“Summer Kitchens, Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of the Ukraine” by Olia Hercules was recently reviewed by The Economist, and that is how I discovered it. And what a discovery! Her book is a balm for all of us who have been watching as Vladimir Putin inflicts horror upon horror on her native country. Her cookbook is a nostalgic and idyllic tour of the Ukraine and its multifaceted cuisine — from mercifully un-stodgy Slavic comfort food in the cold north and temperate middle, to food of mediterranean complexity and sophistication in the warm south.
“Summer Kitchens” is part cookbook, part travelogue, and part history, all of it illustrated with superb photographs by Ellen Heatherwick and Joe Woodhouse. The largest and most fascinating chapter is on fermenting, pickling, and preserving — almost always done in summer kitchens. The book ends with eloquent “love letters to Ukraine” written by Ukrainians and their descendants living at home and in the diaspora; they add depth to the stories told earlier.
Olia Hercules came by her pan-Ukrainian cooking credentials naturally. She grew up in Kakhovka, a city in southern Ukraine, not far from the Black Sea. Her Ukrainian mother, her grandmothers with Siberian and Moldavian roots, not to mention all her aunties, taught her how to cook. For over 10 years she has studied and written about the cuisines of her native country and other nations bordering the Black Sea. “Summer Kitchens,” her third cookbook, is a splendid showcase for Ukrainian cooking and an exuberant look at a largely bygone way to cook, to eat, and to live.
Whether in the north, middle, or south, summer kitchens and all they stand for have struggled to survive as agrarian populations migrated to cities, as collective farming and food standardization replaced regional preferences and practices under the bygone Soviet regime, and as the job of food preservation fell to refrigerators and freezers, rather than to labour-intensive home canning. The current war is a further — and maybe the most severe — threat to the way of life described here. But thanks to Hercules’ excellent collection of recipes, we can share in its food. Slava Ukraini!
Published by Weldon Owen, 352 pages, $45 plus tax