Q&A with Olia Hercules, author of Summer Kitchens
We’re looking forward to your book. What prompted you to write it?
A few years ago I mentioned ‘summer kitchens’ casually to someone in the UK and they asked me what I meant by it; a ‘summer kitchen’ is a small cooking space outside in the vegetable garden away from the main house.
It was when I explained the idea to them that I knew I had to do research beyond my own experience of them as a child. I thought it was going to be an article, but that didn’t transpire, which I am glad for as now it is a whole book!
Who did you write this book for? Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
I don’t know if I have a particular reader in mind when I write. I just write and then hope that people who are curious about different cultures and food will pick it up and love it. With Summer Kitchens, I also had hoped that it might stir some memories and feelings in people from Ukraine and other eastern European countries where summer kitchens exist.
To me, my summer kitchen was a memory capsule filled with positivity and I was hoping it would be similar for other people.
My readers are very very diverse! There was a young man who worked in an intense financial job, but he also sang professionally in a polyphonic Bulgarian choir! (He is not Bulgarian). There was a woman army chaplain; a Chilean woman that lived in Texas but now lives in Thailand with her Indian husband and kids. There was a woman in her late 70s that left Ukraine with her parents for Australia, she was happy to reconnect with her roots. When she sent me the email it was the first time ever she’d used a computer. It was so touching. There was a hand-written letter from a Russian emigre living in Berlin and a lot of Scots! There was a couple from England who do things like intricate whittling and smoking-shed building as a hobby. Third generation Ukrainians from Bradford wrote in, and fifth generation Canadians.
So very diverse indeed, but what unites my readers is how interesting and interested they are. There have also of course been people from Ukraine writing in. I feel extremely blessed with my readership, and I have included some of their writing (memories of summer kitchens) at the end of the book. It is my favourite part of the book.
You mention that Ukraine is larger than France and just as regional. What regional speciality would you recommend?
There are too many! In Transcarpathia, by the Hungarian border, they make the most delicious bogracz - a thick and meaty paprika-stained broth cooked over fire. They also cook a dish called kolduny - soft dough roulade, of sorts, stuffed with wild mushrooms and cut into pieces. They are then fried until golden on each side and then poached in a white sauce. In Poltava apples are fermented in pumpkin puree - delicious! In Vylkove they make sturgeon-filled buns and in Polissya they make pyrizhky buns using rhubarb. I have never even heard of rhubarb until I moved to the UK, we never used it in the south.
What do you miss most about Ukrainian food? How easy is it to get hold of specialist ingredients in the UK?
I miss the ingredients and the energy that comes with Ukrainian cooking. The home-grown summer produce is very special, nourished by the black soil and charged by the blazing sun. The tomatoes that my mum grows are so big, juicy and aromatic, and all the herbs she grows are incredible. My aunt’s potatoes will blow your mind - sweet - when you boil them they taste of butter without being buttered.
So many of the basic ingredients used and talked about (dried mushrooms, pickles, preserved fruit, home-made cheeses) are very simple, but the techniques for creating them are not necessarily familiar to readers outside Ukraine. How difficult do you think it would be to try some of these techniques at home?
Apart from some dishes that are cooked or dried in a wood-fired oven (and even those can be adapted to a domestic oven), all of the cooking in Summer Kitchens is doable in a non-Ukrainian home. It is all home-cooking after all.
For example - making ryazhanka - the baked milk yogurt is so easy. Get very good quality organic, full fat milk (easy to find in the UK), put it in a low oven in a casserole pot with a lid overnight. When it’s golden and has developed a crust over the milk - you are nearly there. Take off the crust and eat it for breakfast. Mix some yogurt or creme fraiche into the baked milk and follow your regular yogurt-making instructions.
A lot of the time you just need to plan and reserve some time, which isn’t hard at the moment. None of it is very arduous, a lot of the times you do something quickly and then just let it be.
If you had the space, would you build a summer kitchen in the UK? What would you grow in your garden nearby?
So, we do have an office shed now and it is my dream that when the kids go off to university, I will move my husband Joe and his office back into the house and will turn his shed into a summer kitchen! And I do already grow! We dug out all of the useless lawn in our garden and planted in some camomile plants and Joe built some borders for a small vegetable-growing patch.
I have courgettes, pumpkins, chard, kale, beetroot, peas, broad beans, lovage, kai lan and lots of herbs on the go - the ‘mammoth dill’ is coming along, and I am hoping my purple basil will turn into a nice little bush by August.
Your book focuses on seasonal and local produce. Do you think people are changing how they shop and cook?
I really hope so! I think we were moving that way anyway, but I have high hopes that lockdown has made it clear how important it is to support independent shops, which more often than not have very good produce in.
As Alice Waters from Chez Panisse famously said “When you have cheap food, it means someone isn’t being paid for his or her work, usually the farmer or the farmworker in the field. This is a social justice issue. And cheap food isn’t cheap. We are paying heavily right now - diabetes, obesity, a collapsing health system, devastation of the land. If we don’t pay up front for food, we pay at the back end.”
She was of course talking about the US, but I think it applies to a lot of Western countries.
The letters and stories about Ukraine are full of love and affection; people hold such fond memories of their time there. Would you like to see more people visiting Ukraine (when we’re able to travel again?)
Yes of course, one of the greatest joys of doing the kind of travelogue writing that I do is when people write to me after, saying that my books inspired them to travel to Ukraine or Caucasus. I am hoping that when things in the world improve, I will be able to take people on a food tour to the south, where I am from.
If someone were travelling to Ukraine for the first time, where would you suggest they went and what should they eat?
Ah, it depends on what kind of experience you want. If you are used to ‘comfortable’ travel and enjoy restaurants - Odessa is your place. It has such exciting places where you can eat, and the local food and produce is so interesting and delicious.
If you want more of a down to earth, ‘authentic’ experience, hit up Experience Ukraine and go on one of their eco tours to Transcarpathia. The food there is fantastic - Ukrainian dishes mixed with influences from Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
What’s your go-to meal to cook at home?
It varies, but one of the simplest things when I am very busy is chicken broth with little galushky dumplings. You just mix some semolina flour with an egg and some water and drop little spoonfuls of it into the broth - it is so comforting.
What food trend would you like to see becoming mainstream?
Two months ago I would have said sourdough but lockdown did it! Everyone is baking now - which is great. If you are not, I have a very good ‘sourdough for beginners” recipe in Summer Kitchens.
Summer Kitchens is full of fabulous natural-looking photography. Did you have to do much designing, or is it really that gorgeous?
Some of the food was shot in my kitchen in London, but even those shots - I do not ‘overstyle’. There are no tricks I use, just cook lovely food and my husband Joe shoots it.
The rest of the photography - there was no ‘styling’ at all. If anything we had to work hard to stop people from trying to tidy up too much!
How do you like to unwind? Do you have any other creative outlets as well as your cooking and writing? If not, what would you like to try?
I picked up drawing again, which I used to do a lot of when I was a kid. I started a diary in October where I write thoughts, record silly family names we come up with for the baby and each other; lullaby lyrics I sing to my five month old baby Wilf, his birth story is in also; and my eldest son Sasha’s achievements. I add in little illustrations with ink or watercolour pencils alongside the text. I am hoping it will be a nice thing for the boys to read when they grow up.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I was an obsessive reader. My family laughed at me because there would be periods when I would take out the same book out of the library. I had weird, diverse tastes in books.
I loved my Moomins book and also Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of The Red Death and The Raven poem.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have a couple of books on the go which I am hoping to finish. I am re-reading the brilliant and highly original Longthroat Memoirs by the Nigerian writer Yemisi Aribisala, there is also the Forager’s Calendar by John Wright. I am also eagerly awaiting Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva, I ordered it from my local bookshop last week.
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.