagi. To make a living, they hand-make felted bags, slippers and souvenirs that Irma sells at that local market (which, in warm months of the year, sees many tourists) and internationally through a social enterprise. Each summer and autumn, they need enough money to buy wood to keep warm in winter.
Every autumn, they juice the grapes from the yard, crack the walnuts from nearby trees, and make enough churchkhela to last until next winter for them, their family in Tbilisi, as well as all the guests that drop in to sit under their grapes, eat their food and bask in their warmth.
Churchkhela is quintessentially Georgian. Walnuts are abundant, grow in many backyards and are part of most Georgian meals. Grapes cover every yard of the beautiful old houses with laced balconies and thrive in every corner; they provide shade in the summer months – and produce delicious snacks, juice and wine during the rest of the year. There’s care that goes into making churchkhela, and there’s humour in calling it “Georgian Snickers” (ask any taxi driver in Georgia, and that’s how they’ll describe it to you).
If you do go to Georgia, try to get an invitation to someone’s place (you won’t have to try hard) to eat the best food and finish it off with the best churchkela. Real Georgia is in people’s homes – I was very fortunate to have been part of Irma’s. Churchkhela needs to be soft and chewy on the inside, which sadly is not the case with the ones sold in touristy spots – those are often very hard and not representative of what churchkhela should taste like. You will see the multi-coloured beads of churchkhela for sale all over in touristy places in Georgia, as well as Armenia (where it’s called sudjuk), and southern Russia. In people’s homes, and in some cafes, you will also be served pelamushi: grape juice boiled with flour, on a plate with some walnuts shaved over the top. An easier and fresher variety of chuchkhela, it’s light and delicious.
There’s care that goes into making churchkhela, and there’s humour in calling it “Georgian Snickers” (ask any taxi driver in Georgia, and that’s how they’ll describe it to you).
I’ve had many lunches and dinners at Irma’s. Each one started with a hug and a smile, then a laugh; each time, I had to make Irma accept help with carrying numerous plates from her tiny kitchen into the yard. Each time, she was very shy and tried to refuse any gifts I’d brought. Each time, I’d leave full, happy, overwhelmed by the love, the sun, the chooks, the grapes and the smiles. I’d have churchkhela wrapped up for later, and enough memories to keep me warm for a very long time. Every time I think back on Irma’s house, I can feel the warmth.
The first time I met her I was pregnant, then I brought my son as a baby and toddler, and now that I’m far away, the first thing she asked when I messaged to request her churchkela recipe was “how is your son?” and then “my sahvarelo”, or “my dear, beloved” in response to me wanting to make churchkhela at home. My son, ever proud to have been born in Georgia, is doing circles around the churchkhela, asking every five minutes if it’s ready yet. I must admit I’m quite impatient myself, too. I can’t wait to bite into it and be transferred, if for a moment, to Irma’s garden, under her grapes, watching the chooks run around, the cats play in the garden, and the endless plates arrive on the table.
Serves 12 or more
- 300 g wheat flour
- 1 litre grape juice
- 50 g sugar
- 300 g walnut halves (quarters are fine, too, but don’t use anything smaller than that)
- Start this recipe 3-4 days ahead of time and find a place for drying churchkhela (a clothes-drying rack works well), and line the floor underneath it to protect against dripping. You’ll also need a needle and thread to make the churchkhela’s walnut ‘beads’.
- Add flour to a medium-sized pot, then add half the juice and whisk well.
- Place the pot over medium-high heat, keep whisking constantly and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Add sugar.
- Reduce the heat to medium low and keep whisking frequently for 30 minutes or until the mixture is the consistency of sour cream.
- Allow to cool.
- To make the walnut ‘beads’, put thread through a needle, double it up until it’s around 40 cm long and make a strong knot, so the walnuts won’t fall off.
- Pierce walnuts with the needle and continue until you have a 20–25 cm length of walnut beads. Leave about 15 cm of thread at the top.
- Submerge the walnut beads in the grape juice and flour mixture, coating it thoroughly while holding onto the rest of the thread. Lift the beads up and allow for the excess mixture to dribble into the pot.
- Hang the churchkhela up in a well-aired, preferably sunny spot, for 3-4 days, or until dry enough to cut up.
- Store wrapped up in a cloth for 2-3 months and serve.
• In Georgia, fresh grape juice is used – people juice grapes from their backyards. Store-bought grape juice should be fine.