Georgian Flavors from Helena

Exclusive Interview

It was her Aunty Medea that inspired well-known journalist Helena Bedwell to step into the magical world of cooking. Her writing career may have put it on hold, but her heart was forever charged with the desire to create dishes, and at last she has chosen to share some of that magic with other Georgian food lovers by publishing a cookery book: ‘Georgian Flavours from Helena.’

“I always wanted to become a writer, so I became a journalist, which is close enough! My parents always thought I would become an actress, but when I was 15, I changed my mind and started writing small articles on current events. My dad knew an editor at the Tbilisi Newspaper and asked him to have a look at my work. When I walked into the publishing house (currently the hotel and restaurant Stamba), and smelled that freshly printed paper, I knew I was in the right place.”

This is how her first articles appeared, followed by TV reportage, and how her cooking skills were put on the back burner. “It’s hard,” she notes, “to pop into the kitchen when you’re a young political and economic reporter, especially during tough, war-torn 1990s Georgia.”

In 1997, she left Georgia with her newly-created family and began to travel the world. And it was while discovering the various countries of Asia, the EU and the Middle East that her desire to cook was reignited. “I became fascinated with new flavors,” she tells us. “And I started to remember the skills Aunty Medea had taught me even as I kept working and raising my son.”

She notes that Georgia, the ancient land of wine and bread, was practically unknown to people outside the country, and in answering people’s questions about her homeland, and with the eagerness of her UK family to try her Georgian dishes, Helena found further inspiration.

“I really wanted them to know my country, my history and even my aunt's main inspiration: Barbare Jorjadze, a 19th century noble woman who started cooking and creating the ‘ideal household,’ despite having servants, and who became a writer herself. I also felt that Georgia, a sort of forgotten gem in this world, needed some attention, as our flavors are little known and nothing can compare to them.”

We asked her to tell us about the motivation behind her publishing a cookery book, something not everyone was supportive of (they didn’t want her to reveal her secrets to the world!).

“My target audience is people who travel, those seeking adventures and new flavors; people who have worked or lived in Georgia for a while, or who simply visited and never forgot how wonderfully that walnut sauce tasted or how unforgettable khachapuri was. I personally never met anyone who was not impressed by at least one specific dish or who even became obsessed with it. My audience also includes those wanting to impress their guests with something unusual or who might buy my book as a gift to give others.”

She notes that in the book, she aimed to make the dishes as easy as possible to create. “If something sounds difficult, it’s difficult to make, so why put people under stress?” she asks. “The kitchen is and always was the best place for us to meet, have fun, and talk to our children, friends, and family members. Let’s keep it that way.”

Helena tells us that choosing just what dishes to put in her book was “a struggle.” “Let's get it straight: many of the most popular Georgian dishes we eat today are not Georgian at all, and were adopted from other cuisines and cultures,” she says. “Let’s take mushrooms on ketsi with cheese- not Georgian at all, but this is perfectly normal for Georgia, which lays at the crossroads of several cultures.”

She names the desire to offer something truly Georgian in her choice of which dishes to present. “I had to hunt down the ingredients, measurements, perfect kitchenware and wooden utensils most used in Georgia. It took me some 20 years to hone my skills, and then I decided it was time to share. All my dishes are easy to make anywhere in the world: in the UK or Taiwan, Dubai or New York.” And she’s included some tricks in the book to help cooking enthusiasts, wherever they may be.

We asked her about her favorite and least favorite dishes to make.

“Mchadi and cheese wins hands down every time for me,” she tells us. “If I have Georgian cheese at home, or any cheese for that matter, together with this wonderful cornflour creation mchadi, I’m happy. The combo is irreplaceable for me as it goes with every sauce, dip or spread, all over the world.”

Her least favorite is the New Year whole fried piglet. “I’m not even sure it’s very Georgian, but the vision of it makes me feel uncomfortable. Thankfully, it’s only put on the table once a year!”

In the past decade, more and more restaurants have sprung up, particularly in the capital city, offering fusion cuisine- Georgian plus something different, in part to experiment and take pleasure in the freedom the influx of new or re-discovered “foreign” ingredients brings; in part to entice both visitors and locals to take a chance and try something new. We asked Helena what she thought of the trend.

“I adore it. It’s the perfect opportunity for many Georgians to abandon the soviet style eating habits and go back to our European roots. When I was a soviet kid, I had no idea what cinnamon or ginger was, or the ingredients I had only seen in foreign magazines or old Georgian books. In soviet times, there were only three kinds of cheese available, while our ancestors used to make 60 varieties! Fusion allows you to taste the dish as it is, without the avalanche of other flavors beside it. But at the same time, I am totally for the simplicity of many traditional Georgian restaurants, such as Mstkheta Salobie.” [a restaurant specializing in bean dishes in Mtskheta]

We rounded off our interview by asking Helena what her biggest take-away was in creating her cookery book.

“The best memory from creating this book was meeting my photographer Emma Matevsyan, my beautiful and equally talented magician in the kitchen. And I was very fortunate to meet Lali Papashvili and Levan Qoqiashvili, the couple behind an amazing company called Gastronaut, who made this book happen through their vision and advice. Emma and I will definitely continue to work together for many future projects. We also have some new ideas in the pipeline. I have learnt so much from this project!”

Helena Bedwell’s book ‘Georgian Flavours from Helena’ can be purchased in the bookstores of Bakur Sulakauri Publishing House, Santa Esperanza and Prospero's Books, as well as bookstores countrywide.

By Katie Ruth Davies

17 January 2019 18:37