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

The Guardian - Cook - - Book Extract - Olia Her­cules Olia Her­cules is a chef, food writer and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Cook; @oli­a­her­cules

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

2 eggs

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.

▲ Kauka­sis This is an ex­tract from Olia’s new book, Kauka­sis: the culi­nary jour­ney through Ge­or­gia, Azer­bai­jan & be­yond (Oc­to­pus) out on Au­gust 10.

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