Olia Hercules reflects on the strong, knowledgeable and highly skilled women who have helped shape her as a writer, a cook and a person
I did not grow up cooking by my mother’s side. In fact, I was painfully lazy. I sure did enjoy doing the eating, though, and I have always instinctively known that my family contained some incredibly strong cooks and strong women. However, it wasn’t until I learned some basic feminism at university that I started appreciating just how remarkable they all were.
My grandmother Lusia was a real matriarch. She looked after the animals (goats, chickens, geese), cooked for six children, did real-life graft. At night, when she had time for herself, she avidly read—mainly classical French novels, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo among her favourites.
When I became a professional cook, it struck me how skilled the women in my life were at cooking. A couple of years ago, seeing my mum expertly stretch and spin home-made filo pastry above her head had me gasping—such a strange feeling, as it was by no means the first time I had seen her do it. Now, having been trained to cook, I finally understood the dexterity these manoeuvres required (admittedly, I still can’t do that; I need another 10 years of practice).
My aunt Lyuda also inspired me with her cooking and her knowledge. My mum and she were my main ‘consultants’ for Mamushka, the first cookbook I wrote. Lyuda is now helping me with the third one. I have never met anyone who knows more about southern Ukrainian cooking, which has influences from so many cultures, including Crimean Tatars. My Tatar shurpa and chicken pie recipes come from their wonderful traditions, given to me by Lyuda along with the recipe for the delicious curd cheese biscuits.
Apart from my family, I get inspired every day by the people I meet—particularly when I travel—and a lot of them are women. During my trip around Georgia, I came across some recipes and techniques that seemed so straightforward and simple, but also packed a real punch in terms of flavour. I especially fell in love with the Georgian pastes and wet flavoured salts, like the mint and chilli one I use in my toasts with curd cheese, mint paste and broad beans recipe.
It’s interesting how we grow and evolve, when the knowledge and feelings from our past start to slot into an enormous life puzzle. I never thought I would become a cook or a writer, but here I am doing both, and still drawing inspiration from those who raised me.
Allow recipes to become your own—that is what cooking is all about.