Book reviews | Book of the month: Mamushka by Olia Hercules

Book reviews

Book of the month: Mamushka by Olia Hercules

How often do you find a recipe book that offers a genuinely original selection of recipes inspired by a cooking tradition you’re not even aware of? For those whose shelves are bulging with Italian and middle-eastern cookbooks, Mamushka, by the talented young chef and food stylist Olia Hercules, offers a window into a different culinary world.

Hercules (it sounds weird to use that name of such a strikingly pretty young woman, so let’s call her Olia) focuses on the food of what her publisher astutely dubs the ‘wild east’ - her native Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

She wrote the book, she says, to dispel the myths about her country - for one thing that it’s not cold and bleak but temperate - only an hour by air from Turkey. “Our winters are mild, our summers long and hot and our food a cornucopia of colour and flavour.”

The current conflict in the Ukraine prompted her to document family recipes, she was scared might be lost. “This is the stuff of my childhood, a life that I want to share with you… to give the messy geo-political mosaic a human face."

Divided into foods that are typical of the region including soups, some astonishing stuffed breads, dumplings, jams and pickles (there’s a great section on fermenting…) the book is packed with recipes you simply can’t wait to make.

She writes simply but so evocatively. "We grew up eating seasonally, as happily there was no alternative. I remember the aroma of the first prickly cucumber in May, my mother chopping it straight over the chipped enamel bowl then adding the tomatoes radishes and a whole bunch of chopped dill, all well seasoned and lightly dressed with smetana - the silkiest of soured creams. My favourite part of the meal was dipping a piece of bread into the pool of pink-stained leftover dressing speckled with dill fronds and watching the pink seep into the bread." (The moment I read that I had to make the recipe and even though I used yoghurt rather than smetana it was truly delicious as you can see from the somewhat messy photo above.)

Other recipes I tried over the same weekend were equally successfuL: a Georgian kidney bean salad fragrant with herbs, improved, I suspect, by using some excellent dried borlotti beans I'd brought back from Austria rather than a can and Azerbaijani chicken with prunes and walnuts - an exotic riff on roast chicken (I substituted brown breadcrumbs for some of the walnuts as I didn't have quite enough and cooked the bird a little longer than Olia suggested) perfectly matched with her Armenian roasted vegetables (the Armenian element being roast cabbage and dill). And I took advantage of the gooseberry season to make her gooseberry and strawberry conserve, a sharp, bright-tasting jam that brings out the best of both fruits.

I can’t wait to make her ‘Ukrainian narcotics’ - pork belly cured with salt and garlic, frozen then served from the freezer in wafer-thin slices, fermented tomatoes 'mindblowing' according to Olia), a celebratory dish of Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb and practically everything in the bread section though I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve the gossamer-thin texture of the irresistibly beautiful Moldovan giant cheese twist. (One of the things I most like about the book is the mixture of very simple recipes with more challanging ones. And its practicality: Olia always suggests substitutes for hard-to-find ingredients.)

Sometimes I have to do a cull of my cookbooks to avoid them taking over the flat but this is definitely a keeper.

Mamushka by Olia Hercules is published by Mitchell Beazley at £25. If you want to try Olia’s food before you buy the book she is cooking at Carousel from July 28th to Saturday 1st August 2015. You can book here

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