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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD - Ella Walker

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

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