I found myself in Tbilisi twice last year: a city I always visit with a mixture of admiration and trepidation. It's impossible, in times as rancid and as ungenerous as ours, not to admire the defiant openness of the Georgian authorities, ready to welcome just about anyone, myself included, who arrives with some kind of legitimate business in hand. This may be a matter of survival. The visa in your passport shows a map of the country's pre-2008 borders. The reality on the ground is that two sizeable territories are missing: Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. Openness to the world and its business interests is probably the best way to preserve Georgia's integrity in this dangerous part of the world.
It is, though, a long way from home. No matter what route I take, I always seem to arrive at four in the morning. Tbilisi will be beautiful again one day, but its former grandeur fell far during the last century, and many of its citizens still lead lives of dismal struggle. The traffic is fearsome. And because I haven't taken the overland route, I don't really feel where I am. On my last visit, I saw an Iranian lorry turn right at a road junction. Its driver, my companion told me, is only a day or two from home. Astrakhan is no further; Samarkand a shorter flight than to Rome. I know these things, but can't feel them. To feel, I'd need to be Georgian.
What I can feel is what's in the glass, and on the plate, in front of me. Both are often very good indeed, which I take as another instance of Georgian generosity and open-heartedness. Food here tastes real, unsullied, unapologetically of itself: cheese, meat, vegetables have an enticing intensity of flavour. You might think this a curious thing to say, but I remember the same shock when travelling regularly to Poland in the 1980s: the first time in my life I encountered jams and dried sausages and smoked cheese, albeit at the end of long queues, which tasted of their natural ingredients alone. It was then that I began to realise how trammelled the 'industrial' food of the west (Britain included) had become. You'll find this weirdness and falseness of flavour in particular if you travel in the USA and eat at roadside diners, cheap hotels, and out of supermarket paper bags. The contrast is shocking, though few get the chance to make it. Faked-up food is inherently unsatisfying; obesity a consequence.
Georgia's best and purest wines are of a piece with its foods – though the drink which struck me most on my last visit was 'lemonade'. The inverted commas are there because this one term is used to describe a variety of cordials freshly compounded from plants and berries, herbs and spices, on a grandmother's recipe basis. These 'lemonades' seem to do what our smoothies and energy drinks promise but fall short on: taste vital. In a glass goblet, too, they lubricate food admirably – for those moments, rare enough in Georgia, when you don't actually want to drink wine.