Regarding a French Onion Soup – Celebrating the Magic of Eating Together
“What is the point of hiking unless there is a cafe on the top of the mountain?” Some of us can relate! Author Nailya Bentley revisits a memorable meal in her life and provides a fantastic food-itinerary for any traveller to Baku.
Likely, the only way to make a traditional French onion soup better is by eating it in good company. Bonchan/Shutterstock.
One of my Peruvian blog followers shared their national saying with me: “What we eat and drink, nobody can take away from us.” I liked that. Food to me is not just an indulgence or some functional necessity. It is so much more - special moments, precious memories, friends, and parties. Food is a celebration of life. I remember family friends of ours describing their holiday with another couple. They didn’t think the couple enjoyed the trip that much. “They complained,” our friends said,” that we planned their whole vacation around food. First, where we were going for lunch, then perhaps some sightseeing, followed by where we should go for dinner that night.”
“Next time, go with us!” we laughed.
What Is the Point of Hiking if There Isn’t a Café at the Top?
Anytime I think of somewhere I love to visit, I think of my most prized discoveries: great places to eat. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, I have not been able to visit Azerbaijan for almost two years. And if I were going back right now, I would most probably follow the same schedule of visiting my favourite spots, as I always do.
On the first night after arriving, I would, predictably, go to a kebab place. The one near my mother’s flat, in what used to be called the Officers’ Park (Zabitler Parki), is called the Kings of Qabala, Qabala Xanlar. It has a gorgeous little garden. Having come from the intense heat of Doha summer, I love being able to sit outside for my meals. I would order their spatchcocked village chicken in pomegranate marinade, with mixed kebabs and lots of fresh salad. And, of course, the bread with ajika.
My cousin and her daughter, as usual, would join my mother and me for this first night’s dinner.
The next day it would have to be Mari Vanna. Mari Vanna is one of my favourite restaurants in the entire world, anywhere. I share that passion with Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea F.C.). Or so the rumour goes.
Baku’s Mari Vanna restaurant has a luxurious yet reassuringly homely interior that's redolent of the city's oil boom past. Image: Canyalcin/Shutterstock
I usually share my Mari Vanna dinner with my Russian university friend, who is a little crazy about the restaurant, just like I am. Mari Vanna is my happy place and serves the best Siberian pelmeni and herring with boiled potatoes. They also have this fantastic Russian drink called Nalivka. I don’t quite know what to compare that to. It is deceptively fruity and light yet dangerously strong in alcohol content.
Gone are the days when I expected my mother to slave away to feed my guests and me.
On day three, I usually decide to take a break from going out and invite some relatives over to my mother’s home. Gone are the days when I expected my mother to slave away to feed my guests and me. Nowadays, just in her apartment block, there is the always reliable and affordable Z-Style shop, where they sell fresh-prepared dishes for you to take home.
I would buy a Khan Plov (King’s Rice) with chicken, some Russian salads and a nice dessert. There is a fancier delicatessen shop just next door where I would pop in to select a few bottles of wine. The prices always seem outrageous to my mother, but to me, after Doha prices, they are astounding.
Then, of course, summer in Baku involves a few days at the beach. And you can guess what that means, right? More food!
Barbequed Sturgeon is a summer staple for Bakuvians. Image: yevgeniy11/Shutterstock
To me, a beach should involve watermelon, very cold beer, and kebabs - not necessarily in that order. And ice cream for the kids. If I were on a beach somewhere else in the world, I would probably opt for a pina colada or a mojito. However, cocktails have yet to be mastered in Azerbaijan, so beer is always the safer option.
To me, a beach should involve watermelon, very cold beer, and kebabs - not necessarily in that order.
On my last trip to Baku, I discovered a fabulous seafront restaurant (Nar & Sharab ‘Pomegranates and Wine’ in Bibiheybet) which serves stuffed barbecued sturgeon. This is my happy place No. 2 - an Azerbaijani restaurant on the seafront, with waves crashing on the rocks around you, eating sturgeon fish kebab.
I am now trying to think of anywhere I would plan to go or visit without a food stop. A museum, maybe? But, thinking about it, the National Museum in Doha has a great café (The Fire Station Museum too!), so no, not even going to a museum will necessarily require skipping a food stop. And, come on, what is the point of hiking unless there is a café on the top of the mountain? Living in the UK, when a friend would suggest a walk on the common or to the river, I would think - is there a pub at the end of this?
I honestly don’t know whether it is an exclusively Azeri approach to life or if other cultures have the same approach, but I simply cannot imagine any event without some sort of food involved. I am grateful to share meals with the people I love, to celebrate something, or simply relax together. I think of all the dinners I have been lucky to be invited to, cooked by friends from different countries, being introduced to their national dishes. My Spanish friends, for example, bring dinner parties to an entirely different culinary level. And, sometimes, it is important to remember how far you have come to be where you are eating today, to be able to enjoy the food you can enjoy.
One Soup for Two at Café Rouge
Yesterday, as I sat with my children in a well-known restaurant in Doha, Paul, enjoying a quick lunch after the cinema, I suddenly fancied a bowl of French Onion soup. Every time I order this soup, I recall my life’s very first French onion soup experience. It was in London, many years ago, after I had just moved there and my mother was visiting. We went for a walk in Hampstead, and, like any walk worth taking, there was food at the end. Starving, we chose Café Rouge. We probably had twenty pounds in cash for lunch.