Megan Abbott

At Home With: Olia Hercules

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Olia Hercules

Originally published on food52.com

When it comes to names, Olia Hercules has to be up there with one of the coolest of all time. Combine that tantalizing title with an exceptional talent for cooking and lashings of charisma, and you’ve got a woman bound for success. For the last couple of months here in London, Olia Hercules’ name has been cropping up everywhere, from magazines to newspapers to TV shows. And it’s not hard to see why. The Ukrainian-native made her home here 12 years ago, and has been at work opening our eyes to the wonders of Eastern European cooking ever since. The foods of what Olia refers to as ‘Caucasian’ have long remained something of a mystery, lost in a flood of other distractions. Here in London, we’ve caught on to Persian food, Southeast Asia food, superfood and Back to British food. But Ukranian? Not a peep. That is, until Olia came on to the scene. “When friends come to Ukraine from all over the world, they were amazed by the produce, and how light and gorgeous the food is.” Olia tells us, “Seeing how surprised everyone was made me realize that people had so much to learn about it. I was sitting on this treasure chest of amazing recipes, and I thought ‘If people knew more, things could change.’”

Fresh from the Islington kitchen of Ottolenghi, Olia began working as a recipe consultant for food magazines like Jamie’s. Beginning work on her first cookbook, she came to the nation’s attention after being selected as Observer Food Monthly’s Rising Star of 2015.

Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond, which will be hitting the US shelves in October, is a love note to the food Olia grew up eating in Southern Ukraine. Her formative years were spent in the port city of Kakhovka during the decline of the Soviet Union. There, she recalls being surrounded by a bounty of produce, from watermelons and cherries to eggplant and walnuts. “Everything was extremely seasonal.” Olia tells us, adjusting her bright red headscarf, “From April to September we had this abundance of crops. We had a gooseberry bush in the garden, lots of strawberries and a cherry tree. It was just normal to us. Come winter there was nothing, so we fermented everything. That seasonal change has really influenced my cooking.”

Olia’s cookbook celebrates the women of her upbringing-the ‘Mamushkas’; an Armenian Aunt, a Siberian Grandmother, and a Ukrainian mother, all of whom used the colourful produce that surrounded them to create the dishes that would shape Olia’s culinary personality. The afternoon of our visit to Olia’s home brought rare warmth and sunlight with it, so we ate lunch outside with the kitchen door propped open and the music from the radio still in earshot. Along with a creamy cucumber and salted yogurt salad, Olia served Spatchcocked Poussin with butter, lashings of garlic, coriander, dill and tarragon. “This is a Ukrainian-ised Georgian dish,” Olia tells us, “I cook this all the time. My friends love it!” The food was zesty, deep and moreish, served with hunks of crusty Ukrainian bread, which Olia insisted we mopped up the juices with. She didn’t have to ask us twice…“I’m such a feeder! Seeing people eat my food gives me a real kick.” She laughs, as we demolish the last specks.

Olia is one of those people that you end up telling your life story to, prompted or not. She is warm, fiery and incredibly open, something that reflects in every page of Mamushka. “Recipes are best when they are linked to a story, no matter how small.” She says, “I think people are responsive to you when you’re honest and personal. In life and in food.”

Going to Olia’s house is like visiting an old friend in a more vibrant, zesty land. Beyond the front door of her North London home, her intriguing character can be felt at once. There are vibrant colors on the walls, sepia photographs of ancestors, a radio blaring out voices, and the nose-flaring scent of home cooking. She shares the house with her 3-year-old son Sasha. Like most food lovers of the world, the kitchen is the core of the home. “Oh, I’m always in here. My bedroom is literally just for sleep, but this is my home! Sasha and I just hang out here and listen to the radio.”

As the hype around her continues to grow, Olia Hercules is bound for life as one of the country’s most talked about cooks. But her focus is always on the food, and bringing people’s attention to Ukrainian flavors. “Multiculturalism is very interesting to me. And so much of that is food.” She explains, “I believe that food can connect cultures. Learning what people do from day to day in other countries can really bind you to them.” With her rich, deep food, perfumed with nostalgia, Olia is keen to share a far different Ukraine than the one we are used to. “Ukraine is a big country, and everyone from there has had a different experience. I guess I’m just trying to bring my world into what I’m doing. It is a world I love so much.”