The Orbeliani Sweets

A little girl under the heavy wooden table has turned silent and is playing with the tablecloth fringes, but soon she gets bored playing hide-and-seek and comes out from her secret place, climbs up on the chair and tries to perform a Mozart Minuet. Then she leans on her elbows and attentively observes her grandma’s soft, white fingers peeling walnuts and carefully cleaning the dust away with a tiny brush. This is a truly startling and mysterious ritual, when walnuts are not broken, but cautiously opened with silver knives, like little jewelry boxes. 

‘You know what my dear, walnuts should not have even one speck of dust’ – says the grandma, and the little girl does not know yet that these beautiful soft hands were picking cotton from prickly bushes while their owner was in exile in remote Asia. Maybe that’s why she always tried to whisper as silent as cotton rustling. 

The little girl is sitting and observing this walnut peeling, how mousse and caramel is boiled and that the process lasts several days. Finally, sweets sparkling with the golden chimney flame appear on a plate with the family emblem. 

Most of all, she is calmed when she is addressed with ‘my,’ this ‘my’ is like a house, where she lives. 

Tbilisi is famous for having several culinary artifacts, urban tastes or secrets, and ‘Orbeliani Sweets’ is one of these artifacts, prepared as precisely as jewelry. You can only taste this dessert in one or two Tbilisi cafes. Another option is to ask Mrs. Ketevan, the owner of this treasure. Having tasted it quite by chance, I explored the huge history behind it. 

To tell that truth, I don’t think it a coincidence when the names of the most distinguished women are linked to the culinary arts as these women fill such arts with different context and values. 

That little girl, Ketevan Abashidze Muzhe, is a grownup already, continuing the story of the Orbeliani Sweets into the XXI century and living in the historical house surrounded by memories, precious items, photographs and paintings. 

She told me a story which I’m going to share with you now. The story of Mariam Jambakur- Orbeliani – a Maecenas and an active participant and supporter of the most significant events of her time. 

Mariam Jambakur-Orbeliani – a daughter of the poet Vakhtang Orbeliani, the grandson of King Erekle and a wife of Lamiskana landlord Alexander Jambakur-Orbeliani, a founder and member of the Society for the Spreading of Literacy, a member of the Noble Society Committee and the Musical School Committee, having greatly contributed to establishing the Georgian Musical School, and the founder of the First Georgian school, as well as a big supporter of women’s education. 

She established a secondary school in Lamiskana village, opened a school in Ateni and contributed to establishing the Tbilisi State University. In 1884, Mariam published the full volume of her father’s poems. In addition, she was a big supporter of children’s magazines ‘Jejili,’ ‘Nakaduli’ and women’s society ‘Education;’ she knew several European languages and translated Shakespeare, Moliere, Hugo, and Daudet from English and French, and this is only a small part of her activities…

The history of the Orbeliani Sweets is connected to Mariam Jambakur-Orbeliani as she created these sweets along with her servant Pelagia, who, thanks to Mariam, graduated the Culinary Academy in Biarritz. 

The high quality Orbeliani Sweets count as one of the first Georgian desserts, famous for its refined taste and distinguished aroma. 

The real poetic secret is hidden in its transparent, golden membrane. It is prepared in the rays of the risen sun, only on ivory-color marble; the caramel should have the color of the setting sun and when 18 gentle bubbles start to burst, it means that it’s time to dip the candies. 

I’m sitting in an old living-room, where the most intelligent and famous Georgian public figures, poets and nobility once gathered and where the prominent public figure Ilia Chavchvadze spent one of his last evenings. 

The sweet century-old secret is gazing at me from the plate and I can’t wait to taste it and explore the various stories – tragic and difficult, stories of happy and bright days, life stories of the people looking at me from different frames around the room. 

A letter of Alexander Abashidze to his wife: ‘I have not loved anyone except you, you are the star of my life…’ 28 godchildren of Mariam Jambakur-Orbeliani and her nickname ‘natliko’ (a shortened version of godmother) … memories about Ilia Chavchavadze… the first republic… the 1924 rebellion… the handsome young man Gia Abashidze, one day he left the house on a bike, but was arrested and shot afterwards… 

The deceased man without a grave… a prison and a basket of food with information whether your prisoner was alive or dead… Exiles to remote Asia and the road to get there six months… A collier with 27 diamonds for beautiful Tamar Orbeliani – a precious gift from the Prince of Sweden, who was in love with her; most of which were used to finance the building of schools and universities in Tbilisi and Kutaisi and also to finance a number of talented students… Damaged photos of the most dangerous people Stalin and Beria in mattresses – the hidden range… Japanese silk removed from the walls from where wives of betrayers sewed dresses and a plethora of such stories… Some late stories as well… the robbed palace or stolen jewelry, unique books lost from the library, the difficult 1950s, emigration… 

If you look at Orbelini Sweets in sunlight, they look like snow globes with snowflakes falling and reviving those remote Christmas evenings, when caring hands around the heavy wooden table peeled walnuts carefully and cleaned them from dust. 

The little girl is sitting and observing the walnut peeling, how mousse and caramel is boiled and that the process lasts several days. Finally, sweets sparkling with the golden chimney flame appear on a plate with the family emblem. 

Most of all, she was calmed when she was addressed with ‘my,’ this ‘my’ is like a house, where she lives even now. 

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