Inside Olia Hercules’s Kitchen

11th June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

The author of Mamushka picks out a swan-feather pastry brush, her array of fermented herbs and the cookbooks that inspired her to write about food


Swan-feather pastry brush
“In Ukraine they use feathers instead of pastry brushes – if the dough is very thin, you need something delicate that won’t break it. My dad rescued a swan a couple of years ago and adopted him. Then he went to the zoo to get him a girlfriend but turned out they’re both guys, so now we’ve got gay swans in our garden. They’re really nice and they get on well. Sometimes they even try to copulate. That’s Ukraine for you. Anyway my mum made the feathers into a brush. Normally you’d use goose or duck feather but swan feathers work really well. Obviously you disinfect them first, you don’t just pluck feathers out of a swan’s butt and start brushing your pastry with them straight away.” – Olia

DeLonghi Magnifica coffee maker »
“My mum gave this to me as a present a few years ago and it’s a really good one. I tend to break things but I haven’t had any problems with it for four years now.”

Assorted nepotreb
Olia likes to pick up old bric-a-brac at flea markets and in Ukrainian basements. She refers to her haul as “nepotreb”, which, she explains, is “stuff nobody else wants… It comes from the word ‘nepotrebno’ which means ‘You don’t need it’. Basically it’s just old stuff but I love old stuff because it’s got a story.” Among the nepotreb she shows us are a rusty can opener, a very good 50-year-old garlic press, a giant brass pestle and mortar gone green in places, and her grandmother’s frying pan which “makes everything taste amazing”.

Jewelstik knife sharpener »
“Keep your knives really sharp. Even if it’s a £22 Victorinox, get a good diamond steel and sharpen it regularly. It’s actually blunt knives that cut people because they slip off the food – that’s how you get injured.”


Fermented herbs
“Herbs are important in Ukraine. My grandmother used to pick loads in the summer, bundle them up with salt, then in the winter she would rinse them, chop them up and put them in borsch or whatever. I’ve started doing it myself with celery, sorrel, spring onions, parsley and dill. I layer them with salt, then put muslin on top and press it down with a weight, leave for a few days until they release their juices, then seal them in a jar. The flavour is really intense. I really enjoy the funkiness.” – Olia

Tamarind pods »
“I always have tamarind and I prefer the pods to the syrup – it takes longer to prepare but the flavour is much nicer.”

Adjika salt
“A friend of mine who’s an expert on Georgian cuisine sent me this amazing salt.”

Ukrainian hop flower yeast
“This is a yeast made in Ukraine with hop flowers. They wet the flower, make pellets out of it, then dry it in the sun. I gave some to a baker friend of mine to make bread; you could also use it to make the fermented drink kvass.”

Barberries »
“During Soviet times we had loads of barberry syrups and drinks and stuff – it’s a big flavour but it was always really synthetic. Now my mum grows it. I picked some in winter when they were a little bit frozen and dried them. I’ve added them to a Uzbek plov, which is like a pilau, and a dish called golubzi, which is stuffed cabbage.”

Chilli oil with shrimps »
“I tested recipes for A Wong’s Chinese cookbook and have lots of ingredients still left over from the testing. This chilli oil is amazing, it brings any dish you make with it to life.”

Pomegranate molasses »
“I just love it: it’s such a versatile ingredient, I put it in everything, even things that aren’t Middle Eastern in any way. Yesterday we marinated chicken hearts in oil, pomegranate molasses, loads of garlic and a little bit of soy, and put them on the barbeque. It was really nice.”


The National Cuisines of our People, William Pokhlyobkin »
“This inspired me to write my book. Pokhlyobkin was incredible. He wrote a history book on vodka during Soviet times, then started writing about food. In this book he goes through Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s more than a recipe book. Even though the style was really dry – that’s how they were supposed to write – you can still see how passionate he was about it. Especially when he talks about Moldovan food – it’s really unappreciated and you can sense how strongly he felt about it.” – Olia

The Kitchen Diaries, Nigel Slater »
“I love the way he writes: he picks whatever is to hand and makes something without any fuss. My favourites are the moist plum cake and the lamb with haricot beans and cream, which is not the kind of thing I usually like to eat but somehow it really works. I’ve cooked these two dishes so many times.”


Unknown Ukrainian cookbook
This book, which Olia found in a neighbour’s basement in her grandparents’ village, doesn’t have a cover or any reference to its title or author, but it’s one of her favourite books. “It’s got recipes but it’s also a housekeeping book. It tells you how to make your room look pretty and how to get rid of freckles; it even has an exercise guide. But I love the recipes. Pumpkin stewed with apples. Amazing. There’s a recipe for fermented herbs as well. Lamb with prunes? Why not.”

Armenian Cuisine, AS Piruzyan »
“This has got some really great recipes as well as a bit of Armenian culinary history. They are really big on wild herbs and foraging. Wild tarragon, mint, cayenne pepper, marjoram, wild garlic: they have all of that in their cuisine. I love this book. It’s from 1960. I don’t think there’s an English translation.”

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen »
“I love the way Anya von Bremzen writes; she’s another big inspiration. It’s family history – she grew up in Moscow – and that’s what made me want to write my book. Her cookbook, Please to the Table, is another of my favourites.”

Thai Food, David Thompson »
“I love David Thompson and I love how detailed and amazing this book is – it’s incredible, really good. Sour orange curry of trout and vegetables? Yes. I’m crazy about sweet and sour flavours.”

Posted 11th June 2015

In Things


Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

More from the Things

Inside Jess Murphy’s Kitchen – The chef-owner of Kai picks out an award-winning local beer, a pioneering plant-based cookbook and perhaps the most coveted kitchen item in Ireland

Inside Mitch Tonks’ Kitchen – The seafood master picks out his favourite anchovy brand, the "original and best" pepper mill, and the book he taught himself to cook from

Inside Louise McGuane’s Kitchen – The whiskey bonder picks out some very good local beer, an Irish whiskey-tasting glass named after a mythological race, and her favourite food website

Inside Gill Meller’s Kitchen – The chef and author picks out a good local sea salt, his parents' aluminium egg poacher and the cookbook that opened his eyes to real food and cooking