FERMENTING AUTUMN'S HARVEST
Young, exciting and utterly engaging, Olia Hercules, Ukranian-born, Leith’s-trained, developed her cooking skills by working in the kitchens of Ottolenghi. Her light accessible approach to cooking and preserving has chimed with the foodie fraternity and since the publication of her deeply inspiring book ‘Mamushka’ in 2015 she has succeeded in bringing the cuisine of the former soviet states to a much wider audience. We are so very pleased she is joining us at Thyme this month and took the opportunity while planning her class to find out a little more about the woman behind the ferment.
Your gorgeous book ‘Mamushka’ is a celebration of the women in your family, but doesn’t simply offer traditional Ukrainian recipes. Was this diversity peculiar to your family? The Southern Ukraine is a big melting pot of cultures and this is really true of my family; my paternal grandmother is Siberian and she brought with her Central Asian influences from living in Tashkent; my mother’s family come from Moldova; my father from Uzbekistan. Then there are Armenian, Crimean and Ossetian influences too. All this diversity finds expression in the kitchen and the food I love.
The Ukraine in the eighties brings to mind grey images of soviet control & food shortages, but that’s not the story we find in ‘Mamushka’? We were fortunate in the South of Ukraine with long hot summers, everyone had a vegetable garden to fill, so cooking was all about home-grown produce. It was a hard physical life, and there was nothing in the shops, but for stories of real soviet hardship Anya von Bremzen’s ‘Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking’ describes a very different story to mine. My grandmother would travel 2000km to Leningrad selling apricots, a horrible journey but the scarcity of fresh food in the cities made it worth her while. We had an abundance of produce that they simply didn’t have.
Your social media feeds have a huge following and like your book are intensely personal. Did you make a conscious decision to invite us into your life rather than just your profession? It is 25 years since the Soviet Union broke up, and I wanted the book to allow a glimpse of that life, I could do that by celebrating the food and recipes from my family’s kitchen. The social media was different, it began as an expression of my life in London, I was at home with my son and used it to reach out to people, to post ‘whatever’, it is changing these days, more food, less pictures of Sasha, but people really respond to it which is great.
As you say, we don’t know a lot about the food of the former soviet states, so if you were going to woo a new audience with a really classic dish, what would it be? Green Borshch surprises people, it is a beautiful broth for spring, made with a rich duck stock, sorrel, dill, spring onions and soft boiled eggs. It is unexpected, fresh, healthy and light. Of course as the seasons change you want something more warming, so at this time of year it would have to be a rich oxtail soup and numerous types of delicious dumplings.
Your October class at Thyme is all about fermentation. It is such a mysterious process, magical yet scientific. For many the notion of ‘live foods’ is still a little intimidating. What ferment would you recommend to convince the unconverted to get their jars ready this autumn? It doesn’t have to be scary, in fact you just have to embrace it – it will be funky and fizzy, you want those bubbles, so as long as there isn’t any slime (if there is you will just have to throw it out) even a bit of mould is manageable. Start with lovely firm vegetables, beetroots, cabbage, runner beans, lots of herbs and simply submerge in brine, they are delicious.
Are there any vegetables that you wouldn’t ferment? I wouldn’t ferment courgettes, they simply go mushy too quickly and I never ferment rhubarb. I know Tom Hunt (Poco) loves fermenting rhubarb but it’s not for me.
Your delicious recipes & vivid presence in London’s food scene have coincided with the emergence of fermentation as a ‘food trend’ and the ‘clean eating’ movement’s claims for its health benefits, how do you feel about this in terms of your own mission to bring fermenting to a wider audience? I am so fortunate with the emergence of all these health reports about fermenting, just as I was beginning to talk about it here in London. I never thought of it as ‘healthy’ it was simply the way we preserved against the scarcity of the winter. I do hope it isn’t seen as a food-trend though, it isn’t a weird concept, it’s a way of living, a genuine way of preserving that is simply part of the way we can cook.
Skyr & kefir are gaining in popularity and it’s rare to find a London cafe that doesn’t have kimchi on the menu – have you discovered any new ferments from other world cuisines that you love? I am just back from the Caucasus and fell in love with Matsoni, fermented tangy Georgian yoghurt reminiscent of kefir. The word for its bacterial starter is ‘deda’ meaning ‘mother’ which is lovely. I also love a ferment called ‘Jonjoli’, clusters of caper-like sprouts (in the UK the plant is rather unattractively called bladderwort) served with thinly sliced red onion & sunflower oil – delicious.
Where is Olia at her happiest and where does she want to go? I have lots of exciting plans coming up, I’m working on a really big project at the moment (a little too early to talk about), but there are also Carousel London pop-ups, festivals, of course my class at Thyme in October that I am so looking forward to and I’m back to ‘Saturday Kitchen’ in November. I’m always on the go and love the diversity of what I’m doing. Perhaps there will be a restaurant one day, when my son is older, I’d love that, but not yet.
Olia Hercules' cookbook 'Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond' is published by Mitchell Beazley - her class 'Fermenting at Thyme' will be held on 22nd October 2016.