Olia Hercules

11th June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

11th June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Shortly before we’re due to arrive at Olia Hercules’s flat in north London, I receive a video on my phone of a woman holding up a large circle of dough in the air and spinning it with both hands. It’s Olia’s mum, over from Ukraine, preparing a Moldovan vertuta (giant cheese twist) for lunch. As the circle expands, the dough billowing like bedsheets in a breeze, the video switches into slow motion and I’m momentarily transfixed. Then, panicking slightly, I text her back: “Don’t do all the fun stuff before we arrive.”

The vertuta is baked and ready when we get to Olia’s place, a pretty garden flat off Green Lanes which she shares with her three-year-old son Sasha, but she obliges us by making a second one from scratch, spinning the dough with practiced ease and sprinkling it with feta before rolling it up and curling it into a snail shape. While vertuta #2 cooks, Olia tells us about growing up in southern Ukraine during the final days of the Soviet era. Luxury items were scarce but there was an abundance of local produce and, thanks to her diverse family background, Olia grew up eating food from all over Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

She has gathered her experiences in a new cookbook called Mamushka1, which unlocks a treasure trove of recipes from Ukraine and its neighbouring countries. Many of the dishes, such as kefir & herb barbecued chicken and lick-your-fingers tomatoes, were inherited from family members, although Olia’s travels and the dozen years she’s spent in the UK also fed into the book. What’s amazing is how little exposure Western readers have had to the rich food traditions of these former Soviet states. Mamushka looks set to change that.

When the vertuta is ready, we devour it in a matter of minutes – the soft, salty pastry pairs very nicely with sugary black tea. Then Olia shows us her collection of nepotrib, unwanted Soviet kitchen objects that she picks up in Ukrainian flea markets and basements to the bemusement of everyone in her family. Finally we head out to admire her surprisingly well-stocked Turkish corner shop. Olia is great company and her enthusiasm for her home country is contagious. “There’s so much more to the Ukraine than people think,” she says.

Continued below...

Tell me about writing Mamushka.

As soon as I got the book deal, I went to Ukraine and spent a month running after my mum and my aunt with measuring spoons and a scales. I was like, all the recipes you’ve been cooking your entire life….

Hand them over!

Yes.

So a lot of the recipes are dishes you grew up with.

Everything. But I’ve added my own touches. I’m British now and I love British produce, so whenever I get a really lovely British ingredient, I’ll fit it in somewhere. For example, rhubarb isn’t used much in Ukraine so I made this pickle with raw rhubarb, fennel and radishes – you pickle them in lemon juice with a bit of sugar and it goes really nice with chicken liver, buckwheat and crispy onions. It’s traditional but with a little bit of my own thing.

Did you learn to cook early on?

I was a bit of a lazy teenager – I loved food but didn’t really want to cook that much. So my mum and I made a deal and I started cooking every Saturday. The first dish I ever did was Georgian chicken tabaka and I burnt it. I didn’t get into cooking properly until I went to Sicily aged 19.

You grew up in the south of Ukraine?

Yes. We’re about an hour away from Crimea in a town called Kakhovka. It’s on the Dneiper river and about 45 minutes from the Sea of Azov, which is the shallowest sea in the world. We used to go there in the summer and my auntie would cook lots of pyrizhky, savoury and sweet – we’d go running off and come back to find she’d made a big pile of them.

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Was there scarcity when you were a kid? Do you remember having to queue for food?

Yeah, I remember being in queues, but it was more for luxury items, things like mayonnaise. Ukraine has been through so much, but where I’m from in the south, food was always more abundant. People were able to grow their own things – that’s how we survived.

Growing up I was exposed to Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani food, there was no real distinction. It’s a whole big fusion of amazingness

So there was a degree of self-sufficiency involved.

Yeah. Of course there were very dark times. When they created artificial hunger in Ukraine2, my granddad was put in prison for five years for going into a field and taking a little bit of wheat to feed his family. We went through times of starvation and slowly came out the other end.
When I went back to my grandmother’s village to do photographs for the book, I realised how lucky and happy I was as a child – running around in pea fields eating peas from the pod. I never really thought twice about it, but now going back I realise, oh my god, it’s just incredible.

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Did you travel much?

I had really bad asthma so we used to go to Crimea every summer. When I was 12 we went to live in Cyprus for five years. I felt really good there because of the sea air. I was thrown into an English school even though I couldn’t speak any English, but I picked it up very quickly. My culinary horizons expanded as well: I ate so much incredible food – Middle Eastern as well as Greek. We used to go to this restaurant called The Syrian Club which served the most amazing food I’ve had to date. Oh, it was so good!

How long have you been in the UK?

Twelve years in England, eight in London. I went to university in Warwick and studied Italian and international relations. Then I came to London, got married, and worked in film for a while. When the financial crisis happened, I decided it was time to do something else, so I quit my job, went to Leiths [cookery school in London], then went to work in restaurants. Then I got pregnant with Sasha and took a break. After a year I went back to what I really love, which was writing and food styling.

Would you go back to restaurants?

No, not with Sasha. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do it. But I enjoy cooking and I really enjoy service, so I would definitely do pop-ups and lunches and maybe a street-food stall. I’m happiest when I’m feeding people.

Talk me through your average day in terms of food.

The first thing I do is put my radio on to BBC 6 Music and have a coffee. Then I make my son pancakes, because the first thing I hear is, “Momma wake up, I want pancakes”. It’s either that or omelette with broccoli – he loves broccoli.

Is he an adventurous eater?

Oh god yeah. Since he was six months old, I never gave him one puree – I wouldn’t want to eat broccoli and salmon slush so why would he? It’s called baby-led weaning, you just give them pieces of something – I’d give him a lamb chop and even though he had no teeth, he’d suck on it very happily. When he was one, he was already feeding himself. His dad is originally Thai so his other grandmother cooks spicy food for him. From the beginning I’d say “Sasha this is hot”, but he’d still go for it. He’d be like, hehh hehh, but then he’d go for it again. It’s great.

What’s the most important meal of the day at home?

In Ukraine we eat properly at 1 or 2, so lunch is the main meal. I don’t eat much in the evening, just a little something. But I do love a good breakfast if I have time.

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What’s your ultimate breakfast?

A Ukrainian village breakfast, which is basically fried eggs with pig fat. Usually I have lots of lardo in my freezer. You slice the lardo or Ukrainian salo, then fry it until it starts becoming crispy, then put eggs in it. At home, my aunt will take it to the next level and throw a few hefty chicken breasts in for good measure.

There are a couple of Turkish restaurants on Green Lanes that I really love. Antepliler have amazing sweetbread kebabs. And Hala do incredible pomegranate BBQ quail
Olia on her favourite London restaurants – see Address Book

Do you make a lot of Ukrainian food at home?

If my son’s around, I’ll make borsch. He loves it. But I also make Middle Eastern, Georgian, Thai… all kinds. Growing up I was exposed to Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani food, there was no real distinction. My family’s so crazy and diverse. I have aunts from Armenia. My dad lived in Baku when he was younger. My grandma used to live in Central Asia. It’s a whole big fusion of amazingness.

What’s your comfort food?

In what situation? If I’m alone and just want something simple, Nigel Slater’s the one for me. He’s got this pasta recipe where he confits like 15 cloves of garlic in olive oil till it’s soft, then has it with spaghetti, goat’s cheese and thyme, that’s it. Just stir it all through. It’s easy and I love the garlic and goat thing.

On The Menu

Lunch with Olia Hercules
London, May 2015

To eat:

Moldovan giant cheese twist »

To drink:

Sugary Earl Grey tea
Homemade cherry vodka

Are there any types of food you don’t like?

I love all offal apart from lamb’s kidneys, but recently a chef friend of mine told me he’s going to make me some lamb’s kidneys that’ll change my mind – yeah, bring it on. Also I don’t really drink milk straight. When I was in kindergarten they used to make us drink hot milk and it would have the skin on – uggh! Otherwise I eat everything, all cuisines, I’m really adventurous. In Thailand I tried insects and pig’s intestines and really loved them.

So your threshold’s pretty high.

Yeah [laughs].

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Share a few kitchen tips with us.

I know it’s been said before but keep it clean. Especially if you’re doing a big meal, like Christmas dinner or something, just make sure to do a wipe down after each job. Have a little bin next to you rather than wasting time walking – tie a little bag to your oven and put all your stuff there while you’re working.
If you’ve got loads of onions, don’t peel one, chop it, then peel another. Do it in stages: peel all of them first, then chop. That’s a little catering tip I’ve picked up.
What else? Always taste while you’re cooking and season well. Don’t skimp on salt. And when you make dressings I always put a bit of sweet, salty and sour – so lemon juice, salt and a bit of sugar, honey or maple syrup.

With the book, are you hoping to change people’s conceptions of Ukraine and its food?

Of course. Everybody thinks Ukraine is cold and stark. And it may be so in winter but come April it all goes pttsch! Sunflower fields, poppy fields, mulberries, sour cherries lying around on the street. It’s really hot where I grew up – people grow huge watermelons. I went back last summer and thought, oh my god this is so incredible. I properly marvelled at it this time.

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You saw it through different eyes?

You know what it was? My son, who is three and lives in London, he wakes up, runs to the allotment, picks a cucumber and eats it. My mum has an orchard and he runs around biting apples on the tree – you find the teeth marks. That makes you look at things differently.
Apart from loving the recipes and everything, I want people to read the book and be like, oh, I want to go to Ukraine, or at least know about it. There’s so much more to it than people think. I want to show what it’s like – the reality, not just the sad stories you hear on the news. We’re going strong.

Are there more books to be written?

Definitely. There’s so much more. I’ve touched upon some Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani recipes, but I’d like to go to those places and collect more. And maybe Central Asia as well. There’s so much more to learn.

For more about Olia, go to oliahercules.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram

You can buy a copy of her brilliant new book Mamushka here. Or retweet this before 14 June to be in with a chance of winning a free signed copy

 

  1. The title, a made-up word borrowed from The Addams Family, is how Olia jokingly refers to her mother and the other strong women in her family. Her mum, incidentally, is over for a few weeks to support Olia during the publication period.
  2. The Holodomor (“Extermination by hunger”) was a man-made famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1932 and 1933 that killed an estimated 2.5–7.5 million Ukrainians, with millions more counted in demographic estimates. It was part of the wider disaster, the Soviet famine of 1932–33, which affected the major grain-producing areas of the country. (Source: Wikipedia)

Posted 11th June 2015

In Interviews | Video

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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