Every Georgian dish is a poem wrote Alexander Pushkin. Walnut-rich Georgian food has benefitted from the country’s legendary hospitality and traditional position on east-west trade routes, combining the best aspects of Mediterranean and Asian cooking. Geopolitically Russo-Georgian relations have been fraught, but Moscow diners love spicy meat stews, garlicky aubergine dishes and other features of Georgia’s great cuisine.
More than a million Georgians live in Russia, plenty of places serve Georgian food and the heady wines imported from Georgia are no longer banned. Officially, relations have improved only marginally since the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, but culturally there’s a different story.
Moscow’s geography bears witness to a centuries-old connection. Several roads just north of the Zoo have names like Great Georgian Street, recalling an exiled eighteenth-century Georgian King, Vakhtang VI, who had a village here. In Gruzinskaya Ploschad (Georgian Square) is the brick church of St George “among the Georgians”, near a statue of the country’s twelfth-century poet, Shota Rustaveli, and the unusual studio-museum of Tblisi-born artist Zurab Tsereteli.
Russian literature has long celebrated the beauty of the Caucasus Mountains. Pushkin’s narrative poem Prisoner of the Caucasus was inspired by the awe-inspiring landscape, which he saw as “a new Parnassus”, and Tolstoj’s story of the same name was the basis for a wildly popular 1990s Russian film. Some of Moscow’s themed restaurants draw on this iconic imagery to entertain their guests. They can also be good places to hear live Georgian music, with its plangent, polyphonic vocals.
Among mounds of pomegranates and beetroot-stained pickled garlic hang colourful dangling strings of grape-juice dipped walnut sweets called churchkhela, traditionally made at harvest time in Georgia. You can also pick up tasty khachapuri cheese bread, hot from the market’s bakery. This marvel of Georgian cuisine, a celebrated national dish is baked with a thick layer of melted, salty sulguni cheese in the middle. You can buy neat sulguni elsewhere in the market, along with fifty other types of cheese.
A visit to the huge Dorogomilovsky Market near Kievskaya metro station is an almost overwhelming sensory experience. There are aisles of smoked fish and red caviar, pickled vine leaves or baby squid. In neighbouring rows are heaps of spices – from star anise to saffron – fringed by bunches of fresh tarragon and purple basil. The centre of the hall is piled high with fruit and veg: blood oranges or bright lemons with the leaves still on, massive pumpkins or firm, pinkish Azeri tomatoes.
The meat section is not for the squeamish, but beyond it are dozens of types of honey, homemade jam and unfiltered sunflower oil. In a tank by the door king crabs stand guard over trussed lobsters and bags of mussels, while just outside is a stall selling everything you need for the banya (Russian spa): bunches of birch twigs, bottles of aromatic oil and loofahs.
Some people see him as the king of kitsch, others as a towering genius. His 98 metre riverside monument to Peter the Great was voted one of the world’s ugliest sculptures, but Georgian-Russian Zurab Tsereteli, whose controversial work dominates the Moscow cityscape, has been president of the Russian Academy of Art for almost twenty years. He founded the city’s Modern Art Museum in 1999, an ambitious, five- venue project that includes the artist’s own studio.
The museum’s main building, an eighteenth-century mansion in the heart of town, exhibits works by Miró, Dali and Picasso, alongside avant-garde Russian artists including Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall and Natalia Goncharova. There are also works by Niko Pirosmani, a primitivist painter from a village in mountainous, vineyard- covered Kakheti, who painted Georgian feasts and winemakers.
The museum café, serving Greek-influenced dishes, has suitably funky décor and Tsereteli’s own colourful mosaics and bronze sculptures pack the courtyard. Tsereteli has linked his love of bright colours to “the warm climate and sunshine of Georgia”. This love of colour is evident, too, in his enamel works, on display at his own Tsereteli gallery on Prechistenka Street, and his themed ponds on the edge of the Alexandrovsky Garden, near the Kremlin walls.
Visitors sometimes used to be disappointed by Gorky Park. Having heard the name of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1980s cold war thriller, they arrived to find a straggle of dilapidated Soviet fairground rides. But since 2011, a major restoration has transformed the park into a cultural oasis and food-lover’s paradise, with yoga classes, art shows, free wifi and some fabulous things to eat.
The popular AC/DC in Tbilisi kiosk, open to park visitors in summer or inside the winter ice rink, does a brisk trade in sexed-up Hereford beef burgers, with sulguni cheese, red basil and pickled peppers. This little outlet has found a winning formula with their Georgian street food fusions, combining traditional herbs and spices with “modern outdoor gastronomy”. Their other speciality is the meatballs with satsivi sauce. Neighbouring kiosks can provide fresh lemonade or gingery glühwein, teriyaki noodles or nostalgia-inducing pelmeni dumplings whose fillings range from salmon to cherries.
The park was named after the revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky and features acres of lawns, flowerbeds, fountains and sculptures. A walk along the riverside pathway or the winding trails through the cliff-top woods above leads eventually to the viewpoint at Sparrow Hills beside the towering Stalin-era skyscraper of Moscow State University.
Born in Moscow in 1924 to a Georgian father and Armenian mother, soulful Bulat Okudzhava became one of Soviet Russia’s best-loved singer-poets. He studied in Tbilisi and his mournful “Georgian Song” starts with a vine being planted. There is a slouching, bronze monument to him at one end of Arbat, where he lived, with the lyrics of his 1959 song about the street engraved on the arch behind him:
Oh, Arbat, my Arbat, you are my vocation,
You are my joy and my sorrow ...
Oh, Arbat, my Arbat, you are my homeland,
No one could ever reach the end of you.
There’s plenty to see on a stroll down this historic, pedestrianised shopping street, with its pavement artists and souvenir sellers. The poet Pushkin lived in the bright blue house at number 53, which is now a museum, and Okudzhava later lived at number 43 – fans still gather here every year on his birthday (9 May) to sing his songs. Halfway along, opposite Russia’s oldest pet shop, is Krivoarbatsky Pereulok, where a graffiti-covered wall commemorates the untimely death of post-punk musician Victor Tsoi. At the far end, a bar in an old blue trolleybus celebrates another of Okudzhava’s well-known ballads.