For Olia Hercules, food is more than just a passion, it is a way of life. Now, her new cookbook, Kaukasis The Cookbook: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond is bringing this unique cuisine and its heritage to an international audience. Tima Ouzden visits Olia in her London
Olia Hercules flutters around a kitchen fitted out with silver cabinets and the sort of counters found in 1960s airplanes. We are on the second floor of a house she shares with her fiancée Joe Woodhouse, a food and travel photographer, and her son Sasha. I am told that this three-storey East London building used to house a sausage factory.
Hercules pinches some leaves from a purple basil plant on the windowpane and checks on a resting blob of dough on a wooden cutting board before tucking a massive rib of beef into the oven. She had cycled to the butcher’s to pick it up with Sasha ahead of tonight’s dinner.
A vintage glass carafe filled with water, basil and tiny delicate flowers appears on the kitchen table before me and a bottle of ‘I am Didimi from Dimi and this is my Tsolikouri’ (an organic if somewhat wordy rosé from Georgia) patiently sweats in an ice bucket on the counter.
I met Olia Hercules for the first (and last) time before this dinner exactly a decade ago when she was still working as a film industry reporter. A year after that, following the global financial crisis, she quit her job and decided to pursue her lifelong dream of cooking for a living.
Hercules trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine, did the restaurant circuit working as chef de partie (or station chef – where a cook is in charge of a particular area or zone of a large kitchen), and worked as a recipe developer at Recipe Kit before landing a book deal for Mamushka.
Mamushka, a cookbook of family recipes from Ukraine and Moldova as well as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, could very well be a self-portrait of Hercules herself: a fiercely proud Ukrainian, a wonderful storyteller and someone who, like me, had a somewhat fragmented upbringing before the collapse of the USSR and subsequent immigration elsewhere in the world. For Hercules, these new homes would be Cyprus and then London, where she attended the University of Warwick.
Hercules was named one of The Observer’s Rising Star of 2015 and Mamushka won the prestigious Fortnum and Mason Award for best debut cookbook in 2016, selling 100,000 copies worldwide since its publication.
While the connection between Mamushka and its author is an obvious one, I was in equal parts surprised, intrigued and elated by the subject of Hercules’ second book – The Caucasus, my home.
Titled Kaukasis The Cookbook: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan & Beyond, the book took Hercules and her brother Sasha on a month-long research trip and a 17-day photo trip with the photographer Elena Heatherwick.
The Georgia leg of the trip included Tbilisi, Akhaltzikhe, Imereti, Somegrelo, Svaneti and Kakhetia, while in Azerbaijan the siblings spent time in Baku, Qebele and Lenkaran. Hercules recounts her most memorable meals: Matsoni (a yogurt drink and local salt for breakfast in Svaneti and fish, watermelon and bread in Lenkaran. The simplicity of these meals doesn’t surprise me: Hercules is someone who is able to extract and communicate the essence of a recipe or a story or emotion with a single image, gesture or dash of unexpected seasoning. I sense that a big part of her success is unpacking something that seems unknown, daunting or complicated and making it accessible and exciting.
While I help myself to a generous serving of fermented beet kraut salad (beetroot, cabbage, ginger, turmeric and coriander seeds) and Ossetian pie, variations of which are found across the North Caucasus, Olia reveals her Caucasus connection: her aunt is half-Ukrainian and while the family hailed from Nagorno-Karabakh, she grew up in Baku. The stories of her Karbakh childhood became forever imprinted in Hercules’ mind and inspired her to undertake this Caucasian Odyssey.
On home turf, she is embarking on two exciting journeys, personally and professionally. Hercules recently signed on with Bloomsbury to publish two more books, due for release in 2020 and 2022. The first book is Summer Kitchens – Cooking from the Borders of Ukraine. She is also busy planning her wedding in summer of 2018 in Georgia, bringing her back to her Caucasus roots yet again.
Images courtesy of Olia Hercules