If you drive down one of the main roads in the Georgian countryside or wander through an open-air market, you’ll probably see, among the bushel baskets of fresh vegetables and piles of melons and gourds, strings of what look like waxy dark brown hand-dipped candles. (Some people say they look like, well, less-savory objects. We’ll stick with candles.) These are called churchkhela, and they’re a popular traditional Georgian snack food—many people call them the “Georgian Snickers.” And, as I learned, they’re really easy to make!
One lovely autumn Saturday, after a week or two of gloomy weather, my host mum explained to me that it was perfect weather for making churchkhela: sunny, not too hot, not too cold. A few family friends came over to help, and we all gathered in the garage.
We spent the first part of the afternoon boiling a huge pot of tartare. I explained it to someone once as being, basically, grape gravy—it’s made from grape juice (more like grape cider) and flour, and boiled for hours until it makes a thick, yet almost-fluffy paste. I’m told you can make tartare with other fruit juice, as well, but because grapes are one of Kakheti’s main agricultural products, I suppose it makes sense that we’d use grape juice.
Tartare is delicious on its own—it has sort of a thick, gelatinous consistency when it cools, and you can eat it with a spoon. But, when it’s dried with nuts, it’s called churchkhela. (I, personally, prefer the latter.)
Once the boiling tartare was an appropriate consistency—after about two hours of boiling and stirring with the biggest wooden spoon I’ve ever seen—it was time to make the churchkhela. In mid-September, when hazelnuts and walnuts began to come into season, we had harvested a few buckets-full of each and shelled them, strung them up, and hung them out to dry in the autumn sun. Now, on our churchkhela-making day, we grabbed about a hundred strings of our dried nuts and dipped them one-by-one into the still-hot, caramelly tartare. After each string was fully coated, we pulled it out slowly and hung it out to dry, looped over a pole balanced on the backs of two chairs. It was far easier than I thought it’d be, and the entire dipping process took less than an hour.
After this batch is dried and cured (after a few months), we’ll have plenty of snack food for the winter months… and I now have a new hobby to try back in the U.S.! I’m thinking of adding chocolate, somehow… maybe making strawberry tartare and using hazelnuts, and dipping the whole thing in chocolate? Yum. It’ll be almost like a Snickers. …Except not really.