For Olia Hercules, home and food are the same thing. So much so that when she thinks of home, the first room that pops into her head is the kitchen, she says, explaining: “It’s an integral part of it; you can’t separate them. My mum always cooked, and I cook for my children, so it’s an extremely important part of my life.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that Hercules’ new book is titled Home Food, a collection of simple recipes alongside evocative stories and memories from friends and fellow food writers.
It was written over two years during the pandemic and finished before the war in Ukraine broke out last February. But with a passion for travel, and telling other people’s food stories, Hercules originally found the prospect of writing while confined during lockdown a “devastating prospect”.
“I’m interested in other people’s stories and history; what have I got to offer? Maybe it’s just being a woman, you know?” she ponders, over the phone from her home in east London.
My mum always cooked, and I cook for my children, so it’s an extremely important part of my life.
The book was initially designed as 100 simple recipes to cook at home, with plenty of freedom to interpret, but the scent of lime trees near her home, with their honeyed nectar, brought a wave of nostalgia and a doorway to food stories closer to home.
“I was really missing Ukraine and my family at the time and that was the smell of June in my home town, Kakhovka, with sticky cars because there is so much nectar falling out of these blossoms. I did a bit of research into why there are so many lime trees in my part of east London and found out that Victorians really loved them.
“So I wrote an essay about the connection between Ukraine and the UK and these lime trees. We used to forage and make tea with them, and in England you used to make sandwiches with them. And then this theme just started developing.”
Stories topple out of Hercules almost involuntarily – at times she is almost more anthropological journalist than chef, as she carefully interviewed and collated stories for her book of other people’s impressions of home.
“There’s one from Jeremy Lee about his grandmother making him a lentil soup and it’s just so evocative and it felt really therapeutic to write that book at that time. And it feels really therapeutic to read it now,” she says.
It’s fair to say Hercules has more reason than most to feel the need for therapeutic reading.
Within the book are photos of her own home, including rare shots of her two sons with their grandmother at her home in Ukraine, and the last time the family were all together.
It’s a poignant moment as at the time she didn’t realise quite how valuable that time would be when in February 2022, her world, and many others’, was turned upside down when Putin invaded Ukraine and many citizens, including her own parents, were displaced.
Instead of collapsing in powerlessness, Hercules spent the year rising to prominence as the face of Cook for Ukraine, organised along with her friend and Russian food writer Alissa Timoshkina.
The campaign has so far raised over £800,000, beginning with vital financial support and defensive clothing for those defending Ukraine on the ground, and now raising money for Unicef UK supporting women and children affected by the conflict.
Hercules was vocal across her own social media and appearing frequently in the national press, working tirelessly to raise awareness. But the impact personally was huge – she started losing her hair, she says, and her appetite, which only came back when her friend started sending her homemade Chinese food every week.
It’s not the first time food has rescued Hercules at important times in her life. A child of two enthusiastic cooks, her mother traditional and her father “creative”, she resisted their efforts to teach her with typical teenage stubbornness. But moving to the UK to study, and then again for a year abroad in Italy, she began to realise its powerful universality.
There, she saw that all of her new Italian friends cooked – “especially the boys” – a common cultural norm.
“It was all done with such enthusiasm and flair, and I connected to food on another level then, because it was a new environment. I emigrated once to Cyprus, then another time to the UK, and this time to Italy, so I guess I was subconsciously looking for these connections and a universal factor, and how can I integrate myself into this world?”
Our cooking would vary from season to season and from region to region.
Aside from bringing powerful human impact stories from the current war’s frontlines to her audiences, Hercules’ work has for a long-time been a portal to the food cultures and ingredients of her beloved home country. And her skill in communicating flavours and seasons marks her as an original and effortless food writer who sees the deep connections between culture, people, food and identity.
“Up north, like in Italy, you’ve got mountains, and polenta dishes and mushrooms, and berries,” she explains. “And the herbs you would use would be like dill and marjoram. But if you go down south and you go into my mum’s garden, or into a local market, you’d see purple basil, coriander, tarragon, watermelon, tomatoes and aubergines, and it’s all very Mediterranean.
“So it’s extremely diverse actually. And our cooking would vary from season to season and from region to region.”
Her own favourite dish is borscht, the ubiquitous broth and vessel for seasonal variations in flavour and ingredients. “People think that it’s just beetroot soup, but actually there are hundreds of recipes varying so much from across Ukraine,” she says.
“In my own region, we would make borscht with quite a lot of tomatoes and not much beetroot. In the summer you’d add red peppers to it, and cook briskly with cabbage, beetroot, ripe tomatoes, a bit of garlic and dill paste that you stir in at the end.
“And then in winter you would change it, because obviously you wouldn’t get any of those fresh vegetables. So we would preserve, and for tomatoes we would sun dry them, and then blitz them to make dried tomato flakes. And you’d do the same with fish, which we would dry for winter and then smash it to get these fish flakes. And all these umami flavours are what you would put into borscht in winter. So that’s one of my most favourite dishes, especially now that the weather is changing.”
Just as people started learning about what happened to us, and why there are so many monocultures – then they invaded and it’s a catastrophe, to be honest with you.
Hercules’ storytelling takes a darker if no less colourful tone when she recounts interviews she has done recently with her aunt on what has happened to the landscape of Ukraine, with its deep agrarian history and fertile soils. Beginning with the Russian Soviet takeover and deportation of the Crimean Tartars in the forties, who she says were expert in extracting water from the arid plains using gentle, nature-friendly farming practices.
“They deported them, and then didn’t know what to do with Crimea, which is very arid. They built this massive dam and flooded so many villages around and gave people only three days to leave their homes.
“It’s done so much damage. Apart from all these floods, there were also so many types of wheat that were grown in the south of Ukraine and they planted monocultures. They ploughed land that had never been ploughed, removing plants that had been there for millennia. They ploughed 60 per cent of land in this area and planted corn in it.
“There has been so much environmental damage that actually people don’t talk about. And so much damage to the soil, and communities.”
It’s clear that Ukraine is facing an environmental catastrophe, just as much as a human one, as Hercules puts it: “I feel like just as people started learning about what happened to us, and why there are so many monocultures – people had just started thinking maybe we should try and regenerate, and return some of the forgotten wheats we had, or start farming organically. Then they invaded and it’s a catastrophe, to be honest with you.”
Her words are reminiscent of conflicts all over the world where food is routinely weaponised and access to land, water and food security become the tools of control.
But for Hercules it has also, clearly, been a powerful healing tool, from rallying the entire food community behind fundraising efforts, to even just the simple comforts of a family reunited around a Christmas meal.
“I knew that they would help, but I didn’t realise just how incredible it would be and the scale of it,” she says, of the support she received in the last year. “I really feel like we have a really strong food community here in the UK and I’m super grateful to everyone. It’s been giving me, and not just me, but my family, a lot of energy to keep going. We see your support and then we can keep going and keep fighting.”
A flash in the pan: Five minutes with Olia Hercules
Fallback midweek dinner option?
I remove the gibletty bits from any bird and stick them in the freezer. When I’ve collected enough and I’m a bit stuck, I make them into a quick stock using the bits of neck, heart and gizzards. I chuck a few vegetables in and it makes a really beautiful chicken broth.
Batch cook favourite?
You can make loads of little dumplings on a Sunday and freeze them, and whenever you’re stuck you’ve got a homemade instant meal. Serve with a bit of butter, or if you’re feeling fancy, a bit of brown butter with garlic yoghurt.
Where do you like to eat out?
40 Maltby Street, or Rochelle Canteen – anywhere with a similar vibe, really good ingredients and quite simple dishes. Whenever I eat out, I want the same level of cooking that my grandmother would have done. Just really good food that’s not too fancy.
What would you have for your last meal on earth?
I would have my mum’s dumplings. Salty, hot dumplings with a little bit of cold, soft cheese is just heaven.
Top chef tip or secret technique?
I often serve dumplings with brown butter, but on top I often serve crispy shallots. Beforehand, I pickle the shallots for half an hour in a vinegar, sugar and salt solution, then pat them in some rice or other flour. Then I shallow fry them so you get these crispy onions that are pickled inside. That’s a really nice thing to do for any dish.
Home Food by Olia Hercules (£13, Bloomsbury) is out now.