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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Tastes

Text and photos by John Harrison

A beautiful July sunny afternoon at the home/dacha of PASSPORT’s owner, John Ortega, and an invitation to an important shashlik event. How could I refuse? On arrival I was briefed that guests would decide whether the barbeque way of preparing shashlik is better, or worse, than the traditional shish kebab method. To give evidence, were two master shashlik cooks: Shiraz Mamedov and John Ortega.

Both masters are recognised barbeque, or is it shashlik?, masters, and both have completely different approaches. John’s style and preparation techniques originated in his Californian barbeque background, whilst Shiraz’s shashlik come directly from his Azeri ethnic origins.

John bought his meat from Stockmann and Metro cash-and-carry, where “you get the best prices,” John added. On that day, John bought New Zealand lamb and Australian beef, chilled not frozen, readymarinated with garlic, onions, pepper, vinegar and cumin. John also bought several packs of racked lamb, again, already marinated, ready to go. John recommends buying from a solid retailer rather than trying your luck at the markets.

To go with his lamb and beef, John prepared red and green peppers, mushrooms, leaks, courgettes, all marinated with olive oil, pepper and thyme. Usually John would use garlic but refrained from the use of garlic, out of respect for his fellow shashlik master, who is allergic to garlic.

John displayed confident expertise on the wine front. During the preparation stage, which is as long, if not longer, than the eating phase, John treated us his to favourite white wine.

“Usually people drink red wine with meat,” he said. “A rose or something a little lighter goes down well with meat. I’d also recommend a Shiraz (no relation to Shiraz). But recently, everybody’s drinking more white, so we’ll start with white”.

The jury, cooks and everybody else was treated to a whole section of wines, starting with the amazingly good Russian Myshako Grand Reserve, Chateau Le Grand Vostock, passing through German Schloss Johannisberg and French Kabinett Reislings, and ending up with the amazing Proprieta Sperino, Lessona 2006, with its exquisite Nebbiolo grapes.

Shiraz prefers to buy meat from the market, and marinate it himself, like it is done down there in the south when they make Shish Kebab, he said. Shiraz takes preparing his shashlik seriously, almost religiously. He suddenly produced a massive looking butcher’s knife which curled at the end of its blade, which startled everyone, as he adopted a serious manner, and proceeded to hack meat purposefully into largish chunks, about two inches long and one and a half inches wide, if they were any bigger, they wouldn’t fit into the mouth.

He explained: “The best secret in making shashslik is finding and buying the right meat, period! Unfortunately, there is no fresh lamb from Azerbaijan available here unless you pre-order it. Dagestani Lamb is fresh and available, but not as good. New Zealand produces fine lamb, but knowing the supply and chain command in meat import to Russia, I think a ‘chilled’ New Zealand lamb is just a marketing gimmick, it’s obviously FROZEN. Ortega marinated his NZ lamb overnight, I just brought mine fresh as is to his house and slightly marinated it right before the mangal. I can marinate any frozen meat overnight and it will be tender and full of spices, but don’t you want to taste meat?”

The finer chopping work was accomplished using a smaller, Azerbaizhany knife, with an antler-horn handle, and a razor-sharp blade of which was inscribed with stars and moons, which Shiraz explains is the signature of the craftsman who tempered it. Shiraz demonstrated how he sharpens his knives, using the wetted bottom of a teacup as a grinding stone. With Caucasian flair, he demonstrated how to marinate three separate kinds of meat: lamb, beef and wild boar.

When it comes to salt, Shiraz doesn’t use any old salt, but good Himalayan salt crystals. “I marinate the lamb with Himalayan salt, coriander, and black pepper.” The master added with a knowing smile, “doing shashlik is not just cooking lamb and beef,” as he prepared a side dish of small young potatoes interspersed with a small slice of lamb fat, placed onto a skewer. Then there is the foie gras, which he prepared with young lamb liver, ingredients which he said are all readily available at a market like Moscow’s Dorogomilovsky. Both of these delicacies were salted and placed on a skewer, well wrapped in silver foil.

Finally, Shiraz prepared a special Baku special side dish with “setka” (lamb’s stomach wall) used as the casing, filled with lamb liver, previously un-skined and un-veined. This was then marinated with Himalayn salt, black pepper and cilantro, covered with foil and placed on the mangal. Shiraz’s final dish was a salad “ikra” made from finely chopped onion, pepper, tomatoes and eggplant.”

By this time, as we had been supposedly tasting but actually drinking—or was it just me?—various superb wines and all— perhaps only me—were rather inebriated and absolutely famished. I was excited to smell burning firewood wafting in from the garden, and made for the door.

Two identical mangals (spits) were being prepared outside. Shiraz said something in his native tongue to the effect: “How can anybody on God’s earth make shashlik with a spit that has holes in it?” To which John replied: “What?, you don’t know how to use a barbeque?” Whilst our mouths were salivating hunger, Shiraz then spent an agonisingly long time blocking up the holes on his spit with pieces of silver foil. “This isn’t a real mangal,” he repeated convincingly, wondering why everybody was staring as if hypnotised at the meat and vegetables roasting happily away in racks on John’s mangal. John mentioned: “This is something that we northerners probably don’t understand” shooting a glance at Shiraz, ”but to me, you have charcoal, it burns, gets hot, you put meat and vegetable on top and they cook! End of story. They cook just fine!”

“Well, it does, but not as good,” added Shiraz. Mangals are only 15 cm in depth and if you have holes in them, the heated air underneath makes your meat dry and takes away all tenderness, especially from the lamb. It’s easy of course since it provides for constant fire.”

John replied: “I’m cooking for ten people, not just one or two. If you want to actually eat today (we all nodded unanimously, in total agreement), you have to cook more at a time. If you turn them over once in a while, they get cooked fine all over.”

Not at all put off by northern pragmatism, Shiraz ceremoniously anointed his veal with sprigs of thyme, which gave them a delicious smell, which only further enticed our tortured taste buds, and then roasted his side dishes. He served his shashlik up into bowls lined with lavash and then sprinkled roasted sesame seeds on top.

Inside, the jury took their places around the table to start eating, the court was in session. Now the world would know for certain whether the barbeque or the deep southern shish kebab approach is in fact better.

The jury failed happily in their job as the basic need of filling the stomach took priority over judicial concerns. Various grunts of approval, licking of lips, and slurps as glass after glass of red Reislings were consumed, followed. The wine had the affect of merging the different kinds of meat into one glorious shashlik/barbeque experience, and it became increasingly difficult for the jury to cast any valid, objective opinion. I do, however, remember thinking that Shiraz’s veal was exquisite, the thyme giving it an almost eastern tang, whilst the lamb chops and beef were scrumptious.

All in all, about 7 kilograms of meat was prepared, and despite us all eating to the stage where it was difficult to move, at least four more people could have been fed. Another shashlik jamboree, when the two mangals will be prepared beforehand, was planned.

Shashlik masters: John Ortega, Shiraz Mamedov

The jury: Tony Wong, Julia Rodinova, Natasha Zorina, Dilshod Burhanov, Viktoria Manjoulina, John Harrison.

The outcome: another sessions should be arranged, as all shashlik is fantastic when the wine is good and the stomach empty!

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