Earlier this year I published my review of Mamushka, a new book about Ukrainian food by Olia Hercules on the Spy books pages. Since then the book has garnered much praise and some nominations for food writing prizes, deservedly so, and I couldn’t bear to not celebrate such a wonderful piece of food writing on my site. So, here it is and if you haven’t already bought your copy, what are you waiting for?
I don’t know about you but I get tired of endless *new* cookbooks which claim to be a fresh take on Italian/French/Spanish/Deep South food and by dint of a only few ingredient substitutions, are championed as culinary ground breakers. I am also tired of the self aggrandising proclamations by new kids on the block about their burgers/hotdogs/dim sum/bone broth/permutations of fried chicken and pulled meat when they have clearly carried out little research into the history and gastro-geography of their chosen foods. Food as fashion is a pretty unpalatable concept when half the world seems to lack basic nourishment and some of the difficulties faced by the homeland of Olia Hercules throws this whole issue into even starker relief. Her book, Mamushka is refreshing because she writes about her food culture in an authentic, personal and respectful manner and as I read it, her stories remind me of memories from my own past.
When I was around twelve, my grandparents street in East Anglia gained a new Ukraine neighbour. He sometimes wept when he spoke of his homeland. He’d spend many hours in his gabled shed filled with swallow roosts where he dried the pungent tobacco that grew poorly in our unsuitable climate, eyes wet and fingers stained a deep russet from the leaves that hung in clusters from the rafters. These rustled each time the shed door slid open on its runners, adding to the cacaphony as swallows screeched in and out. My neighbour had escaped after being warned that he was being ‘watched’ (He never explained to me exactly what the implications were but I had an imagination) and he suffered great fear and hardship as he made his way towards the west. I think he knew he would never see his parents, grandparents and extended family again. He would have been so pleased to see the food of his youth so warmly commanded to the page, food he tried to cook for himself but having been well looked after by Ukrainian matriarchs, he struggled to replicate it and struggled even more in the retelling.
Olia Hercules is Ukrainian and was born in Kakhovka, just two hours drive from the Crimean border although her book celebrates the rich cultural diversity of her family with its Siberian, Moldovan, Jewish, Uzbekistani and Ossetian roots. There is ( in her words) a “messy geopolitical mosaic” which at times caused her family to have to negotiate food shortages and conflict but above all, her book and writing bears a richness that transcends those geopolitical boundaries. Mamushka celebrates foodstuffs and recipes that come from lands that may or may not have always been politically friendly with her mother country. This, to me, is emblematic of the generosity and welcome that infuses her cooking.
The south of the Ukraine is only two hours away from the Turkish border which totally trashes many peoples ideas of her homeland which, as she states, centre upon permutations of cold/bleak/vast/grey. We read of giant succulent tomatoes with pink, sugary juices, of picking great hanks of sorrel, the bosky ceps from Belarus, sour cream like silk and drinks made from the berries of buckthorn. There are endless days of sun where thirst is slaked by a syrup made from strawberries and rhubarb and their hunger appeased by jam made from watermelon skins. These watermelons are farmed in her home region, Kherson, and grow to humongous size, aided by the heat of the Ukrainian summer. Funnily enough, when I read Alison Uttley’s incredibly British accounts of her own childhood cuisine, forged as it was from the fields, woods and hedgerows of the Derbyshire countryside and from centuries of local farming lore, I am reminded of Olia because the cordials and syrups in Mamushka are very similar.
Some of Olia’s recipes reflect her countries proximity to Russia and the gastronomic exchange that exists between the two, even when other relationships are strained. There are familiar dishes, popular in Russia, such as borsch and a handful of salads which are also made from beetroot but they all have their own Ukrainian spin- they are definitely different from their Russian cousins. One version of beetroot soup brines the root vegetable first and the salad made from beets also includes prunes. There’s a more substantial wintery borsch with a depth charge from a stock made from oxtail or beef short rib and, to keep it truly authentic, one should also make it with salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic.
The Ukrainian cook really gets the importance of sour as a way of cutting the soft fattiness of meats and broths and a reminder that life contains moments that aren’t always sweet- a kind of riff on the ‘bitter tears’ of Jewish Passover although this may be my take and not theirs. There’s a sorrel broth that has melting rich duck at its heart, adds in beet leaves for earthiness and is finished with the sorrel left au natural, uncooked to keep its verdant brightness both in flavour and appearance. There’s fermented tomatoes, used green, and served fizzy (because this is another important and underused oral sensation), with winter casseroles. I have already made the chilli and garlic cucumbers which use those stubbly and prickly cucumbers as opposed to our slender, less tactile versions. Made with all the good things- sugar, cider vinegar, chile, garlic, salt- they are perfect on their own and I can’t get enough of them although I’d also serve them with Suffolk black bacon or a fatty coil of lamb breast. Finally, Olia includes a recipe for proper fermented sour gherkins which I’ve bookmarked to make when my new crop is ready on the allotment. They are perfumed with horseradish leaves and use sour cherry leaves to keep them crunchy and fresh. I also have a sour cherry tree which embraces my allotment shed with reddish brown striated branches, so I am ready to go.
The garlic bread is magnificent. Pillowy or like a ‘pampushka’ as the Ukrainians refer to a gorgeously plump and sumptuously fleshed woman, it uses 20g of wet or regular garlic to produce an almost brioche level of unctuousness. Slightly less lush in size but no slouch in the taste stakes. Moldovan breads are flavoured with cheese (feta) and sorrel to produce a summery bread with an edge. These have a fizzy, sour backbone from the kefir dough which has bicarb, white wine vinegar and sugar bolstering it.
Unlike Olia’s family I don’t have goats but I do have goats cheese and her potato cakes have this added (unusually). I also chucked in some grated courgette alongside her carrot and onion and they worked beautifully. Served with blackberry sauce, these are Ukrainian trad and now become Anglo-Irish-Spanish-Huguenot trad in our house.
Sensibly there are glut recipes: a plum, raisin and rum conserve; a gooseberry and strawberry jam; a cornel cherry jam and those jars of pickles. There are loads of meaty, ricey things to eat them with and Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb makes a virtue of the crispy underside of the rice. It is served on top of the meat. Their Caucasus chicken is served with walnuts and prunes and the liver of the chicken is added to buckwheat and crispy shallots to make a kasha based meal.
There might have been a credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine during the early 80’s but Olia’s family didn’t stint on puddings and cakes either. Choose from crumbly Ukrainian biscotti dimpled with pecans or walnuts; a towering Napolean cake made from layers of crumbly pastry and creme patissiere; curly wasp nest buns which are a little like the American monkeybread and a pretty honey cake with a creme fraiche rim balanced with the sweetness of honey comb. There’s also an intriguing loaf shaped cheesecake.
To be honest, Mamushka’s melding of the sweet, the savoury and the sour means that the western convention of courses following each other as day is chased by the night seems very old fashioned. Olia is not prescriptive and this book is a tempting suggestion as to what you might eat and when, interspersed with lovely family stories and explanations of customs. I look forward to more.
Olia can also be found on twitter -@oliasgastronomy.