KAUKASIS by Olia Hercules




For some time now I’ve become more and more intrigued by the food of the Caucasus  – Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia…..

I haven’t managed to get there yet, but it’s high on my list of places to visit just as soon as I can. My interest has been sparked by Olia Hercules, a beautiful, enchanting young cook who was born in Ukraine and came to London via Cyprus. She writes evocatively about the food of her homeland and the surrounding countries, rich beautiful peasant food, the sort of food I love to eat.

In this part of the world, where the home cooks have learned the skills from their parents, grandparents and great grandparents, they value every morsel of food and know how to use every scrap of seasonal produce deliciously. Foraging, pickling, fermenting and preserving is an innate part of their food culture. I long to taste some of the dishes Olia described so evocatively in her books – the result of many research trips to the Caucuses where she visited peoples’ farms and went into their kitchens to learn from traditional  home cooks. No fluffs or foams or skid marks going on here but beautiful real food, sometimes utterly traditional and other recipes where Olia has created a delicious twist on the original.  I met her recently at the Oxford Food Symposium where she cooked a delicious dinner Wild East Feast.

I’ve invited her to do a guest chef appearance here at The Ballymaloe Cookery School. I’ll keep you posted as soon as we finalise the date. I’m also hoping that she will do a Pop-Up dinner at Ballymaloe House in the Autumn and perhaps an East Cork Slow Food Event – all to be confirmed – you can see I’m smitten by this young cook whom the Observer Food Magazine named Rising Star of the Year in 2015 when her first cookbook Mamushka was published. Several of the recipes that follow come from her second book Kaukasis published by Octopus Books. I’ve especially picked delicious Summery recipes to use the bounty of fruit and vegetables that nature is providing for us at present.


Olia Hercules’s Tomato and Raspberry Salad

This salad came about when Ének, a first-generation Hungarian who had settled in Georgia, picked out some extremely good tomatoes at a market in Tbilisi. Inspired by Hungarian-rooted chefs from Bar Tarrine in San Francisco who do a version of this salad with sour cherries, she made one with raspberries, toasty unrefined sunflower oil and some green coriander seeds and flower heads. I know tomatoes and raspberries sound like a combination that should just be left alone, but it actually really works if you use excellent tomatoes, although not with hard, flavourless supermarket tomatoes. The tomatoes need to be ripe, sweet, flavoursome and juicy fruit so that they almost equal the raspberries in texture and juiciness. Strong, savoury, soft herbs also go very well here. Try marjoram or oregano mixed with mint or coriander leaves, dill or tarragon —you are going for intensity here. And make sure you season it really well with good flaky sea salt.


Serves 4 as a side

4 large super-ripe tomatoes

10 firm yellow, green and red cherry tomatoes

8 raspberries

5 black olives, pitted and torn

3 tablespoons unrefined sunflower oil

a few coriander flower heads or 3 sprigs of marjoram, leaves picked

1 sprig of mint, leaves picked and large ones torn

4 sprigs of dill, chopped

1/4 mild onion, thinly sliced

sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper



Cut the tomatoes into sections. Your tomatoes should be so ripe that you will end up with loads of juice on your chopping board. Don’t throw it away but add it to a bowl to use as part of the dressing.


Pop the tomatoes on to a serving plate and scatter over the raspberries and olives.


Whisk the unrefined sunflower oil into the reserved tomato juices and pour over the salad Season generously with some salt and pepper, and sprinkle over the herbs and onion. The juices remaining at the bottom of the salad are made for bread-mopping.


Tip:  If you can’t find the correct sunflower oil, try another nutty oil. Mix a little sesame oil with some avocado or rapeseed oil, or try walnut oil if you can find the good stuff.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books



Olia Hercules’s Savoury Peach & Tarragon Salad

We are used to tarragon in creamy sauces in the West but mainly just with chicken, and it remains such an under-used herb, often declared as too strong and dominant. But Georgians love it and it finds its way into many, many dishes. We made this in Tbilisi in June, inspired by the gorgeous local produce. A savoury salad made only with fruit may seem unusual, but it works. Sour gooseberries or grapes combined with sweet peaches (or nectarines) along with savoury tarragon and salt makes a dream accompaniment to some grilled pork or iamb chops, or roasted meaty summer squashes.



Serves 2 as a side


2 peaches, stoned and sliced

50g (1¾ oz) gooseberries or grapes (or 4 tart plums, stoned and sliced)

1/2  small bunch of tarragon, leaves picked (or a few fennel fronds)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 small red chilli, deseeded and diced

1/2, teaspoon caster sugar or honey

1 small garlic clove, grated

sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper


Arrange the peaches and gooseberries or grapes on a plate. Mix the tarragon leaves with the lemon juice, fresh chilli, sugar or honey, garlic, some salt and a generous pinch of pepper then pour the dressing over the fruit and serve.


Variation: Mix a handful of pumpkin seeds with ½ tablespoon of maple syrup, a pinch of chilli flakes and some salt, spread them out on to a lined baking sheet and roast in the oven at 180°C (350°F), Gas Mark 4 for 5 minutes. Remove from

The oven, leave to cool, then use as a savoury topping.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books



Olia Hercules’s Courgettes & Garlic Matsorii

This dish is simplicity itself. It used to be made with mayonnaise throughout the ex-Soviet Union, but thank goodness that’s all over and we can now use traditional premium dairy. As with all simple recipes, this is particularly tasty if you can source great home-grown or good-quality courgettes and make your own matsoni. If your courgettes are not the greatest, try using a mixture of all the soft herbs you like best to give them a bit of a lift. But if you have amazing vegetables and your own homemade yogurt, use just a little dill and let them sing their sweet, gentle song. And I love borage for its subtle cucumber flavour overtones.


Serves 4 as a side

2 large courgettes

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

100 (3½ oz) Homemade Matsoni or good-quality natural yogurt

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon of your favourite mixture of soft herbs, roughly chopped

sea salt flakes


Slice the courgettes lengthways into 5mm (14 inch) strips.

Hear the oil in a large frying pan and fry the courgette slices on each side until deep golden. Remove and drain them on kitchen paper.

Mix the matsoni or yogurt with the garlic and add some salt, then taste – it should be really well seasoned, so add more salt if necessary. Drizzle the mixture over the courgettes and sprinkle over the herbs.


Try lightly coating the courgettes in flour before frying – it will give them a bit more body. Buckwheat flour adds a nice nuttiness to the flavour.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books





Olia Hercules’s Herb Kükü OPTIONAL     

“I tried an Azerbaijani herby omelette called kükü I announced excitedly. “That dish was originally Iranian!” was Sabrina Ghayour’s response – there is no escaping her intensely Persian focus. While I agree with her that this dish definitely has Persian roots, it is also treasured in neighbouring Azerbaijan. I really love the name (it sounds so playful), love how herby it is (it’s mostly herbs held together by a little egg) and love the sprinkling of sumac on top. You can fry it in oil if you wish, but I do love soft herbs cooked in butter – there is so much satisfaction to be had from a combination of fresh, fragrant flavour, creamy dairy and eggs. Play around with the combination of soft herbs; there are endless variants to enjoy – I often use watercress, spring onion, sorrel, spinach or wild garlic. Serve with flatbreads, a simple tomato salad and some natural yogurt with chopped cucumber, chilli, salt and a tiny bit of garlic.


Serves 4

150g mixture of soft herbs, such as coriander, dill, purple or green basil, tarragon and chives

4 eggs

1 garlic clove, finely grated

3 spring onions, finely chopped

20g (3/4oz) Clarified Butter or ordinary butter and a drop of vegetable oil

½ teaspoon ground sumac

sea salt flakes

23cm (9 inch) diameter frying pan


Remove any tough stalks from your mixture of herbs, then finely chop the softer stalks together with the leaves.

Whisk the eggs with some salt and the garlic, then stir in all the chopped herbs and spring onions.

Heat the Clarified Butter in a 23cm (9 inch) diameter frying pan and add the herby eggs. Cook, without touching it, over a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes until the eggs are just set and the underside develops a golden crust.

Now comes the tricky bit. To flip the kükü, cover the pan with a big plate, turn it upside-down plate, then slide the kükü back into the pan. Continue cooking for 1 minute until other side is golden then remove from the heat and slide it on to a serving plate. Sprinkle the sumac on the top and serve.


VARIATION You can also add a handful of lightly toasted and crushed walnuts to the kuku. For a winter version of the dish, use thinly sliced Swiss chard or beetroot tops or sweet white cabbage instead of the herbs.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books



Olia Hercules’s Tarragon & Cucumber Lemonade

Instead of cola and fizzy orange drinks, us ex-Soviet children grew up drinking a fizzy fluorescent green pop called “tarkhun”, meaning “tarragon”. It was poisonous-green, very sweet yet somehow delicious. Tarragon is extremely popular in Georgia – they do not shy away from its strong flavour. I do love the addition of cucumbers like they do in the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Signagi, a town in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia,  which makes this summer drink even fresher.

Makes about 3 litres (51/4 pints)

500ml (18fl oz) water

200g (7oz) caster sugar

finely grated zest and juice of 4 (preferably Sicilian) lemons

2 bunches of tarragon

2 cucumbers, sliced

2 litres (31/2 pints) cold sparkling mineral water


Put the still water into a saucepan with the sugar and heat over a low heat, stirring often, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Leave to cool completely, then stir in the lemon zest and juice.

Blitz the tarragon (reserving a few sprigs) and half the cucumber in a blender or food processor (easier and less splashy than using a pestle and mortar, although you can do it that way). Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.

Mix the lemony cordial with the tarragon and cucumber juice and dilute it as you would with any cordial – topped up with sparkling or still water. This is not too bad with a dash of gin, too.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books



Olia Hercules’s Buckwheat Ice Cream

1 really, really wanted to use Marina’s pine cones in a dessert of my own, as they are just so unusual, a chef’s dream. But because they are so tannic and taste so strongly of pine, only a tiny bit could be used. I also really wanted to make buckwheat ice cream, as when we were children, mum used to boil buckwheat in salted water and then dress it with melted butter and sugar. That flavour was haunting me, just like I imagine the cereal milk would for those who grew up eating sweet cereal. My friend Alissa and I threw a Kino Vino supper club during Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky Week in London, showing his 1975 film called Mirror, followed by a feast inspired by the movie. One of the last scenes depicted a buckwheat field bordering a malachite-hued pine forest. Bingo. The two came together. So this is my poetic nostalgic dessert, although don’t worry about trying to find pine cones, as I’ve suggested using fresh bay leaves instead here to add savouriness.


Serves 6-8

100g (3 ½ oz) raw buckwheat groats (or use ready-toasted)

10 fresh bay leaves, crushed

250m1 (9fl oz) milk

250g (9oz) double cream

generous pinch of salt

150g (5½ oz) caster sugar (optional)

4 egg yolks

100-150g (3½ -5½ oz) granulated sugar poached rhubarb, to serve

You will also need (ideally) an ice-cream machine and a large piece of muslin



If using raw buckwheat, heat a large, frying pan over a medium heat, toss in the buckwheat and toast, wiggling the pan about from time to time, until it becomes golden but not burnt. Taste it and check that it is crunchy and edible – it’s very important that you get this right. Leave the buckwheat to cool.


Wrap the crushed bay leaves and buckwheat in the muslin and tie securely. Add it to the milk and cream in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the salt and taste the mixture – you should be able to detect the salt ever so slightly. If you intend to serve the ice cream with something tart, add 150g (5½ oz) caster sugar.

When the milk mixture is almost boiling, turn the heat off and leave to infuse for an hour.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a large heatproof bowl.

Remove the muslin and squeeze out all the flavour, then discard. Bring the milk mixture back up to almost boiling. Pour it on to the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly, then pour back into the pan and cook over a low heat, stirring, for about 5 this mixture minutes or until slightly thickened.

Cover the surface of the custard with clingfilm to prevent a skin from forming and leave the custard to cool.

Churn the ice cream in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturers instructions, then serve with some simple poached rhubarb.

Tip If you don’t have an ice-cream machine, create a semifreddo with the custard. Make the custard as instructed above and leave to cool, then fold  through  egg whites, whisked until firm peaks form. Freeze for 2 hours and serve slightly soft.

From Kaukasis, the Cookbook by Olia Hercules published by Octopus Books





About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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