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Caucasus: wild herbs, street dogs and untouched mountains.

Text & Photo Kieran Creevy and Lisa Paarvio

Lisa Paarvio and Kieran Creevy are respectively a professional photographer and an expedition chef and mountain instructor. Working as a creative team, they have travelled across mountain environments on three continents; on foot, snowshoe and ski. They teamed up due to a mutual love of wild places, exploration, and storytelling. Their mountain and wilderness journeys combine cultural stories, action sport, adventure and local food.

High in the Kazbegi Caucasus, Lisa and I have packs loaded with food, equipment and camera gear for a multi-day snowshoe and wild camping adventure.

A few days earlier, we met Vasil, our driver, by chance. 

One of those unexpected meetings that expands your knowledge and alters your world view. 

We get a detailed primer to decades of hard won local information.

Info on which market to find the best pickles, fresh vegetables, strained yoghurt, and local Georgian specialties like dried sour plums and walnuts.

One such market gave us pause,  from the outside, the ramshackle, faded facade speaks of a store long past its heyday. However, it’s dimly lit interior reveals a trove of wonders; fruit leather with a mouth puckering sourness, tangy cheeses, wild herb medleys, delicate beetroots and pungent onions with a green/white hue.

That evening, the ritual of sorting gear begins. Just enough clothing to keep us warm and dry, with spares for those “in case” moments. Winter sleeping bags have expanded in the house, which now have to be tightly stuffed back into dry bags. Lisa agonises over which lenses to pack and if we will have the possibility of seeing the Milky Way.

We won’t be eating freeze dried meals on this trip, only Georgian inspired dinners and breakfasts.

Morning comes too early. We briefly question our respective career paths, but the magnetic pull of new mountains is all the incentive we need to get out the door.

One wild ride up a twisting mountain road and we’re alone!

Shafts of gold break the horizon and we pause for morning tea and fresh bread. 

We head deeper into the hills on worn goat trails. Our snowshoes and ice axes still packed.

Thought we’re almost at 3,000 metres and it’s minus twenty, the snow is sparse and patchy, with drifting on spurs and piling in mounds on some Northern slopes.

We encounter the first signs of long habitation in this wild corner of Georgia. A ruin of a shrine, its stones worn smooth with centuries of age.

Late in the day, we chance upon a perfect spot for our first camp. In the midst of setting up camp my stomach growls, time to make dinner.

Lobio with Mchadi (Red bean, pepper, onion and herb stew with cornbread)

Ingredients: Serves 2

Lobio

2 cups dried red kidney beans soaked in water overnight.

1 white onion finely sliced

1 green pepper roughly diced

1 cup flat leaf parsley roughly chopped

1 vegetable stock cube crumbled

1 tsp white pepper

1/2 tsp dried fennel powder

1/2 tsp black cumin powder 

1/2 tsp coriander powder

Water

Salt – to taste

1 tbsp butter or ghee.

Mchadi:

Cornflour, finely ground

2 eggs

2 tsp sea salt 

1 tsp chili flakes

1 cup hard white cheese cut into fine cubes.

2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil.

Water

Extra cornflour for dusting 

 

Lobio Method:

Mix together the cornflour, spices, salt, eggs and oil.

Then add in the cheese and a little water at a time.

Knead until you have a smooth dough.

Place the skillet on the stove, reduce the heat to medium/high.

Break off a golf ball size lump of dough, roll in between your hands until smooth and flatten.

Dust with a little cornflour and place in the skillet.

There is space in the skillet for 2-4 breads, depending on size.

Dry fry for a few minutes on both sides until cooked through and the cheese starts to ooze out.

Mchadi Method:

Light the stove. Add the butter/ghee and when gently sizzling add the onion, pepper and spices.

Cook for 2-3 minutes.

Add the bean mix, stir well and enough water to cover completely.

Increase the heat to full, cover with the pot lid and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat slightly, cook for 20 minutes or until the beans are soft, adding more water if necessary.

Serve the bean stew in an insulated container with some bread.

Our winter adventure in this mountain fastness speeds by all too fast. Days pass in a kaleidoscope of sensory wonders; the smell of snow on the wind, moonlight glinting of shards of ice as though the ground is carpeted in diamonds, a dense forest hiding a stone fortress, hot spiced soup, and the joy of travelling in the wilderness with a close and trusted  friend.

Finally, we near our home, the hillside showing small signs of traffic – a slight widening in the trail.

However, we don’t want to break the spell of the wilds and return straight to civilisation.

Our last mountain lunch is suddenly interrupted by a wild street dog. Whether it caught scent of our meal or it’s in search of company we don’t know. It approaches camp, relaxed and at ease. Lying down, it seems content, but with the expectant air of one hoping for some food in the future.

After lunch, as though loath to let us escape its enchantment, the Kazbegi Caucasus throws us a last curve ball. The track we were on disappears with no warning. Far ahead we can see the continuation of the track, and a kilometre away our home. Between us and it however is a wide river. 

Backtracking will take us a few hours. We decide to scout the bank, hoping for stepping stones or a narrow stretch over which we can jump. No joy.

Just as we’ve made the decision to turn back, Lisa spots a possible ford. 

Assessing the speed and depth of the flow, we’re in luck. It’s safe.

Splashing our way across we emerge and almost immediately the hems of our trousers freeze into board like stiffness. The last kilometre flows swiftly under our sodden boots.

Bone tired and wet we may be, but the enchantment has struck us hard. 

We’re in the thrall of this magnificent landscape and its people.

 

Thank you Georgia.

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