At the hearth, where our story begins

It’s the sweet, mellow smell of heating milk that hits you first. That and the warmth of a just stoked fire, bringing sharp relief from the chill in the rest of the house and a sign that the day has begun. It takes a second to locate the source of such welcome comforts until you realise that both come from the same place. The wood-fired stove is like any other in this small mountain village in northern Georgia; a low, rectangular metal stovetop with two compartments beneath it; one for building a fire and another, wider shelf that serves as an oven. The stove sits on four legs like a table and beneath that a wooden drawer, taken from an old chest, is piled with dry wood.

Despite her later years, Nora’s hands work dextrously, kneading cornflour and fresh cheese into a dough, before patting them out into small fritters and frying them in a hot, dry pan until golden and oozing. She flips them out onto a plate as she goes, bringing the whole lot to the table with a pot of spiced salt. This is a signature seasoning in this isolated region, sprinkled liberally on plates of homemade tangy sulguni cheese, or on plain boiled potatoes, roughly cut tomatoes or to pep up the ubiquitous cheese-stuffed flatbreads, khachapuri. She plonks a kilner-style jar of homemade matsoni yoghurt on the table along with a bowl of dripping honeycomb, and with that, she sits to eat.

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georgia caucasus coffee

The large pot holding this morning’s milk, still frothy from its journey from cow to kitchen, begins to bubble more ferociously, its slanted lid beating its tune to signal that the milk is by now safe to drink. As everyday, Nora will leave it to cool before she curdles, strains, ferments, churns or cultures it into cheese, butter or yoghurt; this is the starting point and foundation of how this family eat.

For now though, rivulets of steam disperse from the pot into this kitchen-cum-living space where we gather to keep warm, eat and converse during cold mornings. Here, the stove is the centre of this little universe, exerting its gravitational pull on the family that orbit it, functioning as it does as both food and heat source. It is the focal point of the home and the foundation on which food habits, traditions and family dramas play out. The word ‘focus’, meaning the point where all things converge, comes from the Latin for ‘fireplace’ and nowhere is this more obvious than here; a reminder for me of the Welsh aga of my own upbringing.

Humans are the only animals that cook their food. For the past 200,000 years, the fireplace has been the centre point of human lives, families and communities, determining how fast we’ve been able to evolve and setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet, it’s only in the past 150 years that we have learnt to tame it, radically shifting how we cook and relate to the food and fire that sustains us. No longer does our survival depend on just one heat source or one cookpot and so our relationship to that hearth has changed too.

The essential laws in which the world arranges itself have become blurred. The simple science of heating milk or turning it into cheese, the basic art of lighting a fire, the quiet gathering of a family at mealtimes. This is the stuff of life and it is there, if we simply look, we can understand where we came from.