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Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

TOM JAINE: the publisher

In verbatim on June 13, 2012 at 9:09 am

Tom is one of those people you could just talk and talk and talk to. I met him at the Abergavenny Food Festival and we had a long chat about things while I leafed through some of the amazing books he sells. The one I remember most was a translation of recipes from the royal Lao court. He was utterly charming in the interview, which we did over the phone. This appeared in Fork magazine and the photo is Tom’s.

So, food and books – two of life’s greatest simple pleasures. What else is there?

Ha! Yes, quite… drinking can be quite good fun too! Sometimes growing the stuff is just as exciting as cooking it, you know. But then you have to pick it, which is terribly hard work, and then you have to store it, which is awfully difficult!

Has food always been your passion, or could it just as easily have been something else?

Oh no, it has always been food for me. I was brought up at The Hole in the Wall in Bath and haven’t left the industry since, other than to study history and work for a few years as an archivist. So the combination of food and history is perfect for me, thank you very much.

So how did you end up owning Prospect Books?

Alan Davidson founded it in 1979 when I was running The Carved Angel in Dartmouth with Joyce Molyneux. I met Alan through the Oxford Symposium on Food History. Then in 1993, I was looking for something new after writing The Good Food Guide, and Alan wanted to move on,
so I bought the business.

Has it changed much over the years?

Well, interestingly, turnover has been remarkably consistent from one year to the next. We have good and bad years, but it’s usually only plus or minus about five percent. The nature of the books has changed, however. In the 80s, there was a huge appetite for facsimiles of old cookery books, but with Google Books and the internet, the market has virtually disappeared. Now we focus on scholarly works and do lots of translations. There’s a growing market for it and it’s something I enjoy. It’s nice to take something that already exists and make it available again
to a public that no longer understands Greek or Middle French.

How do you see Prospect Books changing over the coming years?

I’m getting too old for this so I just want to carry on as we are! You could take it forward if you were intelligent, bright and energetic enough, but you’d need sophisticated marketing and to be very smart about the kind of books you publish. If you can manage to develop modern recipe books that don’t cost tens of thousands to print, then you’re onto a winner. It is do-able – I wrote a little book called Building a Wood-Fired Oven for
Bread & Pizza. It’s a simple little thing but it has been my best-seller for years! It did well initially in America where they have more space for such things, but now it’s doing well over here too. It’s incredible! If you tap into things people are passionate about, you don’t necessarily need to
compete with Quadrille’s vast photography budgets. I mean, there are hundreds of people out there who cook authentic medieval banquets just for the fun of it. It’s astonishing the things people do!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt over the years?

Oh, I’m hopeless, so I just say don’t over-extend yourself. One of my chief pleasures is to make a slight loss every year so I don’t have to pay thing to the Inland Revenue! Jilly Cooper’s husband was a small publisher of great skill, he said: “it’s very easy to print a book, but very hard to sell it.” I’ve learnt the truthof this the hard way. I’m hooked on the production, the type-setting and the editing, but selling is where the real skill lies. A good publisher would leave all that donkey work to printers and editors, but that’s precisely the bit that I love.

And how about Amazon?

I don’t understand Amazon… in fact, I don’t really understand the book trade. It seems to have lost its way for the small publisher. Back in ‘93, it would be 33% for everyone and you could just about make a living from it. Nowadays it’s more like 40% or 50% for most and Amazon takes 63%!  Things have to be priced so weirdly just to make any money at all! Just look at Jamie Oliver’s new book. £30! It’s really quite depressing… some people say they turn over more with Amazon but I just don’t know if I believe it. It’s the same as a food supplier having to sell produce at a loss in order to get in with the big supermarkets.

But, obviously you feel it’s important that small independent publishers like Prospect continue to exist?

It’s very important. For every red hot best-seller that captures the mind of the general public, there are a zillion scholarly books or articles out there that were the raw materials. They might not be as accessible, they might even be exceptionally boring, but they’re the building blocks.

What are you working on right now?

A bizarre Anglo-Norman poem by Walter of Bibbesworth, a 13th century Hertfordshire gentleman. He wrote it to instruct a lady friend’s children in the better use of French. This friend had married up the social ladder and the family needed to go from being monolingualEnglish-speakers, to consorting with all the French-speaking nobs. The poem describes day to day life with glosses of all the strange Anglo-Norman terminology in the margins in English. It tells us a lot about food production and service in the 1240s, which is something we don’t know much about at all.

And what work would you love to publish in the future?

I’ve always meant to write down my stepfather’s recipes from the Hole in the Wall, but I never seem to find the time to do it, and I was beaten to the Elizabeth David books by a competitor. Every lady fromthe 16th to the 18th century worked on a manuscript cookery book from before marriage right throughout her life. They do take a lot of work to make them singto the modern reader, but even so, I’m waiting for the right one to come along.

And for my last question, let’s leave books aside. Do you have a great foodmemory that really stands out?

Oh yes, and it was eating a pizza in the Camargue about 45 years ago, believe it or not. I don’t know why, but I’ll always remember it – we could smell the herbs that they were cooking with as we approached the place, and it was just so much more eloquent than anything else,before or since.

This interview is an extract from issue 20 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

www.forkmagazine.comwww.facebook.com/forkmagazinewww.twitter.com/forkmagazine

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PAUL KINGSNORTH: the activist

In articles, verbatim on June 8, 2012 at 10:05 am

My partner Chris was working on a theatre project up in Ulverston, Cumbria. I tagged along for the week because I had just gone freelance and I’d never been that far north before. Paul was one of the people that the theatre company spoke to to help develop their project. They had been inspired by his books and work on Dark Mountain. We met him in the pub, he was there with his dog and it was karaoke night. He came to the scratch of the performance too a couple of days later with his children. I wrote this piece for Fork magazine so it’s foodie again but I think Paul is top of my list to interview again. The image came from Paul.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote Real England: The Battle Against the Bland in 2009 examining the changing face of England in the context of growing globalisation. He was also instrumental in setting up The Dark Mountain Project, a global network of writers, thinkers, artists and craftspeople. I caught up with him about food, beer and the new normal.

How have things changed since Real England?

Most obviously, the economy fell apart. In retrospect, a lot of the problems I wrote about were caused by too much money in the wrong hands, like the building of huge shopping malls or pubs being closed down and turned into luxury housing. A lot of that has come to a standstill. Also, as a result of the potential breakup of the UK, there’s much more talk about what Englishness and locality mean. In some ways things are worse, but the model that allows all the destruction is visibly crumbling so new ways of doing things are emerging.

The tone of Dark Mountain is markedly more downbeat than Real England. Which side tends to win out? The optimist or the pessimist?

It depends what I talk about really! When we started out, Dark Mountain felt very controversial but all we were saying was ‘let’s stop debating about whether this is all actually happening or not, let’s be realistic’. Certainly, a lot of the things that felt extreme three years ago really don’t any more. There is an inevitable clash between the personal and the bigger picture, though, and I vary from day to day. You can be optimistic about the small scale, which is especially important if you have children, but then you look up to the horizon and you realise how big it all is. There’s this huge machine out there with nature going in one end and money coming out of the other. It’s impossible to believe it will change voluntarily however many organic eggs we buy. You need a balance though – wallowing in too much doom is bad for the soul.

What’s your opinion on the localism revolution?

There has been a huge revolution in terms of food, but we still live in an incredibly centralised country with no political leverage at local level. Buying and eating local is great, but until there’s power, it’s a cultural rather than a political revolution. I’d be very interested to see how widespread the changes are, how much they cut across the classes and how much of it’s surviving since the economy went bad. All sorts of people still buy chickens for a pound and I don’t think that’ll change until legislation does. It took legislation to stop people producing and buying battery eggs, didn’t it? Saving money and making money aren’t the only forces in society, but the race to the bottom is everywhere.

So do our personal efforts have any effect?

It depends on what you want to change. I recycle, I buy local, I do all of it, and it does make a difference. There’s more cruelty free food on the shelves, and I saw the effects of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight in my local market. It can only be a good thing when people opt out of the worse aspects of the system even if personal action can never change the whole system. I guess at the end of the day, at least you know you’re not part of the problem. It’s a glacial change, but glaciers do change things.

So what should the consumer do?

It’s complex. People talk about ‘ethical’ all the time but as a word, it’s really not very useful as it means so many different things. There will always be a dilemma. If I go to my local market, I don’t know where the vegetables come from but I’m supporting local business. If I go to the supermarket, there’s often more organic and even local produce available, but it’s still a supermarket.

Are supermarkets always bad?

A touchstone for me personally is how damaging enormous companies are. The rise of the supermarket is tied in to big societal changes like car ownership and longer working hours so they aren’t about to disappear. The important thing is to prevent any more being built but even that’s difficult as a small town with just one out of town supermarket isn’t seen as facilitating competition. You need at least two of them. We need to work out how local shops can work alongside supermarkets. We need to protect and strengthen what’s being trampled. Who knows how long supermarkets will survive. If oil were to be become more expensive, it would be a very inefficient way to provide food to the masses.

So how would we feed the UK’s 62 million people?

With proper farming and changes in diet, I’ve seen figures that show it’s easily possible for the UK to feed itself. A small scale farm is more efficient in terms of inputs and outputs than large scale monoculture. It’s the economies of scale, treaties, subsidies and the WTO that have favoured big business and persecuted small business. It’ll only change when the system takes a real knock, which may not be far off at this rate. People suddenly understand that the system we have is a managed process rather than a natural evolution.

At least the beer industry seems to be doing OK, doesn’t it?

Oh, I can be in a very good mood about beer. It’s like the craft was lying dormant – just give it a chance and up it comes. 40 years ago when I was born, they were lamenting the death of British ale but now it really has changed. It’s the tax break that Gordon Brown gave small beer producers that led to the explosion, so even though pubs are still closing, it’s a real source of optimism and makes me wonder what else could happen locally with a little state support. However depressing it gets, there’s always good beer!

Real England, the Battle against the Bland is published by Portobello Books.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

www.forkmagazine.comwww.facebook.com/forkmagazinewww.twitter.com/forkmagazine

ANTONIA GROVE: the dancer

In verbatim on June 7, 2012 at 1:23 pm

This was another one that originally appeared on the Mayfest blog and it was an email interview from Antonia’s iPhone. I saw her work during the festival and me and Antonia had a few drinks and a dance off in some gay club. I’m not sure how much the person she is comes across in this interview so I’d definitely like to interview her again, properly, over a glass of wine. The image is by Matthew Andrews.

When someone asks you what you do, what do you say?

It depends. I used to tailor my answer to the person asking but I always got in a pickle trying to explain that I combine dance, text, music and song in performance, I produce shows that are choreographed / written / directed by people I invite in, I perform for other companies, I choreograph, I teach …

Was it always going to be dance for you, or could it just as easily have been music … or woodwork?

I’m not really good at anything else as far as I know yet. I have a problem with academic study since I tend to fall asleep when I remain still for too long, it’s slightly frustrating but I’ve just always been physically activated. I’d love to play guitar or piano so I could write my own songs – and I’d love to be able to make a table!

You’ve described yourself as a ‘shy child’. Are you still shy? Is Antonia-Grove-the-dancer still shy?

Well, I just got that label as a child I guess. I’m not shy once you get to know me! My mum was similarly ‘shy’ so she tried to stop people labelling me as such, but it stuck anyway and it was a bit hard to shake off, especially as dancing didn’t require me to speak! Speaking up in a group of confident, eloquent people still terrifies me, and as an audience member I break into a sweat when asked to participate during a show. But get me on stage and I’m totally free, happy to do almost anything and relatively fearless. I feel very at home in that ‘zone’ and I love that I can be as much or as little of myself in performance; be as shy or as extrovert as is required for the show.

How autobiographical is your work?

Very, and not at all! I will and do find a bit of myself in every performing role. It’s impossible not to. This solo is great in that I can hide behind a persona one day, enjoy putting on someone else’s mask and totally immerse myself and connect personally with it and its narrative the next, and both are fine and allowed. I am able to be playful with the content and I decide for myself when it’s autobiographical or not, and of course life evolves as does a show once its in performance so that continually shifts. But it doesn’t really matter anyway, it’s what works and communicates best with the audience that matters.

In a world without dance, what would be lost?

In my yoga class on Saturday, the teacher said that dance started as a form of meditation before it became an art form; it sounds viable, so I’m gonna go all yogic with that and say that without dance we would lose the connection with ourselves completely on some primitive mind / body level. I’d say it’s impossible to imagine ‘world without dance’ since we start dancing soon after we can walk. Both my kids loved spinning themselves into a trance aged one, and stamping and jumping like cavemen at two. So if dance was prohibited in public it would be bursting out in private!

You’re heading for the Mayfest Café, what cake are you secretly praying is on offer?

Ok, hard question. I am not really a one answer decisive kinda gal so it’s either: A) A lemon/orange Italian style polenta yummy moist one OR B) A dense rich chocolate cake, made with ground almonds, yummmm! Other suggestions welcome.

When you first step on stage on an opening night, do you hold your breath till the lights come up?

It depends how long a blackout there is, I don’t have great lung capacity! If you mean ‘do I get nervous?’, then yes, I definitely do. But I would say that I’ve just got more accustomed to that feeling and not letting the adrenaline overwhelm me too much. Nerves can be useful sometimes but if I didn’t breathe I’d faint, which wouldn’t be good, although I could probably make it work in Small Talk since all the women are slightly crazy!

This interview was originally published on the Mayfest blog. Mayfest is Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary theatre, produced by MAYK in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic and in association with organisations across the city.

www.mayfestbristol.co.uk // www.facebook.com/mayfestbristol // www.twitter.com/mayfestbristol

PREMI BONOMALLY: a force of nature

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm

This is another Fork magazine article. I met Premi at her daughter’s house in Bristol – her daughter and I used to work together. The few hours I spent with Premi were great fun and we laughed a lot. For such an amazing woman, she was oddly camera shy and the pictures I got of her don’t really capture her.

Maybe you’ve heard of Mauritius from someone who spent their honeymoon there or from vague memories of the dodo at school. You might even be able to find the island somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 500 miles up and right of Madagascar. Personally, I don’t go much beyond a picture postcard white-sand beach, complete with palm tree.

I meet Premi Bonomally who tells me more about the food culture of this island that has passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch, the French and then the British on its road to independence. “I left 40 years ago,” Premi tells me, “all there was for an Indian girl in Mauritius in those days was marriage. My mother took me out of school at 12 to learn to sew from a wealthy Muslim neighbour, but I worked for her secretly as a maid to pay for school instead – until I was 15!” Premi wears the brightest yellow, “This morning, a fisherman at the market said to me ‘I can see that colour is your personality … my wife only wears grey!’” Her laughter is infectious.

During our afternoon together, I learn as much about Premi as I do about Mauritian food – and she never fails to surprise. She was the first Mauritian woman in the RAF, a champion of sega, the Mauritian national dance and qualified in complimentary therapies from Ayurvedic massage to Aromatherapy.

So interesting is her story that I have to remind myself constantly to keep my focus. Don’t forget about the food!

“Mum’s the best cook in the world,” her daughter Melissa declares, baby on hip, “her dahl is fantastic – way better than that watery Indian stuff.” Anyone who knows Indian food will find plenty that’s familiar – samosas stuffed with peas, potato and spices (Premi pronounces it samoosa), chutneys (chatini), roti, pickles.

Quite quickly, though, this familiar ground gives way to Creole cooking, a territory reflecting the island’s unique heritage, blending Indian, Chinese, European and African elements. Food and language follow similar patterns. “I’m Indian and Mauritian. I grew up speaking Bhojpuri, the Chinese speak Cantonese or Hakka, the elite speak French or English, but everyone speaks Creole,” Premi explains, “Indians celebrate with biryani that can take a day or more to prepare, the Chinese make fried rice, but everyone eats rougaille.”

She points to a splendid mound of fish smothered in ruddy sauce that takes pride of place in the centre of the table, “it’s African originally, like sega. You sizzle the onions, garlic, ginger and fresh thyme in oil, then add the tomatoes. Whenever you use tomatoes,” she tells me, “you must add some Demerara sugar to balance the acidity. We make rougaille with deep-fried lamb, beef or fish.” She seasons it with lots of hot green bird’s eye chillies, chopped green spring onion leaves, parsley and coriander. “At home we use snook but this is haddock. When you fillet a fish,” Premi says, “you throw away all the goodness in the spine and the bones. I get my fish straight from the market in Plymouth,” she leans in conspiratorially, “last week, I got loads of cod heads – for free! Now the freezer is packed full of them, and I’m going to use them to make samoosas.”

“This is achard legume,” Premi tells me as we try the tasty salad of shredded cabbage, beans and carrots with spices and mustard, “it’s another poor man’s food. It’s only the very rich and the very poor who eat traditional food in Mauritius now – the tourists and the labourers. It’s like Europe now – everyone wants KFC.”

When Premi first arrived in the UK, Mauritius and Europe were worlds apart. She learnt British manners and customs from the ladies in the geriatric ward where she trained as a nurse. “In those days,” she says, “it was rich and poor side by side on the wards. We played scrabble, I did their hair and nails and gave them face massages. ‘Don’t laugh at me,’ I’d say to them, ‘teach me’. They taught me how use a knife and a fork, to speak well and to make a spotted dick.”

Most of the basic ingredients in Mauritian cooking – onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and fresh herbs – are widely available in the UK. “You can’t get the same fish here though,” she says, “but you can use cod or mackerel instead of grey mullet as long as you cook it with the bones. There are some things you can only get in London or Paris, like brèd mouroum, but that’s OK too,” her face becomes serious, “cooking is like anything – like nursing or therapies… or sega. The basic ingredients aren’t enough – you have to have passion or it just won’t work.”

I leave with the impression of an island – and a cuisine – where the elements often remain distinct, separate according to their origins, but where there always seems to be a place, somewhere in the middle, that’s uniquely Mauritian.

This interview is an extract from issue 19 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

www.forkmagazine.comwww.facebook.com/forkmagazinewww.twitter.com/forkmagazine

JOHN MORAN: the genius

In verbatim on June 7, 2012 at 11:34 am

John Moran is really interesting. I met him while I was working on Mayfest Theatre Festival and this interview originally appeared on the Mayfest blog. This was an email interview – and John replied to me within about half an hour of my sending the questions over. I met him later and did a short video interview with him while he smoked a roll-up outside the Brewery Theatre rehearsal space. The photo is one of his promotional images. 

Imagine you are an audience member coming out of John Moran: the Con Artist, all aglow. How are you feeling about what you have just seen?

Well, being that this will be a new work (never performed before), I hope I feel that John did a decent job of remembering all his cues while on stage! But seriously, I strive these years to create works which are immediately intimate. I feel that the media has become so ever-present in our lives – yet from a place so afar – that theater now has a chance to rebel against such notions. So I strive to present work in a way which counters that.

People seem to love classifying your work as something-dash-something else. But what is your definition of what you do?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that…without dashes that is, myself. There are a lot of styles and artists I admire, but I’ve not encountered another artist whose work is like mine, honestly. I hear that statement so often over the years, I guess it must be reasonably true. To me, it goes back to my childhood when I dreamed of becoming an animator, in the classical sense of that idea – hundreds of thousands of drawings, synched to a soundtrack (which I learned that they recorded mostly in advance, and used the soundwaves at the edge of the film as a guide along the way). To be quite honest, my original efforts at creating a full soundtrack before anything else, came with that idea. And then, with my first completed opera (in 1987) the only way to see a visual for me, was to ask performers to move exactly to that, as if they had been animated. And … I found a style that way. I came to love providing the visuals for the soundtracks with physical movement on stage, and through that found a lot of ideas I’m still trying to explore.

Iggy Pop, Uma Thurman, Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg – big-hitters one and all. Was it the big names that had a big effect on your work or were the quieter ones more influential?

Phil was definitely a very big influence in my work, and in my life: his obvious use of repetition for starters, had a deep affect on me. But – particularly as time goes on – I find the idea of celebrity means very little to me. My work is my own, I feel, basically. But I think people’s attitudes have a big affect on the choices I’ve made over the years. Allen Ginsberg was a very dear friend, although his work itself (please don’t tell him via seance or something), never spoke to me as much. What I remember about Allen, was him shouting in the airport about how much he loved marijuana, or demanding to a producer in a long car ride that a massive projection of his anus be displayed at the finale of the theater work he had written the libretto for. The producer declined, but Allen’s fearlessness and honesty affects me to this day.  I won’t however, be projecting anything at Mayfest this particular year.

If you and your work could make the world a different place in just one way, what would you want that that to be?

The obvious answer, would be that everything that one does, has a musical and choreographed quality. Everything I do is based on that idea. But really, what would make me happy, is if seeing my life could inspire someone to believe in their own mythology, and to hopefully be a person freed from the ideas of greed, or self importance. These messages might not be as obvious, but this is an idea that guides me more as life goes on. The idea that an artist would be considered ‘important’, is not half as valuable as feeling a real connection with someone.

You’ve been touring internationally since 2007 … it must have taught you a lot about people, the world and yourself. Of all the things you’ve seen, all the people you’ve met and all the things you’ve learnt, what sticks out most in your mind?

To be honest, it’s made me feel that chasing fame is an unproductive (and often hypocritical) thing to do. When I lived in New York City for years, I became obsessed with the idea of ‘making a mark’ somehow. That I must be remembered somehow, for what I’d created. After seeing so many faces and places now over the last years, I feel a revulsion at the idea of self importance, or arrogance. There are audience members I remember every day, as cliche at it sounds, who were in some way wanting to tell me something about themselves after a performance. I also often think about a time, years ago now, when I was homeless for a time: how few of the ‘important’ people in New York were there for me. Several years after that time, I wrote to a long-time producer at Lincoln Center, in New York, and asked her – without anger or accusation, but out of curiosity – why they hadn’t been there for me, after such celebration of my work on their parts, in years earlier.  I asked several New York producers that question, actually.  And without fail, they each responded with utter indignation: how dare you even ask such a question. And with threats, frankly, that my career would certainly be over after having done so. It wasn’t true, first of all. And secondly, I lost ‘my’ respect for them: they were afraid to be human, and so what do they have to say about the arts?

The Blind Tiger is our festival speakeasy with an open mic every night. If we were to provide the ukulele player, what song would you sing for us?

How about Hello Darling, by Conway Twitty : )

Obviously, we think Bristol is the greatest place on earth, but where really does it for you?

Bristol is a very nice city, it is a truth!  For me, Bangkok and Amsterdam are my personal favorites, for writing, people watching, etc.  Somehow, I just feel at peace in those two cities.

Last but not least, you are standing waiting to come onstage for your first Mayfest 2012 performance. How are you feeling?

(scared as hell)

This interview was originally published on the Mayfest blog.  Mayfest is Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary theatre, produced by MAYK in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic and in association with organisations across the city.

www.mayfestbristol.co.uk // www.facebook.com/mayfestbristol // www.twitter.com/mayfestbristol 

NINA BENDUKIDZE & DZEMAL GUGUNAVA: the Georgian and her husband

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

I met Nina Bendukidze and her husband, Dzemal Gugunava through the leader of the Georgian choir I used to sing in. This is another interview that first appeared in Fork magazine as the first in a series called Off the Beaten Track under the name Walnuts, Wine & Song. There is a strong food slant to this one. In a way, I wish I could have asked Nina and Dzemal, especially, about so much more than I did. They were both remarkably generous and welcoming to me in their little house on the outskirts of Bristol. Perhaps I could go back.

I spend the day with Nina who is from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and lives in Bristol. Tbilisi is twinned with Bristol – a connection that Nina takes seriously. The Bristol Tbilisi Association brings Georgian culture to the good people of the West Country. We cook and eat spiced kidney-bean pastries (lobiani), garlic and walnut purée with spinach or beetroot (pxali) and two kinds of xach’ap’uri, Georgia’s national dish. This cheese pie is so intrinsic to the national diet that inflation in Georgia is calculated against its cost – the so-called xach’ap’uri index. Each region has its own version, just as it has its own language or dialect and traditional harmonies. We make a plain version from Imereti and an all-singing-and-dancing one from Ajaria on the Black Sea coast.

Nina and her artist husband, Dzemal, communicate in a mixture of Russian and Georgian, while me and Dzemal get by with sign language and smiling. Whatever the language, eyes sparkle whenever Georgia is mentioned. In her little red car on the way to buy ingredients, Nina tells me about the market near her home in Tbilisi; “We used to buy everything by smell,” she holds an imaginary tomato up to her nose and breathes in its scent, “but now, there’s a modern supermarket there instead.” Though the Georgian grapevine in the UK informs on where to buy the tastiest beets or the best walnuts, Georgian food is all about great fresh produce and so there are obvious compromises to be made here in the UK. Xach’ap’uri should be made with suluguni cheese but Nina makes hers with a mixture including Cheshire, mozzarella and Stilton. “Does it taste the same?” I ask her. “No,” she replies, “but it’s close.”

Cornmeal, tomatoes, aubergines, herbs, spices and walnuts – those are the main ingredients in Georgian food,” she says, back in her kitchen, sealing the cheese mixture inside neat little pastry parcels. I get the impression that she really means fine golden cornmeal ripened under Georgian skies, ruby-red, fist-sized tomatoes grown in Georgian soil, walnuts from a tree that’s served generations of the same family. “There’s a saying in Georgia,” she says, putting the first tray of xach’ap’uri into the oven, “every man should raise a son, build a house and plant a walnut tree.” Walnuts feature heavily in Georgian cooking – me and Dzemal mince walnuts for pxali in an old metal meat mincer which evidently does a better job than any modern electrical contraption.

“In Georgia,” Nina smiles and tests the pxali, adding another glug of vinegar, “we always cook for at least twenty … neighbours, friends, family … you invite everyone. And everyone helps out too. When we went back home to visit, we didn’t have to buy food or cook for the whole two weeks! The neighbours had let themselves in and loaded the fridge and kitchen table with more food than we could ever eat!” Next are the lobiani. “These just have to be round,” Nina says, “I made them square once, but they didn’t taste the same.” Vast quantities of xmeli suneli, Georgian mixed spice, go into the kidney bean filling. Nina shows me the different spices she uses – complex orange and mustard-yellow blends sent over from Georgia in hand-labelled jars.

Finally, we make the Ajarian cheese pastries (ajaruli xach’ap’uri)boat-shaped open-topped pastries with an egg cracked inside then returned to the oven. As she pleats the pastry she counts to 23, “There should always be 23 pleats – the same with xinkali,” Nina tells me, “Georgian dumplings.” But neither she nor Dzemal know why 23 is significant. They both shrug and laugh.

Before eating, in true Georgian style over good Georgian red, Nina proposes a toast. It’s no quick ‘cheers’ but rather a heartfelt speech that quite simply delights me. The food is magnificent – even though both Nina and Dzemal assure me that in Georgia it’s so much better. The undoubted highlight, even better than the powerfully earthy pxali, are the ajaruli xach’ap’uri. Dzemal shows me how to eat them by breaking off the prow and stern of the pastry boat and dipping them into the molten cheese and egg filling.

“In Batumi (seaside capital of Ajaria), they eat these for breakfast with Turkish-style coffee in copper pots heated, over hot sand. It’s so beautiful there,” Nina says with far-off eyes, “it’s paradise, you know?”

“Chto ‘paradise’?” Dzemal asks.

Rai,” she translates and Dzemal nods in sober agreement.

After dinner, as we drink coffee and listen to Georgian polyphonic music in Dzemal’s studio I realise that Georgian food means so much more than the total of its ingredients. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat it and with whom. It means family, tradition, ritual and identity all rolled into one and a vital social glue. Above all, it means home.

This interview is an extract from issue 18 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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