Mornings in Mazeri, a tiny village in the Svaneti region of Georgia, follow a slow rhythm. It’s a purposeful rhythm, but unhurried and methodical.
Chabu chops wood, old Nora stokes the fire, Zaza brings in the eggs and a bucket of potatoes. Each person has their own job to do; the cows are milked, coffee made, the ducks and piglets fed. A little later Nora emerges with her unending supply of homemade yogurt – matsoni – served with thick honey dripping from its comb.
Breakfast has begun.
Svaneti, in the Greater Caucasus Mountain range that flanks Georgia and Russia, is a place of indescribable beauty. Small farming villages of old stone houses sit nestled in alpine valleys, giving way to a shock of white peaks in the distance. Roads are actually dirt tracks of streaming water and cow dung, where animals graze freely and carts of hay trundle along with old men lying on top of them. UNESCO-protected tower houses jut into the sky as a reminder of the region’s frequent invasions of years gone by.
Even now, Svaneti feels like a place firmly rooted in the past.
As a food writer on the hunt for authentic local food, I avoided the increasingly touristy Mestia (the region’s capital) and chose a homestay in Mazeri village. Found via a traveller’s review online, it promised plenty of good home-cooked meals. Svaneti is full of homestays like this one, both large and small, offering a bed, homemade food, and a base to hike from. I’d found the perfect one.
Hunched from years of hard farm work, Nora greeted me on arrival. She grabbed my arm with a strong, calloused grip and a toothless smile, and led me to my room.
The house, where she lives with her sister, is modest but large. A long balcony runs the length of it — a common feature in Georgia — giving way to bedrooms that look out onto the garden below. It’s here where the piglets and calf run about, where the vegetables grow, and where Nora works outside at the only sink. Her nephews and neighbours drop in and out. They are warm and welcoming and, despite speaking no language in common, we understand one another.
By mid-morning, breakfast is still progressing, prepared slowly between feeding the animals, watching the news, and heating the milk.
There are no work surfaces in Nora’s kitchen-cum-living space, so food is chopped and diced and mixed wherever there is room — on the coffee table or at a bench in the corner. The traditional wood-fired oven — called a pechi — doubles as both stove and heat-source. The hearth is in the centre of the house, where cooking and living is inextricably intertwined. This is where the house buzzes, in a single room where cooking and eating and living and talking and drinking all happen together.
It’s cold outside and my short time with this family has been spent predominantly in this room. I sit on the worn sofa with a cup of Turkish coffee while Chabu sits next to me peeling potatoes over a plastic bowl. Meanwhile, Nora strains freshly squeezed milk through a muslin cloth to make briney, fresh sulguni cheese; a staple on the Svaneti table.
Far from any wifi connection, shops, or tourists, Mazeri is a village where traditions and ways of life are firmly rooted in the past. Where people live off the land and produce everything, including meat and dairy, by hand.
It struck me how incredible this way of life could be and, at the same time, how hard it can be, too. Witnessing the slaughter and gutting of a pig was a stark reminder that not all of rural life is as wholesome and cheery as we like to think. This is a place where family is central to survival and community, but also where strangers are welcomed to take part, too — no harsh details spared. I appreciated that.
Nora comes to sit by the coffee table with a bowl of fresh cheese, cornmeal, and a spoonful of yogurt. She mixes it with her hands, shapes the mixture into patties, then fries them in oil, stoking the fire to a high heat and turning the fritters until they’re golden and crispy.
Breakfast is served.
Gooey and cheesy, eaten at the coffee table in front of a badly acted TV drama. Coffee is refilled, a square of chocolate follows, and the day continues.