Monday, 26 September 2011

Something good from the Soviet Union

Can you name five things that the Soviet Union is famous for? Here's what I'm guessing would appear on many lists:
  1. Brutal repression
  2. Cabbage
  3. Stalin
  4. The Hunt for Red October
  5. Winners of the space race
Ok, so number five will probably be argued by my American readership at least, but given that the race was to get the first man in to space and the Soviets did that, it's a point I like to make whenever I get the chance. Most people know a great deal about the Soviet Union and the list above could be very different depending on your political, historical and geographical perspective, so let me ask another, harder, question: can you name five things that Georgia is famous for?

Firstly, let's be clear that we're talking about the Georgia that has Tblisi as its capital, not Atlanta. Some of you clever types might cite the fact that Stalin was a Georgian, and that there was a Rose Revolution there a few years ago. Current affairs buffs may note that it was the venue of an attempt on Dubya's life in 2005, and that they had a widely reported and badly advised war with Russia in 2008.

How many of you would mention the country's fabulous cuisine? Not too many I'll wager, but as those of you who have had the pleasure of spending time in Russia, the Georgian restaurants which proliferate there are one of the few gastronomic treats available. It's a wonderful tradition of hearty food, full of fresh herbs and spices, utlitising chicken, lamb and goat alongside vegetables like aubergines and some of the most incredible breads I've ever tasted.

So when challenged to make up a pot of something that could do us for a few different meals this week, I opted for a chicken chakhokhbili, which I last made some years ago and adored. I even managed to set some aside for Master Jay (who has just discovered finger food, without having actually mastered the act of putting it in his mouth as opposed to on the floor, on Mrs Jay's blouse or down his own t-shirt) by adding the herbs, chilli and salt at a very late stage.
Chakhokhbili, with parley sprig artfully added by Mrs Jay

One thing I did learn: when a recipe says "tomatoes, peeled, chopped and seeded", what they should say is "Look, if you want to spend an hour dropping tomatoes in to alternately hot and cold water, peeling a bit of skin off before cutting your thumb with a knife, and then repeating the whole process to get the other 3/4 of the skin off, then go for your life. Otherwise, buy a tin of tomatoes and save yourself the bother." At least if they gave me the facts up front I could make an informed decision, but blithely mentioning it without presenting the whole story is cruelty. Just say no, kids.

Georgia is also famous, in Russia at least, for its wine, though during Gorbachev's attempts to lower alcohol consumption (which unsurprisingly failed) he ordered many of the vines there to be pulled up so for a while it was both expensive and bad. I fuzzily remember drinking some during my time in Russia, but has anybody else had the pleasure? Is it any good? And can you buy it in Britain, just for research purposes, naturally?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

September BBQ madness

Firstly, an apology - I don't have any photos of this lot. When you've got 20 members of The Family Jay in your house, all of whom need feeding and watering, photography tends to take a back seat (and besides, having been to Nick Ilott's photography exhibition at the Brewery Tap, my little holiday snaps do look a little inadequate. I'll get over this disappointment by next week, I assure you.).

Many of my aunts and uncles haven't yet met Master Jay, even though he's coming on for ten months old, so we invited them all round for a barbeque - yes, I know it's September, and I know it's England, but we're nothing if not optimistic in this house - and we duly convened for the ritual of burned burgers and abandoned salad. But of course, chez Jay we try to do things a little differently.

We did have some burgers and sausages (none of which I made, I'm afraid) we also managed to put out:
  • Mackerel with a spicy dressing: both Mrs Jay and I love mackerel but have a golden rule never to cook it inside the house, so every bbq features them in some form. Sometimes in the summer we even light the fires simply so that we can sup on this delicious, cheap, healthy luxury, but we fear this may have been our last chance this year.
  • Pork with a lemon and herb crust. Brilliant and simple, a marinade of parsley, fennel, olive oil, bay and lemon can be applied to the pork the night before and the whole thing grilled quickly with some nice flame coming from the olive oil. We should have had more of these, they disappeared quickly.
  • Chicken tikka skewers: Delia would be proud, we cheated here. Simply mix up some supermarket brand curry paste and some yoghurt, and marinade the chicken overnight. Once they're skewered and grilled, the meat is moist and delicate and takes on all the spices. And it's p!ss easy.
The other excellent discovery of the day was the Gainsborough Spring Ale from St. Jude's Brewery. As you know, I love things that I can source locally and it was a disappointment that I simply didn't have the time to get much local food on the grill, but this beer travelled no more than a quarter of a mile to reach my kitchen, and it's damned fine too. There's been a real increase in interest in local beers and ales recently, with 99 new breweries opening in the UK over the last year, and that at a time when we're told that the pub industry is in major decline. It seems that the pubs that are thriving are those without ties to the major breweries, who can choose their produce and negotiate for themselves, which I for one think calls for a large "Hurrah!".

I can definitely recommend St. Judes but they're not the only ones around. What's the best beer for you? A refreshing lager? A potent stout from Dorset? A lovely IPA? The press tells me that real ale is making a comeback - what do you think? Would you prefer the certainty of knowing what you're getting from a recognised brand or do you like to try a little something wherever you go?

As usual, all recipes available on request.