The cookbook world can be a hectic one. It seems that every week there’s a New! Shiny! thing exploding on to our shelves and Kindles, each chef or cook with something to say about their own food, stuffed chock full of ridiculously pretty photos and sparkles.
Many of these books also make the food seem almost far away from the average home cook. Yes, I love reading them, but there’s only a few that reach out and put an image into my head of me cooking the dishes. Once you can envisage yourself making or eating something, often that’s half the battle. You get your brain tamed first, then after that things fall into place. (It’s how I learned to like peppers. I just convinced my brain to think about eating and enjoying them. It doesn’t always work. Sorry oysters. NO.)
Olia Hercules, small beloved powerhouse that she is, has written two gorgeous books to take us deep into the cuisine of her countries. Yes, countries. Mamushka is a cookbook that celebrates her family recipes, from Ukraine and Moldova to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Kaukasis, her latest and, I’m willing to bet cold hard money, not her last, is a culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond. A cuisine that very little has been known about, and certainly one that has had huge misconceptions thrown at it.
Olia walks us through it all, telling us in an eager and affectionate voice about the history, the flavours and the people.
I admit, I had only heard of the books when I went to the monthly Thane Prince’s CookBook Club at the Draper’s Arms in Islington. I do suffer from cookbook mania, so I try not to buy too many.
Then I met Olia. She’s frank, brutally honest – especially under Thane’s expert and probing questioning – and she is also very funny indeed. The sheet joy for life and for food shines like a beacon from her dark eyes. Sat in her gardening clothes, as she hadn’t had time to change from saving her allotment from the Council, you can see mirrored there generations of strong women, working the land, making homes, holding families together. She made a deep impression on me. Her way of speaking, her honesty, just made me want to be her friend and sit listening at her table as she talked. I’m fairly certain that we could pass an entire day talking and comparing ideas about food and family with ease. When we weren’t spilling wine over things.
Here we are. I think this is the bit where Thane said she was going to ask Olia about her sexual health later.
The recipes in these books are accessible. Nothing fancy is needed. The photos are honest, real, never beyond the normal home kitchen.
See? I’m sure my Aunt had those tablecloths.
I admit, when I made the aubergine and tomato dish, there was some confusion about just how big a ‘large’ aubergine was, and how big the garlic cloves should have been, but it all worked out in the end. It was also so very delicious that I made it again two nights later. Vampires really need not apply here, because you will be repelled instantly.
I have used clarified butter in the past for Indian dishes, and have always liked its buttery smoothness so was delighted to use it again here. I made my own, and for this dish it worked amazingly well. This is not a dish to eat cold, because the butter solidifies again, but it’s to eat warm, with bread to mop every last bit of nightshade red and allium juices. You don’t want to leave anything behind. It’s one to eat and talk over, everyone dipping in the torn off bread pieces.
This is Fruit, Mint Adjika and Dairy. A sweet fruit, tangy cheese, spicy and a fresh mint paste.
There were so many more dishes that people brought, so much to try, smells and tastes that were unfamiliar but that proved delicious.
All in all a delightful evening, and a convivial, sharing one too.
My dear Olia, I think I would love to invite you round for dinner.