Olia's Culinary Odyssey

Friday, September 9, 2016

Olia Hercules 

Olia Hercules' cookbook, Mamushka, hit the shelves last year with a flurry of recognition even as this young chef was named a rising star in The Observer's list of people most likely to make waves in 2015. Hercules, whose cookbook features recipes gathered from her family's culinary heritage throughout Eastern Europe, lives in North London with her son, Sasha, where she is a regular contributor to The Guardian Cook, as well as doing food styling, pop-up dinners, and recipe development.

Olia was born in southern Ukraine in 1984 when the Soviet empire was crumbling.  Times were lean and food was rationed, but in spite of the barren political and economic landscape, Olia and her family thrived on the fresh produce from her mother's well-tended garden.  Her formative years were spent wandering through pea fields and orchards of her childhood home in Kakhovka where "the winters were mild and the summers long and hot." 

The food from her memories carries a language of simplicity, though never lacking in flavor. It speaks of grapefruit-sized tomatoes bursting with flavor and ripened to juicy perfection in the sun. It screams of wild sorrel and mulberries and herbs galore with a generous helping of dill in (almost) everything. And then there's the meat, simmered in rich broths and layered with colorful vegetables or wild mushrooms and dumplings.

The memories are important, for they infuse the recipes with such meaning. The Campfire Mutton Broth, for instance, was "cooked over a large cauldron by the river while the fathers fished, the mothers chatted and chopped salads, and the kids swam in the river."  The recipe she swears is Ukraine's penicillin for an ailing heart or body, is Chicken Broth with Dumplings, cooked with the healing power of love. And the Tartar Lamb Turnovers were a seaside staple during sunny days in Crimea where she spent half the summer with her Russian grandmother, Vera.

With Mamushka, Hercules has brought the treasures of these little-known kitchens into the hands of the world as we explore the cuisine of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and, most importantly, her beloved Ukraine. She brings us the recipes of her childhood, giving, as she aptly says, "the messy geo-political mosaic a human face."

Read on for my interview with Olia:

Olia, you come from a strong line of female cooks who have faithfully preserved your family's culinary heritage. What is a tradition you have chosen to continue? I still ferment vegetables and fruit. There is a fermented passata recipe called 'mors' in Ukraine that hardly anyone does (or even knows about), but I make it. It's such an interesting way to preserve it. It gives an excellent kick to borshch in winter.

You've mentioned that this has been a difficult year for you, with losing people dear to you.  How has this changed the way you view life?  It has indeed been another strange year. It happens to me (and I suspect a lot of people) quite often. My aunt died of cancer pretty much straight after I got my book deal, and this summer my uncle (her husband) passed away too, after the book won the award. It's been tough. Extended family in Ukraine is sacred and our cousins are called brothers and sisters, and some of them are as close to me. I've definitely learned to be prepared for anything.  When it happens, I seize the moment and remind myself how important it is to stay calm and to be kind to people. 

You've cooked for notable people in the culinary world, such as Jamie Oliver and Ottolenghi, to name a few. Do you have aspirations of who you would love to cook for in the future? Who to cook for....tough question. No one in particular, to be honest. I do love cooking for people who love Mamushka. People who come to my supper clubs and my family are my dream audience.

"I'm happiest when I'm feeding people." - Olia Hercules

At 32, Olia has been a Londoner for more than a decade but still carries a proud love for her Ukrainian heritage. 

Aunt Lyuda taking the freshly made noodles to a boiling pot.

A visit to her grandparents' home in Voznesensk. 

Her mum's Strawberry Ice Cream Cake, normally reserved for birthdays but deemed appropriate to serve these days whenever Olia goes home for a visit. 

Olia recalls a 1300-mile road trip to Baku with her parents and brother when she was two. She has a distinct memory of "hearing Gorbachev talking passionately over the telly about perestroika". Here, on a hilltop in Georgia.

Olia is as fanatical about Georgian wine as she is about Ukrainian food. This is a Kisi amber wine she calls "pure nectar." 

A night of cooking for Borsch and No Tears, a cinema-supper club in Knightsbridge carrying a 1920's theme.

Deja vu - teaching recipes at Leith's School of Food and Wine, where she was trained as a chef.

Brunch straight out of the pan while reading Guardian Cook: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, eggs. Topped with salt, and, you guessed it - dill.

Red Borshch 



Ukrainian Garlic Bread

These are traditionally served with red borshch. In Ukraine we would use regular garlic, so if you can’t find wet (young) you can use regular garlic. I have also used wild garlic and its flowers, and it looked beautiful and provided a lovely mild taste. Glazing with regular eggs is standard, but I once glazed these with a duck egg and the result was out of this world – a beautiful rich crust formed. The word pampushka can be used to describe a gorgeous plump woman and is one of my favorite words. Pam-poo-shka! 

15g fresh yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
400g strong bread flour plus extra for kneading
8g fine sea salt
20g wet garlic, crushed or regular garlic
3 tbsp sunflower oil

To glaze

1 duck (or chicken) egg, lightly beaten
  1. First make a ‘sponge’, which is a type of yeasty starter. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 225ml of warm water (blood temperature, hot water would kill the yeast!). Add 200g of flour and mix roughly, cover with cling film and leave to prove in the fridge overnight. 
  2. The next morning add the rest of the flour and the salt to the starter and knead on a well-floured surface until the dough is smooth and comes away from your hands easily.
  3. Divide the dough into 8 pieces and shape into round buns. Put them side by side in an oiled round oven-proof dish or a 24cm cake tin, cover and let them prove again in a warm place until doubled in size. They will join together just like hot cross buns do.
  4. Preheat the oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas mark 7. To make the basting oil simply stir the garlic through the oil with a small pinch of sea salt and let it infuse.
  5. When pampushki look plump and ready, glaze them generously with some beaten egg and bake them in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until they form a glistening golden crust. Take them out and baste them in garlic oil. Serve immediately.

This year, Mamushka won the best debut cookbook award for Fortnum & Mason, the annual awards celebrating the best writing, publishing and broadcasting in the categories of food and drink. Congratulations, Olia, on a job well done!

Photography by Elena Heatherwick, Olia Hercules and Kris Kirkham. Used with permission by Olia Hercules.

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