“Do something that truly brings you joy in life” – Meet Olia Hercules

Award-winning food writer and Chef, Olia Hercules has made it her business to bring something different to the table. We spent the morning chatting to her whilst she cooked her incredible Village Breakfast from Kaukasis, (the follow-on to Mamushka) to find out all things Ukraine, the struggles of the ‘second-book’ and her words of wisdom for aspiring foodies – all while eating eggs. You could say it was a dream morning.

So first off, tell us a bit about yourself?

“So originally I’m from Ukraine. I was a junior reporter before re-training to become a chef and ended up working for Ottolenghi. I wrote my first cookbook Mamushka a few years ago after an agent miraculously saw my column in The Guardian and got in touch to say there’s a niche here and the rest is history. Now the second cookbook is out, I guess I was just really lucky.”

Can you tell us more about your second book, Kaukasis? 
“Well you know how I love my family connections. My aunt is half Armenian, half Ukrainian but actually grew up in Azerbaijan. So 30 years ago when I was only little, my mum, my dad and I went on a trip from Ukraine across on the ferry to Sochi in Russia, then drove through Georgia and into Azerbaijan to see my family there and had this amazing trip. It’s only now that I realise that my parents were a little nuts…they didn’t even warn our family in Azerbaijan that we were coming.

“So I decided well, why don’t I re-do it but looking through this foodie prism? So a couple of years ago I recreated it with my brother. We were lucky enough for these amazing people to let us into their homes and give us all their recipes. So that’s what the book is all about – their stories and their recipes.”

Did you adapt the recipes at all or are they essentially exactly how they were given to you?

“Some of them haven’t been altered at all because I didn’t feel they needed it but a couple I knew would be kind of mental for a Western pallet.

“For example, at the border of Azerbaijan and Iran (there’s a picture of it in the book), they eat this dried fish with watermelon and bread. I really wanted to add this into the book but it’s not really a recipe and I thought maybe people wouldn’t be so sure about it.

“So instead I made a version that’s using all of those flavours – with sourdough tossed in smashed garlic and anchovy, then made into croutons and served with a watermelon and red onion salad with herbs – and that works. If you think salty fish, watermelon, bread – what’s not to like? So things like that I have changed a little bit.”

Do you have a favourite recipe from the book?
“This one I’m making. So this is a village breakfast; Georgians love to throw a load of stuff into a pan with eggs, though my aunt does make something similar in Ukraine. Another dish, an Azerbaijani dish, is half a head of garlic, thinly sliced and gently cooked in loads of clarified butter. Then you add baby aubergines, tomatoes and that’s it. Simple but aubergines cooked in butter? I mean I’d never tried it before and it works beautifully. It’s things like that, things you wouldn’t think of but using the ingredients that you know.”

So Mamuskha was such a deeply personal book, what was the motivation behind this one?
“Bringing light to cuisines that are lesser-known really. Over the ex-Soviet space loads of amazing traditions, ingredients and techniques have been lost and loads of endemic crops almost annihilated, but in Georgia what’s amazing is they’re trying to revive everything and I wanted to show that and go beyond that. Everyone talks about French or Italian cooking as regional but actually it’s regional everywhere because everywhere has regions, surprise surprise, and I wanted to show there’s regionality in Eastern Europe too.”

What have been the highlight of the last couple of years?

“This is probably going to be a bit cheesy but the highlight of the last couple of years has been people writing to me about Mamushka. There was this lady who sent me a really blurry picture of herself saying: ‘This is the first day that I learnt how to use a computer. I really wanted to write this email because my family left the Ukraine in the 40s and emigrated to Australia and I grew up with their stories.’ She went on and told me me all these stories about where she grew up and said thank you for writing the book. Things like that have been amazing. Also cooking, especially whenever I do my Carousel residency.”

If you were telling people to go Ukraine, where would you tell them to go?
“There’s a lot more for me to discover but the south of Ukraine is cool. Odessa is beautiful and really great if you want a city just by the sea. There’s also a Ukrainian Venice on the border with Moldova called Vylkove, where people just commute by boats with massive sacks of apples.

“When I took people to Western Ukraine, we went up to this castle and the guide just pointed and said – ‘half an hour over there it’s Hungary, half an hour over there is Romania, half an hour over there is etc. etc.’  We were on this little nub of Ukraine but bordering with all of these different countries and that’s why food is so insane, we just have so many different influences. There are these thousands-year-old Beech forests in the north where there’s porcini mushrooms the size of my forearm and tiny, little wild strawberries. Then in the south it’s so hot but we grow incredible things like tomatoes and aubergines – it’s such an amazing place and so different everywhere.”

So speaking of food, what’s your favourite Ukrainian dishes?

“It’s a bit of a cliche as well because it’s the most well-known recipe but borsch is insane. Everybody thinks it’s this super-red beetroot soup and of course there are versions in every Eastern European country, but the borsch that I know, is actually mostly red from tomatoes.

“So in the summer it’s made using fresh tomatoes and in the winter it would be fermented tomatoes. They also make a fermented tomato passata called morsch, which is really cool. Once in this restaurant called Kanapa in Kiev I tried this prune borsch with these very slight smokey prune overtones and sliced pig’s ear and it was insane.”

Where do you call home now you’ve moved away?
“London is my home I guess. I’ve been here for 15 years now and I left Ukraine when I was 12. My mind is very much British but I’d say inside it’s still very much Ukrainian.”

Who are the chefs and restaurants you’re excited about at the moment?

“I really love Tim Spedding who actually just left London recently and went to the West Country. He used to work at P.Franco and he’s amazing. I really love 40 Maltby Street. They’re so clever but the food isn’t overdone, it’s just really good ingredients, really interesting combinations and it just works, it’s beautiful. I actually had beetroot and raspberry there yesterday and was so excited because my book has this beetroot and plum situation in it. Beetroot and red fruit is the bomb, it converts any beetroot haters. Then Som Saa for Thai Food, and the Laughing Heart have this amazing late-night Chinese menu, the proper stuff – the kind of Chinese you need if you’ve been drinking and you need something to soak it up.”

Where are your favourite spots in London for coffee?
“For convenience there’s a really cool art cafe across the road called Muxima and they’re really lovely. I used to have a local in Haringey in North London but we’ve only just moved here so I’m still discovering things. Sometimes we go to The Pavillion in Victoria Park and have Sri Lankan breakfast there, which Sasha my son loves.”

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

“My son with “Momma Pancakes!” Grandma spoils him when she’s here as she makes him pancakes every morning, so when she leaves I’m totally screwed. But motivation wise  – doing what I love. I’m starting to work on my third project as well, which I can’t say much about, but I’m going back to the Ukraine for more research as there’s so much more to show. I also really want to go to Crimea to see the tatas and talk to them and get their stories and food. So to keep doing that I guess.”

What would a typical day in the life look like?
“Wake up with the bashing in the head from my son, make breakfast and take him to school and then I work. I mean, at the moment I don’t have a typical day it’s just been book (though I’m not complaining) but sometimes I miss the routine, you know like children when they need a routine to feel sane.”

How did you keep going writing the second book? 
“I feel that writing the second one was a lot harder. I would just stop and go ‘is this good?’, ‘is it as good as Mamushka?’ When I wrote Mamuskha I had nothing and I knew nothing about the process. I got it out in four months – writing and shooting – and it was just there. Then for the second one, I had all of the family stories and the research. At some point you stop and you wonder ‘is this going to have the same impact, are people going to connect with it?’ For me, writing cookbooks is more than just recipes, it’s making people excited about the place and the people, so that kept me going.”

You mention this book being harder, I think as someone working creativity and especially being a women, you can question yourself a lot, how did you get over that?
“I mean it goes up and down. Have you ever seen that meme of the creative process which goes, ‘this is great, this is ok, oh no it’s sh*t, I’m sh*t, oh no it’s great.’ So you literally go through that in circles *laughs* I just told myself not to be such a stress monkey.”

What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I think everything that we go through and all the stupid mistakes that we make, actually, everybody needs to go through that, so I wouldn’t change a thing. Though maybe I would say be more confident in what you’re doing and what you want to do.”

You’ve done so many different things career-wise, what would you say to people who are maybe struggling to find where they want to be in life?

“If there’s a really strong hobby or something you have a passion about; if you close your eyes can imagine yourself doing it, then do.

“To give an example with me and food. Before I retrained and started doing Leiths, I just thought: ‘Am I going to be happy doing this? Waking up at 5am and going to work in a restaurant and just love doing it?’ and the answer was yes. So just do something that truly brings you joy in life. Turning your hobby into your profession, to me, just equals happiness.

“And if you’re already in food, look into your personal situation. Maybe following trends works for some, but I say just be yourself and do something that you do with love and you’re going to be fine.”

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