In-conversation with chef & food writer Olia Hercules, author of Kaukasis & Mamushka

I was indirectly introduced to food writer, chef & stylist Olia Hercules by my photographer friend Aneta through Olia’s first book, ‘Mamushka’, that Aneta absolutely loved. Lately there are so many cookery books being published, it’s easier to get lost in the sheer volume or become jaded by them, but Olia’s talent, as well as the old-fashioned approach to modern cooking & scrumptious recipes beckon you in, like old-friends. When Olia’s second book, ‘Kaukasis, a culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & beyond’ came out, I placed an order on Amazon. As soon as it reached my hands, I did two things – got in touch with Olia to organise a meeting & then got lost in drinking in the beauty of Olia’s stories & recipes from the book.

On a slightly windy week day in October I travelled to see Olia on the other side of town & when I crossed through the street market & buzzed on the door, Olia’s beaming face greeted me. With slightly wavy dark hair framing her beautiful & unmade-up face, in a simple white tee and black dungarees, she looked more like a student, than a culinary sensation and mum of one. We climbed up a slightly creaky staircase, with me curiously looking around her apartment & sat in Olia’s kitchen, where she made me some fresh coffee, as I started bombarding her with my questions.

Olia was born in the Ukraine, but moved with her family to Cyprus aged 12, partially because of her flaring up asthma. A few years later she landed in London, where she studied politics & Italian at Warwick University. When Olia told me about it, I winked at her, saying that considering the state of politics in the world today, her studies must come handy in some way, even though her work & passion lie elsewhere.

After University Olia worked for a Russian film company Rossika, reporting on film news, but a 2008 economic crisis gripped the world & Olia went through five rounds of redundancies. While the world continued to revolve, Olia questioned her professional direction and decided to do a cookery course at Leiths School of Food & Wine. Making this decision also involved a serious financial commitment on Olia’s part and while she contemplated taking out a bank loan, the ‘bank of mum & dad’, the most trust-worthy one in the world, if you have access to it, put itself forward. Olia got a place on the course, swiftly moving from beginners to the more intense, yet amazing lessons. While she studied & as part of her course, Olia put forward some of her recipes for the Good Food Guide competition, as winning it, could have helped to open doors for the budding chef. Olia didn’t win, as after succeeding in the initial selection process, she failed in the interview stage (looking back Olia smiles softly and says that she was nowhere ready for it, having had no practise for the interview at such a level). After completing her course, Olia went to work as a chef de partie in the restaurants, including the famous Ottolenghi, where she often worked double shifts, meaning she was at work from 6:30am till 1am. The job gave her plenty of experience, taught her ‘stamina & the art of seasoning, as well as toughened her up’, but after doing it for a year Olia knew that she needed to jump off the hampster’s wheel. Cooking comes naturally to many women, but as many of them want to have & then raise families, one day the choice between a chosen career in the intense restaurant industry & raising a family has to be made. Luckily, there are plenty of other places & opportunities to apply your professional skills at.

Ollie continued to cook & do her research, while also working on food styling projects. She also worked for Sainsbury’s Magazine as a recipe tester and all of those experiences helped shape her further as a chef, so her professional journey truly became a natural progression & proves that things will be alright, if you work hard & follow your dreams.

‘Get inspired by the outlines, but also feel compelled to create your own mosaic’

One of the people that shaped Olia’s cooking is her mother. Olia modestly says that compared to her mum’s cooking, she still has a way to go, but if you look through both of Olia’s books, you will understand that she is being very modest. Traditional recipes with her own twist make Olia stand out from a tribe of talented modern cooks, both male & female.

Olia’s first book, ‘Mamushka: Recipies from Ukraine & beyond’ was her love letter to her motherland. It was very personal, as it included a hundred or so recipes that she grew up with, with her mother cooking for the family every day. The book is still a roving success & retains prime position in many cookery sections of Waterstones, but it also drew some unpleasant comments, making Olia grow thicker skin. Olia’s second book, ‘Kaukasis’, which was published in August by Octopus, was inspired by the journey that she originally took with her parents & brother as a child, from her home town of Kakhovka to the capital of Azerbaijan Baku in the family Zhiguli car. As you leaf through the pages, Olia sets a relaxed tone from the first page, reflecting on life of the different nationalities living in the Caucasus & drawing inspiration from Armenian, Georgian & Azerbaijani people, their cultures & cooking techniques. Olia’s aunt is half-Ukrainian & half-Armenian, so while Olia didn’t travel to Armenia during that trip, her aunt’s recipes helped enhance the book’s flavour.

Two years ago Olia re-created the journey through Caucasus, travelling for 25 days through Georgia & Azerbaijan, creating new memories & learning new things alongside her female photographer friend Elena Heatherwick, who took the images for the book ( Olia’s images in this post are also by Elena). Doing it was intense & arduous, made more complex emotionally, as both Olia & Elena are mothers and had to leave their kids back home, while trying to cram as much as possible during their fairly short, but very intense trip.

‘How does one unite the idea of a childhood journey, memories and feelings of nostalgia with new-found knowledge of the Caucasus & its people?’

Every day Olia & Elena got up at 7am and didn’t finish work till about 9pm, with Olia’s double kitchen shifts probably helping her last the distance marked for every day of the trip. The trip undoubtedly had its hardships, but Olia felt so inspired by the people she met & landscapes that her eyes saw & her legs travelled, she wrote the book almost in a single breath, while feeling the responsibility on her shoulders to do justice to those people, who opened their homes & hearts to her, sharing their family recipes & traditions.

The book itself is divided into five recipe sections ( Roots Shoots Leaves & All, Flour & Ash, Beasts from Land, Sea & Air, Pain Be Gone! & Sweet in the Tooth, alongside the introduction, ingredients & suppliers). Olia also shares some of the evocative stories from her past, including her family’s journey that inspired this book, the delight of Georgian wine, infused with old & new traditions & the intentions & inspirations behind the cooking process.

‘I like vegetables, especially in spring’

Each chapter tells you you about ingredients, methods & variations, but it is not just about the cooking. It has a lot to do with emotions that make every recipe in this book even more special. I find leafing through the book, even when I don’t plan to cook anything, very comforting. It also helps enhance your own culinary & cultural knowledge and to travel in your mind to far away cities & villages thanks to Olia. The book offers a mystical, magical, exciting journey of reflection & discovery every time I open one of the pages & Elena’s images transport me to the past, when I visited Georgia as a child & Baku as a grown-up. Time doesn’t stand still but each recipe, steeped in tradition, makes you want to drop everything & just cook, possibly putting your own twists to Olia’s recipes, if you are brave enough .) Some of the best cooks I know cook with a dash of this ingredient, a dose of that & their own intuition & feeling, which always produce special dishes the taste of which you continue to savour in your mind long after the meal is over, like a glass of Georgian Kinzmarauli….

Cooking in Caucasus involves lots of spices & flavour, so even a simple recipe of ‘Nutty tomato & cucumber salad’ becomes a masterpiece when you make it yourself, guided by Olia’s writing. I love Olia’s ‘Savoury peach & tarragon salad’, and her twist, adding cucumber to ‘Tarragon & Cucumber Lemonade’, made me chuckle appreciatively. Growing up in Moscow I often drank ‘Tarhun’, a tarragon flavoured lemonade, that to this day reminds me of my childhood & Olia created something that I can now share with my own children, bringing past into the present.

Other stand out recipes for me are ‘Nazilya’s Cholme Kiabab’ that makes me think of my own grandmother cooking one of my favourite chicken dishes as a child (thanks to the pan that Olia used in the recipe & Elena captured), as well as the famous ‘Adjarian Khachapouri’ – ‘a luscious cheesy, eggy, buttery bath to dip the edges of the bread into’. Best eaten slightly cooled down out of the oven, it is one of the things that defines happiness in a mouthful. Accompanied by a glass of red wine or a cup of steaming coffee, it evokes pure delight of eating something that is simple in terms of ingredients, yet makes tummy & soul content. Until Olia’s book landed in my hands, I only ate it in the restaurants in Russia & now I make it as home, to the delight of my little ninjas, who love it as much as I do.

Before I finish the post with a quick Q & A with Olia, I want to add one more thing that comes to my mind when I think of Olia. At the time when the world seems to be obsessed with ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ eating, it can be tricky to navigate the road of daily cooking for family & friends, as there are so many restrictions, which take the joy out of cooking. Olia actually helps re-ignite the passion for cooking at home, which often becomes more of a chore, than a delight, when you cook not just for yourself, but for a family. Simple ingredients, being in the moment and introducing traditions from around the world thanks to Olia’s passion & research of culinary traditions from the places that are further afield, make you become more adventurous & confident in your own cooking skills! That’s really just one of many reasons why I would recommend buying at least one of Olia’s books. ‘Kaukasis’ is definitely one of my top five cookery books bought in 2017!

Q & A with Olia Hercules

Where do you source the ingredients from?

Try to shop locally for the best seasonal ingredients, but also shop online. Essence of cooking is about being accessible

What are you favourite recipes from ‘Kaukasis’?

Ossetian pies; the original Charkhali or plum-marinated beetroot; Serdakh (Aubergines & Tomatoes).

The kitchen utensils that you cherish/ essential to your cooking?

My grandmother’s wooden rolling pin that I wouldn’t even travel without; Good quality, sharp knives; Granite pestle & mortar; Old pans that have been used for cooking for years

Ingredients that you can’t be without in your kitchen?

Malden salt; Unrefined sunflower oil (Clearspring makes a great one); ferments & spices

What makes a good cook?

Natural instincts & enjoying the cooking process. The energy you put into food – you have to love what you do. Don’t be afraid to veer off the track & be your own judge. After all, every lemon has its own acidity.

P/s I believe in serendipity. Earlier this week, as my children were on half-term, we went to see a fantastic exhibition at the British Museum dedicated to Scythians (highly recommended  to adults & children over the age of seven, as smaller kids are probably too young to appreciate it yet). As I was editing this post, I was looking through Kaukasis & saw Olia mention Scythian language in her book introduction – a clue to how Olia chose the name of her book, which is a story in itself .)

Olia Hercules ‘Kaukasis The Cookbook’ is published by Octopus Books, £25

To find out more about Olia, her books, recipes, cooking demonstrations, events  & more please click here

Olia’s images in this post are courtesy of photographer Elena Heatherwick

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