Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules

What’s the USP? A passionate love letter to Ukraine, written in everybody’s favourite love language: good food.

Who wrote it? Olia Hercules, who grew up in Ukraine before moving to Cyprus and eventually settling in the UK, has some chops in this field. Giving up her career in film business reporting after the 2008 financial crisis, she retrained at Leith’s and has worked as chef de partie at Ottolenghi. This is her third book – Mamushka and Kaukasis, her well-loved previous efforts, both drew on the traditions of a number of eastern European countries. Hercules tightens her vision to her homeland here, acknowledging throughout that the ever-shifting borders and populations of the region mean influences seep in from across the continent.

Is it good bedtime reading? The book is filled with evocative and fascinating prose, and is a little reminiscent of James Rebanks’ writing on shepherding – writing in such a way that even hardship is given a silver lining through the emergence of community spirit and creative solutions. The summer kitchens of the title are traditional outbuildings in Ukraine. When a young couple gets married, they share this single room kitchen/bedroom hybrid – often raising their families whilst they save to build a house. That home itself is built through a great community effort – Hercules’ descriptions reminded me of the barn building scene in Witness. Once the end result is completed, often many months later, the old structure becomes a ‘summer kitchen’ – a workshop-esque space for cooking and making the most of the produce grown in the garden. Stories like these permeate the book, making it as much a champion of Ukrainian culture as it is the recipes themselves.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? None at all – these are simple, homely recipes that create filling dinners from a range of ingredients you wouldn’t struggle to pick up from your local Aldi or Lidl. Classic staples make up the overwhelming majority of ingredients required here – vegetables, grains and plenty of eggs.  Occasionally you might need to visit a butcher for some goat, but most calls for meat are catered perfectly to what’s readily available in a supermarket – something that even our biggest celebrity chefs often fail to manage.

What’s the faff factor? Hercules is happy to devote a little time to her dishes, and you’ll need to do so as well. Noodles are made from scratch, and there are plenty of recipes that will require a leisurely afternoon in the kitchen. But nothing will test your skill as a chef – another benefit of the simple home cooking approach.

How often will I cook from the book? The time required for many of the dishes will relegate this to a weekend-only book for many, but there’s variety enough for at least a fortnightly visit.

Killer recipes: The chicken broth with bran kvas, noodles, mushrooms and lovage – a comforting Ukrainian take on the chicken noodle soup – looks set to cure any ailment you might present it with. The yeasted buns with slow-roast pork are irresistible too; crisp and soft rolls stuffed with unctuous belly, prunes and sauerkraut. Hercules also offers up some tempting fish ideas – be they deep-fried Odesan sprats or simple but delicious fishballs in tomato sauce.

Should I buy it? There’s a lot to love here, from the passionate celebration of Ukraine’s melting-pot culture to the extended section dedicated to pickling and fermenting. Olia Hercules has form, clearly, in the bottling of magic – and whether that’s in the form of fatty pork shoulder preserved for the winter months, or a love of her homeland, preserved for all to enjoy, it’s worth taking a bite of whatever she’s offering.

Cuisine: Ukrainian
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Buy this book
Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine
£26, Bloomsbury Publishing

Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
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Andy Lynes

I'm a food and drink writer and author.

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