Rising stars of 2015: chef Olia Hercules

Rising stars of 2015: chef Olia Hercules

With a book of old family recipes the Ukrainian-born cookery writer is
spreading the word about the culinary treasures of her homeland

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Olia Hercules in her north London kitchen: ‘There’s so much more to
learn. These recipes were just circulating around my family.’
Photograph: Karen Robinson

Killian Fox

Sunday 28 December 2014 09.00 GMT

When Olia Hercules went to work on her first cookbook, a joyful
celebration of eastern European cooking called Mamushka, she didn’t
have to travel far researching it. “I went home and spent a month
running after my mum and my aunt with measuring spoons and a scales,”
she says, laughing. “I was like, all the recipes you’ve been cooking
your entire life, hand them over.”

Hercules was born in southern Ukraine in 1984. Growing up during the
decline of the Soviet Union, she ate remarkably well. Her mother
cultivated vegetables at home in Kakhovka, a port city on the Dneiper,
and she recalls an abundance of produce in the surrounding
countryside: peas and wild sorrel, and walnuts waiting to be gobbled
fresh from the tree. It helped that her family was crazy about food
and its female members – the mamushkas of the book – were passionate,
resourceful cooks.

They came from diverse backgrounds – one aunt hailed from Armenia, a
grandmother was born in Siberia – and each brought a distinct
influence to the kitchen table. Hercules has added influences of her
own: since moving to England 12 years ago, she has been incorporating
British and international flavours into her repertoire.

When I get to sample her astonishingly good garlicky poussin at her
flat in north London, where she lives with her young son Sasha, she
serves it with Korean pickled carrots and a Georgian plum chutney
sweetened with treacle. As you might expect, the book features
dumplings, borscht and dill by the hundredweight, but there are also
many less obvious dishes, such as mutton in coriander, and rhubarb
pickle and meringue with sweet noodles.

Hercules is hoping that Mamushka, which comes out in June, will make
people consider her birthplace in a different light. “Everybody thinks
Ukraine is cold and stark. And maybe it is in the winter but come
April it all goes pttsch!” She mimics a landscape exploding into life.
“Sunflower fields, poppy fields, mulberries and sour cherries. I want
to show that the reality is not just the sad stories you hear in the

She also wants to get us excited about an underappreciated cooking
tradition. One book, she feels, doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
“There’s so much more to learn. These are recipes that were just
circulating around my family. I’d love to go to Armenia, Georgia and
Azerbaijan and collect loads more.” She shakes her head. “It’s been
nearly 25 years [since the end of the Soviet Union] and these
traditions haven’t really been explored. Why? It’s crazy. In a way,
I’m so lucky that it hasn’t been done.”


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