Smokin’!: Etseri, Svaneti


It has been such a mild, warm, sunny, windless autumn up here that we shouldn’t be so amazed at our fall crops. True, for some reason many in our village are grumbling about poor hay for their winter livestock feed and small or worm-ridden potatoes compared to the usual famous Svan giants revered and sought after in Zugdidi. But our tomatoes, raspberries, plums! These are bumper harvests.

One of my wife’s friends had given her a number of cherry tomato seedlings on one of our jaunts to Kakheti this summer. They have been taking very well to the local climate, alongside their larger cousins, and as I write this in early November are still bearing green fruit which we hope will see enough sun to redden it. Tiny, actually much more pear-shaped than round, they have a wonderfully sweet-tart flavor, even though tomatoes have not been until now my favorite food. But I have been researching online and experimenting with how to make them more interesting to my tastes, and this seems to be working.

There have been two parts to this process, aided by getting ideas from the internet. The first was drying the tomatoes in a slow oven: much easier and quicker than sun-drying them. After picking and washing, the cherry ones I simply cut in half. The larger ones I scoop out the flesh from with a teaspoon, and these innards I freeze for chutney-making later. All these halves I lay on a sheet of baking paper on a metal tray, the paper being re-usable many times, and sprinkle with a bit of Svan salt and some pepper from the grinder. Not too much, though, as the flavors intensify with drying.

The oven is electric, and as power up here is free, I can afford to dry the trays for some hours at 120 degrees C (about 220 F). I keep the door just slightly open to allow moisture to escape, and check progress occasionally so I can take out the driest ones before they actually get crispy, giving the larger ones more time. From the oven, briefly cooled, they go into a jar half-full of olive oil, along with a clove of fresh sliced garlic. Absolutely marvelous, bursting with concentrated flavor.

However… there is one more thing to make this a truly gourmet experience, and that is SMOKING the halves before drying them! A friend of mine in Canada suggested this to me, and I decided to research it online; found it not to be difficult; and adapted my custom-made sheet iron shish kabob box for the purpose.

At one end of the box I make a little mound of combustibles: wood chips and leaves, slightly dampened. The rest of the box has a wire grill on it, raised off the box’s floor to allow smoke to circulate, fine enough to rest the smallest cherry tomato halves on without their slipping through. I start the smoking with a torch attachment for my gas bottle, to get it nice and hot. Then I lower a sheet metal lid to keep the smoke inside as long as possible before it escapes, and allow just a slit of air access so it won’t get extinguished. I check this, too, every quarter of an hour or so, and allow 2-3 hours for the smoking. THEN I start the oven drying process, and after this the rise in quality is… stupendous, if I say so myself. I’m just glad to live in a place where making some smoke is doable.

This is not a hot process, so I can even smoke cheese (either local sulguni, not too salty, or expensive but glorious imported Dutch Gouda) without it melting. I have the box in the shade so that sunlight won’t heat it and liquefy the cheese. After 3-5 hours’ smoke, this product then needs a couple of weeks’ patient storage on a plastic-wrapped board in the fridge, to allow the smoke flavor to penetrate right through it. The result is good enough that some recent picnicking guests, the Prince and Princess Murat from near Zugdidi who grew up in France, declared it merveilleux. When French aristocrats praise your food, you can feel good.

I have also tried smoking, olive oil-dipping and then roasting whole garlic cloves; and there is a whole online list of other foods which can be glorified in similar ways, from meats to other vegetables and even some fruits. I now must make a better, more versatile and larger-volume smoker, and then we’ll really be in business. As quite a few different nationalities say in their own languages, you gotta live!

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer and photographer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

By Tony Hanmer

12 November 2020 19:43