There's lots to be said for the Caucasus region - stunning mountain scenery, incredible culture but most importantly, fantastic food! We sat down with Olia Hercules, food-writer and chef, who has gathered some of her favourite recipes from an epic journey through the countries within its borders.
Could you tell us a little bit about your new book, Kaukasis? What made you want to highlight one of the world's lesser-known cuisines?
I have always been fascinated by it, since we travelled through the Caucasus to see my Armenian-Ukrainian family in Baku in 1986. It is such a fascinating area, sandwiched between Turkey and Iran - both considered to be home to some of the best cuisines in the world, they both influenced the food of neighbouring Caucasus. These influences, coupled with idiosyncratic regional flavours and cooking techniques, make the dishes of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and other smaller areas of the region some of the most unique and delicious in the world.
Prior to writing the book you travelled across the region on a research trip, what were the highlights of your journey? Any unforgettable experiences along the way?
There are too many. Travelling throughout is such a beautiful and intense experience. Everything, from the landscapes to the people to the flavours, is overwhelmingly beautiful. I always feel like I have to go home and stare at a blank wall for a while, feeling overstimulated.
One of the most memorable moments was waking up in the mountains of Svaneti, having a mug of home-made yoghurt for breakfast with a local salt flavoured with garlic and wild herbs, going outside and feeling my jaw drop. I was surrounded by stunning views - mount Mount Ushba, wild mineral springs, a 14th century chapel, and the natural world waking up around me. All of this from my host's guest house. But if you don't make it there, just walking through the streets of Tbilisi (Georgia's capital) is an experience in itself - it is a stunning city with an incredible food scene.
Kaukasis is full of countless intriguing and colourful recipes, which ones are your favourites?
I think the beetroot marinated in spicy, garlicky plum sauce is one of the simplest but most delicious I have ever tried. I have had so many beetroot-haters convert into beetroot-lovers because of this dish.
Another is khinkali - Georgian dumplings filled with chilli-spiced beef and pork. And the saffron pilau from Azerbaijan called shakh plov - it it a properly regal dish, but very easy to make - a real dinner party show-stopper.
Do you think that UK chefs and consumers could learn a lot from the 'zero waste' philosophy of the Caucasus?
I think we already are heading that way, and it used to be like this here too, we have just forgotten; got too comfortable. But it is definitely very inspiring to go there and see why it is done - it is not just a fad or fashion. It is and should be a necessity for us too. It should be a natural way of life.
What would be your recommendations for someone travelling in the Caucasus region? Any Georgian foodie highlights they really shouldn't miss?
If you are in Tbilisi, eat and drink at Vino Underground, Azarpesha, Barbarestan. Do not miss out on a trip to the Deserter's Market in Tbilisi (and seek out the basement where they sell mountains of fermented vegetables). If you travel elsewhere in Georgia, stay at people's guest houses and try home-cooked food - it is out of this world.
If you rent a car and drive down the Military Road from Tbilisi - westwards look out for mushroom sellers. They forage and then go to the edge of the forest by the main road and sell them - they're the most incredible mushrooms I have ever tried. Finally, if you go to Azerbaijan - I recommend you make it to Lenkaran, by the Iranian border - it was an amazing experience.
And, we've got to ask, what would be your dream travel destinations around the world?
I am dying to go to Moldova (west border of Ukraine) - it is a hidden gem of Eastern Europe. I would also love to discover the Baltic and Central Asia. I still have not been to Japan, but I am waiting for my son to grow up a little so we can go together. And I would love to take a trip from San Fransisco to Alaska one day - that would be just beyond ace.
Make it happen
If you have been inspired by Olia's words to travel to the Caucasus, speak to our local experts in Georgia and Armenia, who will be happy to help you plan your perfect tailor-made trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.
Kaukasis: A culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & beyond by Olia Hercules is published by Mitchell Beazley, £25
Publication date: August 10, 2017.