Desert Island Books

Someone asked me, ages ago, for a list of my favourite (fictional) books and I have cobbled together this one in no particular order along with a brief comment on each book. These 25 books are mostly dog-eared and grubby from extended readings and from being dragged around the world with me on my lengthy stays in Europe, Asia and Australia. I have read all of them multiple times and still return to them for a laugh or a shocked recollection of some thing or other. I know, I know, I should be reading more modern fiction – and, in my defence, I do and often – but these are the books I return to time and again like best old friends.

Books marked with an asterisk * are part of a trilogy or other collection of novels by the same author which form a complete unit.

  Title Author / Date Comment
1 At Swim-Two-BirdsBookPics 6 Flann O’Brien 1951 One of the funniest books I have ever read – part an attempt to write a novel, an introduction to University life in Dublin, a blend of Celtic myth, sheer nonsense and a delight in every sense. The novel begins with the premise that one beginning and one ending for a book is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and then goes on to prove the point. Great fun.
2 Highways to a War Christopher Koch 1995 An amazing tale of war in Vietnam and Cambodia influenced by the events of a real life war photographer missing in action, this novel blends history and character in a seamless portrait of a life lived on the edge of beauty and fear.
3 King Solomon’s Mines H Rider Haggard A classical 19th century adventure story set in the wilds of Africa filled with fierce native, savage animals, lost kingships and malevolent witch doctors.   The unassuming main character, Alan Quatermain, remains vivid in my mind since I first read the story decades ago,
4 Hiroshima JoeScanned Image 3 Martin Booth 1985 Set in Hong Kong in the early fifties, Joe is a survivor of a World War II labour camp in Japan, enduring a half-life as a drug addict and petty criminal attempting to find some reason in his tormented existence. His desperate plight is only gradually revealed as he plumbs his unfathomable depths.
5 Tristram ShandyBookPics 2 Laurence Sterne 1760 Properly entitled the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, this is another novel about writing a novel which never seems to get anywhere – nor does it make much progress with Tristram’s life and opinions either. A difficult, but always comical, read from a master of innuendo, packed with characters like the irrepressible Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, the widow Wadman and Dr. Slop, the novel pretends to be a biography but wanders off into digressions about the shape of one nose, the importance of names and whether novels should be written at all. Incredible and fascinating.
6 Catch-22 Joseph Heller Another war novel, this classic Anti-War novel of the 20th century follows the attempts of Yossarian to avoid being killed by people he is trying to bomb into oblivion while the war wages on interminably bound by the paradoxical rule of the Catch-22. Fantastic characters abound, from Major – De Coverly, so fearsome looking nobody had dared to ask his first name or the infuriating and incessantly tinkering Orr and the dead man sharing Yossarian’s tent.
7 Sometimes a Great NotionScanned Image Ken Kesey 1964 Set in a Oregon, the Stamper family, wildly independent, set out to break a logger strike out of sheer stubbornness and because they can. Kesey uses different points of view to show his characters embroiled in a showdown both with the outside world and their own selves while the two radically different Stamper brothers, Hank and Leland seek personal retribution for the sins of their past. Better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
8 The Gift of Rain Tan Twan Eng 2007 Set mostly in Penang Malaysia, before, during and long after the war, this beautifully lyrical novel is a tale of a youthful seduction, loyalty, betrayal, compromise, family and love. Absolutely stunning in its delicate and poetic descriptions, this is a beautiful read where one’s heart is torn along with that of Philip Hutton, the Anglo-Chinese protagonist.
9 Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese 2009 Set in Ethiopia and later the US, this story of twin brothers bound by secrets of their birth and linked by the power of medical healing, this fantastic book of love and politics depends on the fatalistic trust of one of the brothers.
10 Cotillion Georgette Heyer 1953 A frothy, bubbling tale of Regency romance, Cotillion – originally a dance for four couples – revolves around the schemes and engagements of ladies and gentlemen all in pursuit of a harmonious marriage ably abetted by a large income promised to Kitty, the main protagonist by her cantankerous guardian.   Champagne stuff!
11 Great Expectations Charles Dickens 1861 What can I say? For anyone who has never read Dickens, kick off with this first person narrative by Pip the orphan sadly deluded by everyone around him.   The most elaborate and fantastical coincidences and misunderstandings as well as a case of human spontaneous combustion make this my favourite Dickens of all time.
12 For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemmingway 1940 The brutality of civil war is contrasted solidly here with the tenderness of the relationship between Robert and Maria (little rabbit). I have to admit I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye by the climatic end to this gripping and savage novel.
13 Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1818 In the form of letters written by an obsessive captain exploring the North Pole, the story of an equally driven man, Victor Frankenstein is gradually revealed as the deluded scientist who brought life to inanimate matter. The thing that amazed me when I first read the book was the sympathy I felt for Victor’s creation. An incredible read and a well though out narrative far surpassing any Hollywood attempt at the story.
14 AzincourtScanned Image 1 Bernard Cornwell 2008 Immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this is the gritty, muddy account of the men in two badly mis-matched armies in 1414, told from both the English and the French points of view. English longbows and an army of riff-raff and the crème of French aristocracy face off in the mud and rain. Fascinating and compelling.
15 * Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry The best western I have ever read, this is almost Dickensian in its range of characters and emotions in this sprawling tale of a cattle drive and much more. Every character is alive and vibrant, even the downright nasty and vicious ones – and there are plenty of those – although it is Captains Call and McCrae, former Texas Rangers who take pride of place for their humanity and innate stubbornness.
16 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C Clarke 1968 Prophetic in its anticipation of space exploration as mankind had not yet set foot on the moon at the time of publication, A Space Odyssey, written in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick, traverses a time period of several millions of years and looks at the evolution we might face in the future. Most interestingly, it suggests that our humanity is not the end of evolution but only a step in the process.
17 * Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy John LeCarré 1974 The first in the “Karla Trilogy” this understated and unsensational spy thriller – so diametrically opposed to the James Bond style – follows the hunt for a Russian spy at the top of British Intelligence, led by the unassuming and taciturn George Smiley.  Le Carré, the pen name for David Cornwell, worked as a British intelligence officer in the 50’s and 60’s, based his novel on his experience of the McLean, Burgess and Philby spy scandals that rocked Britain at the time.
18 To Kill a Mocking BirdScanned Image 4 Harper Lee 1960 A heart-warming coming of age for Scout and Jem Finch in the deeply prejudiced world of the southern states as their lawyer father attempts to bring order into their confused and at times frightening world. Great characters like Boo Radley, Dill and the white trash Ewell family will always remain in my memory.   Super stuff.
19 * FlashmanBookPics 3 George MacDonald Fraser 1969 The eponymous hero of the Victorian novel, Ton Brown’s Schooldays, Harry Flashman is a swaggering libertine and poltroon masquerading as a hero. Accurately researched, Flashman appears in every major incident during the Victorian expansion of the British Empire. Unashamedly frank about the lying cur he really is, I always admire the rogue until, in each of the dozen or so novels, he invariably commits at least one unforgiveable act. Superb, racy reading.
20 * Jeeves in the OffingBookPics P.G. Wodehouse 1960 Country houses, fierce aunts, broken engagements, punctured hot water bottles, disastrous speeches at garden fetes, stolen silver cow creamers, oddly named characters, purloined policemen’s helmets, obnoxious nephews pushed into ornamental lakes so that dejected suitors can heroically rescue them before the eyes of the spurning girl, all under the Machiavellian eye of the fish reinforced brain of the suave manservant, Jeeves, while the footling attempts of upper class twit, Bertie Wooster to find and reject love make up the delightful world of an age that surely never was.
21 Brighton RockBookPics 4 Graham Greene 1938 The dark, surreal world of violence and terror in the sunny setting of 1950’s Brighton, where Pinky, the main character, has death at his fingertips, finding release only in viciousness and violence. Sinister yet childlike, the savage ending of the books still gives me a shiver of revulsion down the spine. A masterpiece.
22 The Catcher in the RyeScanned Image 2 J.D. Salinger 1951 The classical novel of teenage angst and desperation, Holden Caulfield is both immature and older than his years in many ways. Running away from his school and himself, Holden dismisses everything around him as being phony and fake while missing out and misinterpreting the goodness that he encounters on his wanderings through a chilly New York until he finds some sort of redemption in the simple joy his little sister expresses.
23 The God of Small ThingsBookPics 1 Arundhati Roy 1997 Blending religion and politics, cultural relations and the Indian caste system, forbidden love, discrimination and the disastrous effect small things can have on peoples’ lives, the Ipe family lives are laid bare in this excruciatingly vivid tangle of lies and deception that make me both laugh and (almost) cry.
24` * DissolutionIMG_0231 C.J. Sansom 2003 The first in a series of six, soon to be seven, historical crime series, the unassuming and humanist protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, lawyer initially in the service of Henry VIII’s Lord Cromwell, undertakes, with increasing reluctance, fascinating crime investigations in Tudor England where the smells and sights of a 16th century London are all too real. Really super reading.
25 Guys and DollsBookPics 5 Damon Runyon 1956 A collection of twenty short stories set among the mob, chorus girls, gamblers and race-track hustlers who inhabited a Broadway of yesteryear, these fabulous stories capture the actual tone of the gangsters and racketeers, converting them into magnificent, charming and very funny, though not necessarily politically correct by todays’ standards, accounts.

 

 

Medea, Princess of Colchis

I loved the heroic stories of the ancient Greeks when I was a kid. I actually knew the difference between Theseus and Perseus and knew all about Helen of Troy (‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’), the labours of Hercules but I particularly enjoyed the tale of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest on the oracular ship, the Argo, for the Golden Fleece1. guarded in the kingdom of Colchis. Just as Troy was re-discovered as a real place, in the nineteenth century, Colchis too has been identified as an actual place at the eastern end of the Black Sea, in modern day Georgia.

I never bothered to visit Troy when I was in Turkey recently but I was intrigued to pass through the former kingdom of Colchis, just north of Batumi in the former soviet republic Georgia. In the main square, there was no statue of the so-called hero Jason, but instead, on a towering column, proudly holding aloft the Golden Fleece, the statue of Medea, Hecate’s witch-priestess, the sorceress daughter of King Aeëtes and the Caucasian nymph Asterodeia and Jason’s accomplice in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Statues generally honour male heroes but here was a statue honouring this incredible woman, driven by forces beyond her knowledge, and led by her own ambitious, driving powers committing the most appalling acts of fratricide, regicide and filicide in the name of love helplessly engendered by the very gods themselves. Mind you, I wouldn’t say Jason was much of an angel, either. Here’s my take on Medea’s story.

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Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, the guardian of the Golden Fleece upon which the security of the kingdom depends, is smitten by Jason on first sight because the goddesses. Hera, who had sworn to aid Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Athene, who wanted revenge for the past misdemeanours of Pelias, usurper of Jason’s throne, persuade Aphrodite to bribe her son, Eros, to make Medea conceive of a fierce passion for the Argonaut.

Aeëtes refused to hand over the Golden Fleece, reasonably enough and threatened to tear out Jason’s tongue out and chop off his hands. Medea convinced her father, the king of Colchis, against his will, to offer Jason the fleece on condition of fulfilling seemingly impossible tasks – yoking fire breathing, brazen hoofed bulls, sowing dragon’s teeth, from which fully armed warriors will spring, itching for a fight and other heroic acts.

Medea promises to use all her powers to help Jason to yoke the twin bulls and to overcome the sprouting warriors on condition that he love her forever and take her back to Greece on his return. Jason swears by all the gods of Olympus to keep faith with her. Medea concocts blood-red pomegranate juice mixed with the two stalked Caucasian crocus and honey, which shields Jason’s body and weapons.

Aeëtes, shocked at the ease at which Jason performs the impossible tasks and unaware of his daughter’s assistance to the hero, goes back on his word and foolishly confides in her that, during a banquet to celebrate Jason’s achievements, he plans to burn their ship, the Argo and massacre all his companions, the Argonauts.

Medea immediately leads Jason and his companions to a grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, guarded by a dragon of a thousand coils, larger than the Argo itself. Medea soothes the hissing monster with her occult incantations as Jason stealthily unhooks the Golden Fleece from the oak tree and hurries down to the cove on the Black Sea where the Argo waited.

Setting sail immediately, an enraged Aeëtes followed Medea and Jason, chasing, not only his daughter and the fleece but also, his only son, Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus who had accompanied them. Desperate to slow her father, Medea kills her younger brother and tosses him, piece by piece, overboard, forcing her father to stop and collect each piece in order to be able to provide full funeral rights.

Unfortunately, the oracular beam of the ship Argo, refused to sail further with them aboard until atonement be made for the murder.

Jason and Medea travel overland to Aeaea, the island home of Medea’s aunt, Circe who reluctantly purified them of the murder with the blood of a young sow! The Colchian pursuers, guessing that Jason and Medea would be picked up from there, demand from the king of Aeaea, on behalf of their king, Aeëtes, the return of both the fleece and Medea herself.

Citing ill treatment at the hands of her father, Medea sought protection from the local queen. The king was obliged to respond to the demands of the Colchians and, influenced by his wife, proclaimed that if Medea was virginal, she must be returned to her father but otherwise she could stay with Jason. The queen immediately told Medea and she and Jason bedded there and then on the Golden Fleece.

Heading home, passing the isle of Crete, Talos, a monstrous bronze guardian, blocked passage to the Argo by but Medea soothed the brute with her honey mouth, promising to make him mortal if he would only drink from the potion she offered. Gulping it down greedily, Talos fell into a deep sleep and Medea removed a bronze plug from his heel which sealed the single vein running the length of his body. Out gushed a colourless fluid which had served him as blood, rendering him inanimate.

Finally reaching Jason’s home of Iolcus, they discover, that in their absence, the usurper Pelias has finally killed Jason’s aged father and mother and fortified the city so that it is impenetrable to the Argonauts. Medea then offered to take the city single handedly and told Jason to hide the ship nearby and wait for her signal of burning torches on the palace roof. Disguising herself as a crone and carrying a hollow image of the goddess Artemis, Medea approached the city gates and demanded entry, crying out that the goddess Artemis wished to honour the piety of Pelias by making him young again so that he could sire heirs to his throne.

Pelias, no fool, doubted her until Medea transformed herself before his very eyes into her youthful and beguiling form. Behold now the power of Artemis, she cried as she chopped an aged ram into thirteen pieces and boiled them in a cauldron before the king’s wondering eyes. Muttering Colchian incantations and appealing to Artemis to assist her, Medea pretended to rejuvenate the ram by suddenly producing a frisky lamb from inside the hollow stature of Artemis that she had positioned beside the cauldron. Fully convinced now, Pelias, lulled by Medea’s charms, fell into a deep sleep on his couch. Medea then ordered his daughters to cut up their father’s body, just as she had done with the ram, and boil him in the same cauldron so that the rejuvenation could begin. As soon as the bodily parts were in the cauldron, Media led the daughters up onto the roof of the palace, each of them carrying a lit torch so that they could invoke the power of the moon while the cauldron was simmering. Seeing the lit torches being waved on the palace roof, Jason and the Argonauts stormed the city successfully only to later accept banishment by the Iolcus council. Jason, fearing the vengeance of Pelias’ daughters for the cruel murder of their father, wisely abandoned the city to them.

Following Medea’s advice, Jason set sail again on the Argo and presented the Golden Fleece to the temple of Zeus before heading to the Isthmus of Corinth. Medea, the only surviving child of her father Aeëtes, the rightful king of Corinth before he moved to Colchis, now claimed the throne and the Corinthians, awed by both Medea and Jason’s deeds, accepted Jason as their king.

A prosperous decade passes and Medea presents Jason with several children but his eye is caught by Glauce, daughter of king Creon of Thebes, and he renounces his vows to Medea, determined to take Glauce to his bed. Medea urges him not to, reminding him that he also owes the throne of Corinth to her but Jason insisted that an oath made under pressure was non-binding. Medea appeared to give way and sent all of Jason’s children to Glauce bearing a hand-woven white gown and a tiara of fine gold as a peace offering. No sooner had Glauce slipped on the gown and placed the tiara on her head when she burst into unquenchable flames, consuming not only her, but also her father, King Creon and all the child messengers that Medea had borne Jason.

Leaving a destitute Jason, unloved by the gods for having forsaken his vows to Medea in their name, Medea, fled in a chariot pulled by fearsome serpents, first to Thebes and then Athens before hearing her uncle Perses had usurped the throne of Colchis from her father Aeëtes. Hastening home Medea restored and then expanded and ruled the kingdom with her father.IMG_1855

 

I suppose that counts as a happy ending for Medea but poor old Jason wandered destitute until, finally returning to his birthplace, he sits down to rest under the beached remains of his ship, the Argo, and a beam from the bow falls on him, killing him outright!

 

  1. Apparently it was quite common to stretch a sheepskin on a wooden frame and place it at an appropriate place in the river where gold particles could be deposited and colleced later.

Braised Duck with Ginger

I thought I would take a break from my recent attempts at Caucasus cuisine and do something different. I get a bit tired of chicken so I recently bought a duck – a first for me. I could have just bunged the whole thing in the oven, I suppose, but I decided to go down this rather lengthy process of braising the brute and then actually cooking it, hoping it would cut some of the fat for which duck is notorious.

IMG_2286Someone, I don’t remember who, once told me that duck can have an unpleasant back flavour if not cleaned and prepared properly and the best way to prevent this is to rub the bird all over, inside and out, with grated ginger before giving it a good wash, so that is what I did, leaving it smothered in grated ginger root over night because I didn’t have time to deal with it then.

The next thing to do was cut it up into pieces, legs and wings gave me four pieces plus the actual body which I hacked rather clumsily into four pieces, which along with the neck, gave me a total of 9 largish pieces.IMG_2288

Heat some oil – I used rice bran – in a large pan and braise the duck pieces for about 7 minutes on each side. Because the pieces were quite large, I could only fit three or four pieces in the pan each time so the whole process took about three quarters of an hour.

IMG_2293I drained the duck pieces on kitchen paper and then poured off most of the oil into an old tin can and then peeled and julienned a decent size lump of ginger and stir-fried that in the remaining hot oil until fragrant.

While that was happening, I mixed about 500ml IMG_2294of boiling water with the fish sauce and sugar along with the ground white pepper. I chucked in a few small red chilies from a plant in the garden, not knowing how hot they might be so I only used about 4 small whole ones, seeds and all.

I put the duck pieces into a large pot on top of the julienned ginger and then poured the water, fish sauce, white pepper, salt and sugar on top, turned the heat up and brought the lot to a simmer before banging a lid on the pot and letting it gently simmer away for half an hour or so.

IMG_2297I took the lid off and continued to simmer for another 30 minutes or so until the sauce reduces.

Drain the duck pieces and transfer to a serving plate, and decorate with some (more) red chilies and a handful of parsley, celery or coriander leaves (whichever you have handy). Serve on a bed of white rice and drizzle some of the ginger sauce over the duck.IMG_2301

 Ingredients

1 Duck – about 2.5 kg.

A knob of ginger about the size of your thumb, grated.

2 Tablespoon oil.

2 Tablespoon fish sauce.

1 Tablespoon sugar.

1 Teaspoon of ground white pepper.

1 Teaspoon of salt.

500 ml boiling water.

Some red chilies, at least one but as many as you like.

Another knob of ginger peeled and cut into thin strips.

 

 

Lobio

I suppose every country in the world has some sort of national dish – Ireland – Irish Stew; England – Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pud; Italy – Spag Bol; USA – Hamburger & Fries; Germany – Wurst mit Mayo; Turkey – Lentil Soup (though not quite sure if that is the national dish and in Georgia – the country, not the state in the US – all the restaurants in Tbilisi and wherever else I went, seemed to serve Lobio Nigvzit – a hearty bean stew in a small clay pot. (Apologies to anyone who feels I have misrepresented their national dishes above)

IMG_2256Lobio is, at its most basic, just a thick stew of mashed beans with some or all or the following ingredients – fresh coriander, walnuts, garlic, onions,pomegranate molasses, fresh parsley or celery leaves, mint, chilli flakes, roasted whole coriander seeds, but it can be upgraded with bacon, beef, cheese etc. Here’s my take on the basic – feel free to add extras as you wish, but a word of caution, without any of the extras, it is still a deeply satisfying dish

Ingredients

1 mug of red kidney beansIMG_2241

1 cup walnut halves or pieces, finely ground

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 bay leaves

1 cup finely chopped coriander or flat-leaf parsley, dill, basil, celery greens

1 large, brown onion finely chopped

* 1/4 mug pomegranate molasses or red wine vinegar

 

1 tablespoon ground coriander, or to tasteIMG_2260

1 teaspoon ground thyme

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon smoked paprika or to taste

Method

Soak the beans, preferably overnight, in cold water but at least for several hours. I used one mug full of red kidney beans and covered them with buckets of water and they had pretty much doubled in size by the next day.

Drain the beans and cover with fresh water, add a few bay leaves and bring to a brisk boil before lowering the heat and letting the beans simmer while you chop onion and the fresh herbs finely.IMG_2258

When the beans are soft but still have distinct texture, add some salt and continue cooking until the beans are softer. Adding the salt too early can keep the beans from becoming tender. IMG_2261Drain but keep back some of the liquid and use the back of a wooden spoon, or a potato masher, to mash the beans on the side of the pot. Remember to remove the bay leaves.

Pound the parsley, garlic,fresh and ground coriander, chilli, thyme and smoked paprika and whole mixed pepper corns in a mortar and pestle. I could find the pestle only and not the mortar so I used my mum’s old food processor, a Moulinex MasterChef 350, which I helped myself to when she was in hospital one time when I was back visiting. My sister assured me that our mum would not be using it again and that I would get better use out of it. And I do. It’s ancient but it still does the job!

Add the pounded or whizzed ingredients to the ground walnuts, also whizzed, and stir well with the pomegranate molasses before adding to the beans.IMG_2262

IMG_2259Fry the chopped onion until golden and add to bean mix. Heat and thoroughly stir in reserved cooking liquid from the beans for desired consistency. Garnish with a few leftover parsley or corainder leaves, or whatever you have!

* pomegranates are a fairly new thing fro me and certainly the pomegranate molasses was a major new addition to my pantry. Tangy and sweet and sour, I bought it in a Middle Eastern style grocery but if you can’t find it, red wine vinegar can be used, I suppose. Incidentally, the pomegranate molasses is lovely mixed with sparkliing water for a really refreshing – and different – drink.

Variation: add chorizo, bacon or yoghurt

A(nother) New Direction (Again!)

One of the original ideas for this blog thingy was for me to encounter new curves in media and technology and … ok, ok, I am the first to admit I have been a bit of a slow learner in those areas.  But at least when I posted something on Red Branch Chronicles it also appeared, as if by magic, on my FaceBook thing which I never actually look at.  No idea how that happens – it is something that automatically occurs when I post on my WordPress account.  Now, for some reason, FaceBook no longer accepts direct input from WordPress unless I convert my FaceBook ‘Profile’ – didn’t even know I had one – to a Facebook ‘Page’.

Im not 100% sure what the difference is, but perhaps a page is more business-like than a (more?) informal profile?  Who knows?  Not sure I care actually, but I feel as if technology – and FaceBook in particular – have thrown up another obstacle in my snail like approach to media literacy.

Anyway, having followed explicit on-screen instructions (from FaceBook) on how to convert my Profile to a Page, this post should now magically spring up on Facebook to the shock and awe of … myself, anyway.

Here’s hoping

 

Qvevri Wines

One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. IMG_1726The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.

Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.

To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. IMG_1685Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark!   Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep

It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.

Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.IMG_1854

But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.IMG_1619

First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.

IMG_1623
A glass of ‘white’ qvevri wine compared to ‘normal’ white wine

These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.IMG_1707

Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.

Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.IMG_2166

Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year…

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/…/oldest-winemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeolog…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/…/Scientists-discover-8-000-year-old-wine-bottles-Ge…

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/oldest-wine-georgia-study-trnd/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-14/oldest-wine-georgia…pottery…/9143874

The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002

A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005

Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016
 

Georgia Reconsidered

A big red M outside Tbilisi’s main station marked the entrance to the city metro – probably the longest, deepest and fastest escalator I have ever been on and, like the bus fare from the border to Batumi which cost something like 30 ct, the trip on the metro were priced similarly or even cheaper.

The Georgians I met – generally local punters in a bar or café or wait staff in the same places – were all terribly proud of being Georgian and were especially keen to distance themselves from anything Russian, having finally extracted themselves from the sphere of influence wielded by Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and The Russian Federation. Armed only with red roses, protesters demonstrated for twenty-three days outside the Georgian parliament in November 2003 in order to bring about peaceful change and a new slant towards westernisation.

A waiter or waitress’ recommendation from the local menu invariably followed the same line, ‘this very, very good, this very good, this very good, this … Russian, this very, very good’.

This ‘turning away’ from their former rulers led to increased tensions with Russia, culminating in the brief 2008 war where the Federation forcibly backed two separatist revolts against the Georgian state. One night in a small bar half way up a hilly side street near the Opera, a fluent speaker of English confided in me that he hated the Russians. They killed his brother during the war in South Ossetia.IMG_1759

IMG_1760 2Popping up from the metro two stops away from the main station – again an incredible ascent – onto Shota Rushtavelli Ave I was amazed to see how fashionably modern Tbilisi was. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps something slightly less developed than a Western capital, perhaps something slightly shop worn – but what I got was an amazing melange of old and new.

Opposite the Opera house where I was staying, it was only a IMG_1732short walk past the parliament buildings and down to Liberty Sq. and from there to the old town where crumbling buildings and shaky balconies edged fashionable pedestrian areas and parks.

IMG_1752 2Flea markets selling Russian junk crowded the bridge before a maze of small streets leading back up to Liberty Square in which the centre plinth was so high that I couldn’t actually make out what stood on top. IMG_1632

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was a cable car connection to the old Persian fortress overlooking the city and the hot spring baths with fashionable wine-bars and restaurants spread out below in inviting pedestrian areas and squares.IMG_1642

Despite having lived in Milan for almost three years, to my shame I never once went to La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This time, staying opposite the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre House on broad Shota Rustavelli Avenue, all I had to do was take the underpass and the Opera house was right there.

IMG_1769 2I saw the premiere of one of Verdi’s little known (certainly to me anyway) operas – Simon Boccanegra – an opera with a prologue and three acts with one intermission, the brochure informed me. A Google search of the plot baffled me but the splendour, the lighting, the colour, the drama and the music and the voices had me entranced – although the only word I actually heard was ‘Maria’ – and I became an opera lover overnight!

IMG_1619But time to leave the capital and explore the Kaheti wine region, the major wine growing area in the southeast. After all, in this part of the world, Neolithic farmers were making, drinking, enjoying and worshipping vitis vinifera 8,000 years ago so I assumed they knew how to make a decent drop.

And then there was the idea of  hiking in the Sveneti – the mountains region up in the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the breakaway state of Abhazia.IMG_1825

More of that later.

 

2 Georgian Lari = about $1.15 Australian cents

3 Georgian Lari = about $1.70 Australian cents