Piece by piece
Like the friendship mosaic at Georgia’s Mount Kazbegi, these recipes bind fragments of many Caucasian cultures. The author of new book Kaukasis tells how she cherishes the region’s traditions while creating something new
In times of great economic struggle, people fall apart. I have seen it happen, where close friends, parents and their children or siblings break ties with each other because it is simply too difficult to continue. When it’s hard to survive financially, hard to stay strong and hard to make sense of events, it’s easy to forget what unites us.
The same happens with entire countries. It happened to my Armenian family, the inspiration for my book, Kaukasis. Originally from NagornoKarabakh, when war broke out in the 1980s, they were forced to abandon their summer house, the region and eventually even Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to relocate to Kiev, Ukraine. Despite the anguish, mutual hostility and atrocities, I have not once heard my Armenian aunt say anything negative about Azerbaijanis. She has always reiterated that it was an artificially created conflict, like so many of them were at the time and still are.
Whether you are Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, or one of any of the other Caucasian peoples, so much of the region’s culture is intertwined, and – on a more domestic level – so many cooking techniques and dishes are shared and borrowed. I am glad I grew up without having to take sides.
When thinking of a title for this book, words kept running through my head: Caucasus, togetherness, communion, “as one”, family, table, polyphony, layers, together. One word – I needed just one word to unite us all, but not in a tragic, forceful way like the word “Soviet” once did.
Being an avid fan of etymology, I recalled reading that the name “Caucasus” possibly originated from the Scythian language (the Scythians being an ancient civilisation from the Ukrainian steppe where I was born) and is akin to the gorgeous Greek word Kaukasis. It means “snowy mountain top”, and at that moment the title of the book was born!
Near Kazbegi mountain in northeastern Georgia, I saw a viewing platform with a massive mosaic. It was beautiful. What I loved the most was that the animals and people depicted have clearly defined outlines, but within, their forms are made up of mismatched coloured tiles. This is how I feel about culture, and about traditions and recipes. The outlines are there, set in stone, but what’s happening inside is a big puzzle of individual fragments. This is my interpretation, a symbol, a vision of how to cherish tradition while also being open to creating something new.
Cauliflower steak gratin
Aunt Nina really loves her cauliflower, and she is not shy to get creative with it. She actually uses processed “burger” cheese here and I still enjoy the dish (this may be the only guilty pleasure I will ever have), but I think using a good-quality melty cheese is preferable.
Serves 4 as a side
1 head of cauliflower
10g unsalted butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra if using the onion
1 onion, thinly sliced (optional)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 small garlic cloves, finely grated 150g raclette or Ogleshield cheese, grated
Salt and black pepper
1 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tbsp chopped dill
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/ gas 4. Slice the cauliflower, including the stalks and leaves (if they aren’t too manky), into steaks 3cm thick. Some florets will break away, but keep those as well.
2 Heat the butter and oil in a large frying pan. When really hot, brown the cauliflower steaks on each side. Transfer to a gratin dish.
3 If using the onion, add some more oil to the frying pan, add the onion slices and cook gently until soft and golden. This will take 10 minutes or a bit longer, so if you can’t be bothered, leave this step out.
4 Mix the eggs, garlic, cooked onion, if using, and cheese together, and season with salt and pepper. Pour over the cauliflower and bake for 15–20 minutes until the eggs are set and golden. Scatter with the chopped herbs before serving with a fresh green salad.
Aniko’s tarragon pie (on the cover)
There are as many versions of this pie as there are women in Georgia, and this recipe from Aniko, the mother of my friend Nino, was a revelation to me. Aniko had kept it a secret her whole life – she wouldn’t have revealed it under torture! Nino misses her mum, who is now sadly gone, and was unsure about revealing her secret recipe to the people who may read this book. However, when we met at her childhood home to cook this pie, at midday we were starving and had some cheese, salad and bread along with a drop of wine. When I poured the second shot of wine (we couldn’t find bigger glasses), I clumsily overfilled Nino’s glass, spilling it all over the tablecloth and the snow-white cheese. Embarrassed, I apologised, but Nino’s face lit up as, in Georgia, this is a sign that the ancestors who used to live in the house are happy to receive their descendants and guests. It was a gorgeous omen, making us feel like, finally, mystically, we were allowed to share the recipe.
Serves 6–8 For the pastry
100g cold unsalted butter, diced, plus extra for greasing 350g plain flour, plus extra for dusting 100g kefir or natural yoghurt
½ tsp fine salt
Beaten egg yolk, to glaze
For the filling
4 big bunches of tarragon (about 150g), leaves picked and finely chopped
6 spring onions, finely chopped 3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled, chopped 1 tsp salt flakes, or to taste
1 For the pastry, rub the cold butter into the flour in a bowl until it resembles breadcrumbs.
2 Add the matsoni, kefir or yoghurt, eggs and salt, then mix together well. Knead the dough, adding more flour if the pastry is still too wet – you are looking for a soft, but not particularly damp, dough. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest and firm in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
This is an extract from Olia’s new book, Kaukasis: the culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & beyond (Octopus) out on August 10.