A love affair with the true taste of Eastern Europe
It’s time that you got your tastebuds around some Georgian and Azerbaijani flavours, Olia Hercules tells
Britain is late to unearthing the joys of Georgian food, says writer and food stylist Olia Hercules. “Everybody was so busy with the Middle East, and loving that, that we haven’t ripened to the Georgian thing,” she states. “I’m quite surprised it took so long.”
Our lack of Georgian love is set to change though, with the release of her second cookbook, Kaukasis. A follow-up to 2015’s Mamushka, which explored Olia’s Ukrainian heritage, this new collection of recipes focuses on Caucasus — the hub of countries packed together like pickles in a jar at the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
For the book, Olia (34) returned to the countries that she, her parents and elder brother meandered through on a road trip to visit family in Baku in Azerbaijan, when she was a toddler.
Returning as an adult, Olia retraced as much of that family trip as possible, gathering recipes and ideas along the way.
“We didn’t go into Armenia, but I really wanted to go to Nagorno-Karabakh (a region being contested by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh leaders), where my auntie’s old house is, but it’s probably destroyed now by war,” says Olia sadly. “It’s too dangerous, they’ve started shooting there again. I just thought, ‘I’m not going to risk it’.”
Meeting home cooks is still something that fascinates Olia, who includes recipes from the people she met on her travels in Kaukasis.
“Especially in rural areas, if you go to visit someone, they will have a massive barrel of cheese that they make every morning and then they salt it, or they make buffalo butter, which is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tried,” she remembers. The markets, particularly in Georgia, are astounding. “Your mind is blown,” says Olia with a grin. “Especially those who love unusual ingredients. You can have little barberries from Tusheti, there’s crazy wild plants and mushrooms I’ve never heard of before, and alycha plums (similar to greengages). People use them when they’re firm and green and quite sour to make this plum sauce, tkemali — a hot and sour plum ketchup.” For Olia, a season of pop-ups and cookery sessions now awaits as the rest of us slowly come to realise just what we’ve been missing when it comes to Georgian and Azerbaijani food, and then, who knows?
“I can be very organised in the kitchen as a chef, but in life, I tend to...” she says, drifting off, before adding with a smile: “It’s all very spontaneous.” Kaukasis by Olia Hercules, photography Elena Heatherwick, is published in hardback by Mitchell Beazley, priced £25