Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kardanakhi: Making Churchkhela

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


Sunday, following the 40th day activities on Saturday, family and neighbors switched gears to making churchkhela. (Note: Jajune, the woman who died 40 days previously, was renowned for her churchkhela.)

Nely, my hostess and cultural informant, said: "Churchkhela is the most difficult Georgian food to make correctly."

Churchkhela is a string of nuts (in Georgia, usually walnuts or hazelnuts) dipped into a hot, thickened mixture of reduced grape juice, then hung to air cure. Eventually, the sugars within will make their way to the exterior in the form of a white film. The cured casing is semi-hard. 

In a country always vulnerable to enemy invasions, the vagaries of good and bad harvests, long and hard winters, and other causes of scarcity, churchkhela is a high-calorie, portable, easy-to-store, and durable food item. Georgian soldiers traditionally carried churchkhela and vodka on their campaigns. (The vodka provided warmth, cured illness, and anesthetized soldiers from ills both physical and mental.)



Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


When I arose Sunday morning and entered the kitchen, Irakli's sister, Mary, and neighbors Rusudan and Elena, had already sifted a vast quantity of flour (not whole grain, but not as processed as white flour). From one huge bowl to another, Elena poured a jelly-glassful of sifted flour at a time, counting each as she did so.


Then she did the same in reverse, transferring one glassful of flour from that bowl to the other, this time with Rusudan counting. Rusudan and Elena removed the numbers of glassfuls from this bowl to result in the exact quantity needed in proportion to the amount of liquid already gleaned from a recent vintage pressing and reduction.

The women took the huge bowl out to the yard, where the partially-reduced grape "juice" awaited them in a tremendous pot. The pot was on the ground. Nearby was a wood fire over which stood a sturdy metal stand. While one woman stirred the juice in the pot, a second woman carefully added flour a bit at at time.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

When they finished adding the flour, Rusudan dipped the sifter into the admixture looking for and pressing out lumps.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Once the lumps disappeared, the pot was placed over the fire onto the metal stand. That metal stand must have been on very level ground, planted firmly, because over the next few hours, the pot and its contents took a beating.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

 At first, the mixture of flour and reduced juice isn't too hard to stir with the gigantic wooden paddle. Over time, however, it requires more and more muscle. The fact that women are the primary stirrers is a testament to their prodigious upper body strength.

For the next hour or so, family members and neighbors stirred the pot without ceasing. The goal: a mixture thickened enough for the wooden paddle to stand upright in the pot.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia
As the "tatara" thickened, it became more and more difficult to stir. At times, the women called on Nely's son, Paata, to stir it.














Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia








At one point, the women called out urgently to Paata and Irakli, Nely's husband. The two men lifted the heavy pot off the fire and put it carefully on the ground.










Immediately, Ana, Nely's niece, pommeled the tatara with fierce strength. When she tired, another woman took over. And another and another.



Presently, the pot was returned to the fire. More stirring. Frequent checking for consistency. There came a time when the paddle stood upright in the pot. "Kargi." Good.


One stage in the process now complete, it was now time for the next -- approximately two hours of simmering until the tatara's consistency was close to wax.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


Intermission ... All of us gathered for a feast of leftovers from Saturday's supra. The churchkhela "principals," however, kept an eye on the burbling tatara.   



Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia
Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia
The two hours passed, but still the tatara wasn't quite ready. Another neighbor arrived on the scene, who I came to think of as the "churchkhela whisperer." She oversaw the addition of small amounts of flour to bring the tatara to the correct consistency.






When things started looking good, the churchkhela-makers brought out the previously-strung nuts in preparation for dipping.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia
Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


Dipping time.




Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia


Leftover tatara went onto plates. These were distributed among the churchkhela makers.

Making churchkhela, Kardanakhi, Georgia

So you're wondering how the tatara and churchkhela taste, right?

See those plates of tatara? For me, visually, I think of luscious butterscotch or caramel pudding. Or pralines. So I experience cognitive dissonance when I pick it up and eat it, as tatara's texture is somewhat gelatinous and there is the taste of grape. When Georgians ask me if I like tatara, my response is: "I don't love it."

Churchkhela, with nuts inside a firmer texture, tastes better to me, but that's because of the nuts.

Having said that, I think churchkhela is an ingenious MRE (meal-ready-to-eat) from ancient times.

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