Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
At the risk of speaking too soon, lockdown finally seems to be lifting in Leicester just in time to catch the dregs of summer (our John Lewis re-opened today, I had a need for hoover bags so braved the possibility of crowds. Easter things are still for sale which sort of summed up how time feels to me this year). I very much hope we’re done with it for a while at least, however uneasy the opening of pubs makes me feel.
I don’t know if it’s the heat, or just being tired of the whole thing, but my enthusiasm for cooking has taken a nose dive again in the last month. Cooking for one feels hard again, but Summer Kitchens has been sitting next to me on my desk for the last month reminding me that the last proper thing I made – Lyuba’s honey and berry cake for my mother and sister 24 hours before the lockdown came back into force – was the first thing I cooked from this book. It’s also a constant reminder to try more of the salads and side dishes.
Everything I’ve tried so far has been great; I particularly liked slices of cucumber smothered in yoghurt with salt, pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. It’s cooling and simple, and a great way to use up the left over bit of yoghurt in the bottom of the pot which isn’t quite enough for a whole portion. A tomato and mulberry (or blackberry) salad is also appealing. There’s a blackberry bush that spills high over the wall of an old churchyard near me – its lower branches, which are all I can reach, will yield just enough berries for a salad (and if I’m very lucky the local museum garden will open in time for me to scrump some mulberries too).
Fortunately the definition of summer here definitely spills into mellow autumn, there’s a satisfying number of things to do with the green tomatoes at the end of the season, and late summer fruits, as well as cabbage and beetroot things that will take you through the cooler nights of late August/early September.
The thing that’s really special about this book, which I consider to be Hercules’ best by a good way (which is a high bar to meet), though is the provenance she gives the recipes. The book is full of essays about Ukrainian culture and tradition which are a joy to read, and each recipe comes with a short introduction that roots it. It’s more cookbook than travelogue but there’s enough of the latter to make me feel transported whilst I read it. The essay on traditional ovens is a particular favourite, and one that gives me a new image when I read some of the fairy tales, and the books they inspire, from the region.
The final chapter is a collection of summer kitchen memories from other people that Hercules has gathered from across Ukraine. It’s a lovely way to finish, and typical of the generosity of the book which celebrates the people Hercules encounters as much as the places she goes. It is a beautiful snapshot of the country she loves, presented with real affection for its people as well as a passion for its food. I know it’s easy to throw around superlatives in reviews like this, but genuinely this is a special book – one of three absolute belters that have defined this strange summer for me (Summer’s Lease, and Root Stem Leaf Flower are the other two, both recently reviewed on Shiny) and to some degree rescued it.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Olia Hercules, Summer Kitchens (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1408899090, 351pp., hardback.
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