Kaukasis by Olia Hercules. A book review

As soon as I opened Olia Hercules’ new book, Kaukasis, I was transported into a unique world of evocative memories, intoxicating flavours and insightful reflections. I almost hesitate calling Kaukasis a cookbook as it is so much more than that. It is a glimpse into a beautiful culture of the Caucasus, it is a travelogue documenting Olia’s personal journey and a portrait of so many wonderful people she encountered over the years of traversing Georgia and Azerbaijan. Yet above all it is a window into Olia’s own universe that encompasses her passion for food and wine, her love of people and her intelligent interweaving of personal stories and wider (political) histories. 

Her writing is thoughtful and elegant but also very quirky and humorous. Without knowing anything about the author, the reader can clearly sense an intelligent, warm and convivial person behind the text. Her stories to each recipe are little essays in their own right and I have enjoyed reading them as much as musing over the flavours and textures Olia so vividly describes. Coming to the end of the book with a feeling that I could go on reading more, I was delighted to find an additional section at the back featuring Olia’s essays about wine culture in Georgia, about her journey across the region as a child as well as the story behind the book’s title. This beautiful section, printed on black and white recycled paper, elevates the book even further from the ordinary recipe book, attesting to Olia’s special talent as a writer. 

Of course, Kaukasis would not have been the unique creature that it is, were Olia’s gift as a chef less impressive than that as a writer. She brilliantly summarises the essence of her approach to collecting and creating recipes in the introduction, drawing a poetic parallel to the stunning imagery on the cover of the book: it is a vibrant mosaic of seemingly random parts which come together to create distinct shapes and forms recognisable to all. And this is indeed true. Olia demonstrates profound knowledge of Caucasian food culture (a result of years of research and travels) and manages to inject her unique vision into classic recipes, creating perfectly balanced dishes that are at once contemporary and accessible, as well as unique and imbued with a sense of tradition. Olia guides her reader through various ingredients and explains how these could be replaced and adapted, which to me was a particularly attractive feature. It demonstrates Olia’s healthy approach to cooking – take your ingredients seriously but also give yourself creative license to experiment and explore. 

The range of recipes presented in Kaukasis makes this book ideal for home cooks and professionals alike. There is a great scope in terms of complexity and the skills level required to execute the dishes – from assembling a deliciously simple salad to delightfully time consuming and intricate dough work. But what’s most important to me, these recipes and Olia’s approach to food made me want to rush into my kitchen and start cooking. No matter what, no matter which ingredients, but just to cook so as to reproduce that intoxicating creative energy that Kaukasis so powerful emits. This is a beautiful feature that Olia carries over from her debut book, Mamushka, which inspired so many wonderful cooking and eating sessions in my kitchen. 

As well as epistolary and culinary creation, Kaukasis is also an aesthetic experience. A whole new review can be written just on the photography by Elena Heatherwick, while the lay out and the font exist in perfect harmony and complement the stunning imagery. In this day and age of very specific trends in food styling and photography, Olia’s and Elena’s work pleasantly surprises with its refreshing and original feel. The fact that all photographs were shot on film adds that beautiful nostalgic quality which in turn echoes Olia’s writing and enhances the overall slightly elegiac energy of the book. Authentic simple objects and settings add an important documentary feature while Olia’s elegant food styling and Elena’s unique colour scheme and lighting leave no doubt that these photographs are a work of art. I love the fact that many images in the book are not of the food and so paint a complete portrait of Olia’s world and vision of the Caucasus, and this is exactly what this book is about. Stunning portraits of the author, breathtaking landscapes and quirky fly on the wall observations of the daily rituals of the local folk – I know I will flip through this book time and time again to admire these alone. 

Coming back to Olia’s insightful remark about the cover of the book, I feel that it’s not only her approach to cooking but the entire essence of the book that can be compared to the intricate mosaic: so many elements come into play, they are a unique creation in their own right that can be admired and analysed separately, but then they come together to form a stunning portrait, a larger picture of a beautiful world. And just like the mosaic itself the longer you look at it the more of the new elements come to the fore, surprising you and promising an endless journey of discovery.