Last month we were lucky enough to take an amazing food tour to Ukraine with Experience Ukraine and the chef Olia Hercules. Olia is a Ukrainian chef, now living in London. Her passion is preserving the traditional recipes of Ukraine and the surrounding region, by visiting home cooks, documenting their dishes and then bringing these recipes to a wider audience. I have a couple of Olia’s beautifully written books about Ukrainian food and had cooked a few of her recipes both from the books and from online. Jo still talks (frequently and longingly) about the Roast Pork Belly with Sour Cabbage, Apples and Prunes, the recipe for which can be found here. I also love the recipes for varenyky in Olia’s book Mamushka, I’m a big fan of all types of dumplings and stuffed pasta.
Since we’ve returned to Northern Ireland lots of people have asked me (often with incredulity) whether I enjoyed the food in Ukraine. And here we come to the nub of the issue, Ukrainian food (and the food of many ex-Soviet states) tends to get a bit of a bad rap. Many of us imagine potatoes, overcooked vegetables (primarily cabbage) and lots of fatty pork, perhaps heavy dumplings and viscous soups – not really so different to a lot of Irish food up until not so long ago. What we don’t imagine is light consomme-clear soups with subtly layered flavours, bundles of herbs, salads made with the freshest tomatoes and sweetest cucumbers, zingy pickles, salty cheeses, cured meats to rival any Spanish or Italian charcuterie and delicate little-filled dumplings served simply with sour cream and a sprinkling of aromatic dill. The food of Ukraine is a joy, the people who prepare it and share it with you are passionate, exacting in their methods and endlessly hospitable. Below are a few of my food highlights from the trip…
A Traditional Train Picnic
Our group gathered for the first time at Kiev Passazhirskiy train station, all ready for adventures and a long overnight journey to the West on a Soviet Era sleeper train. Olia and her husband Joe had arrived with all the supplies we needed, purchased at Kiev’s famous Besarabsky Market, for a traditional train picnic, apparently, it’s a thing in Ukraine – and you can imagine why when you think of the vast distances people often travel by train.
As we clickety-clacked through the Ukrainian countryside we feasted on pickled green tomatoes, spicy aubergine, garlic scapes and cabbage which were all perfect to cut through the richness of the various different types of salo (cured pork fat – a Ukrainian staple, more on this below) and the salty cheese. There were mounds of fresh bread, the juiciest tomatoes, sweetest cucumbers and, my favourite, bouquets of purple basil and dill. I love eating herbs as a salad an not just a seasoning, it reminds me of travels in Vietnam. There was plenty of vodka flavoured with sea buckthorn, cherries or horseradish and numerous traditional Ukrainian toasts as we all got to know each other – a passionate and super smart group of women (I’m not sure why only women go on a food tour to Ukraine but this seems to be the way of things). Sated, we rolled into our two-person sleeper compartments and were lulled to sleep by the vodka, the food and the rhythm of the train.
In the morning our Soviet ‘mama’ train attendant made us all hot black tea or coffee in beautiful glass and metal mugs using the gigantic samovar (a Russain water boiler) located in each carriage for just this purpose. It was midsummer weather but I imagined snow outside and a furry Dr Zhivago-style hat.
Dumpling Making with Olia Hercules
Our first evening in Nizhneye Selishche, a little village deep in Transcarpathia in the far west of Ukraine, was dumpling making night. Instructed and supervised by Olia, our whole group worked together to produce a feast of dumplings, in different shapes and with all sorts of different fillings – it was a dumpling-making party!
Dumplings might have been one of the main reasons I booked on this culinary tour to Ukraine – I love all sorts of stuffed pasta and parcels, from potstickers and Sichuanese wontons to pork and prawn Sui Mai and Tibetan momos, they are some of my favourite things to eat. Ukrainian dumplings didn’t disappoint, wrapped in a soft pasta dough we made varenyky stuffed with a mixture of curd cheese (syr), eggs and salt, manti (larger and intricately folded like little hats) stuffed with hand-chopped pork, onions and generous amounts of black pepper and the large Georgian khinkali, sturdily shaped like money bags. Boiled or steamed the dumplings were served with plenty of butter, the rich Ukrainian sour cream (smetana) and crispy shallots for sprinkling. Heaven!
For dessert we whipped up some sour cherry dumplings; it was cherry season and the forests, roadsides, gardens and markets were heaving with an amazing variety of cherries. The sour ones are piquant and we stoned the cherries and tucked two or three into each little dumpling wrapper with a sprinkling of sugar. They were perfection served with more smetana and a drizzle of local honey.
Olia has written a fascinating article about Eastern European dumplings for the New Yorker including a recipe for Pork Manti and a great story about her grandmother Vera who used to freeze dumplings outside in sacks during the Siberian winter, you can read it here.
Wild Foods; Mushrooms & Honey
Mushrooming seems to be a national pastime in Ukraine, certainly, our guide and the owner of Experience Ukraine, Nataliya was obsessed and regaled us with stories of her mushroom foraging adventures now she lives in England.
Hiking up into the wildflower-filled Transcapatian hills, en route to visiting some cheese-making shepherds, we foraged along the way for the most beautiful ceps. They were difficult to spot, crouching underneath fallen leaves, but we still managed to gather a bundle. They were delicious fried for dinner by Joe Woodhouse and served with a spiced yoghurt and dill. On our walk, we also foraged for alpine strawberries (so sweet and tiny I think more went into my mouth than into the basket) and wild mint and thyme that were perfect added to a cucumber salad for that evening’s dinner.
Another day, we visited Lyuba (a third generation beekeeper) whose bees make the most beautiful honey. Lyuba also dries edible wildflowers and herbs such as yarrow and St John’s wort on the top of her beehives, using the natural ventilation created by the bees. The herbs become infused by the honey and then Lyuba grinds them up to make a beautiful floral and honey infused tea. We were treated to an exquisite afternoon tea by Lyuba and her family, featuring whole slabs of fresh honeycomb, local cheeses and the most amazing cake studded with fresh mulberries.
“We Can Pickle That”
Pickles (the fermented variety rather than the vinegar soaked type) are an essential part of Ukrainian cuisine, they are ubiquitous served alongside bread and cheese as a light meal and in particular alongside salo as a vodka-soaking-up snack. Pickling is the perfect way for Ukrainians to preserve the bounty of the summer for the colder, darker months ahead and, as in the countryside many people still have vegetable gardens, it’s an excellent way of using up a glut. I also suspect that Ukrainians have a hankering for pickles, a yen for the salty, sour, spicy flavour that pickles deliver, especially when washed down with a shot of cold vodka.
I’m including a recipe for the most delicious pickled cabbage that we ate almost every evening (with salo and vodka) which was prepared by another Olia, the house chef at Sargo Rigo (the hostel we stayed at in the village).
Olia’s Pickled Cabbage Recipe
Fills approximately a three-litre jar
For the brine:
100ml sunflower oil
20 grams of salt
2 tablespoons of vinegar
1 litre of warm water
For the vegetables:
1 bulb of garlic (cloves peeled but left whole)
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
A couple of horseradish leaves
1 small white cabbage, cut into 6 wedges
1 small beetroot, cut into slices
Combine all the ingredients for the brine in a jug and mix well to ensure the salt and sugar are dissolved.
Pack the other ingredients into a sterilised jar, putting the horseradish leaves on the bottom and distributing the beetroot throughout the jar.
Pour over the brine and leave at room temperature for 3-4 days before tasting, if the taste is to your liking then pop it in the fridge to slow down fermentation and eat at your leisure. This was quite a mild sweet pickle, a bit spicy from the horseradish but not too sour.
As our host and guide Nataliya explained, food is a cornerstone of Ukrainian hospitality and that means you always need to have something ready to offer guests who unexpectedly drop by – vodka (of course) and then often cheese and salo or some other fermented meat or charcuterie. These foods can be patiently waiting in your fridge or larder and then whipped out at a moments notice and with the addition of some bread and fresh tomatoes or cucumber make a mini feast to welcome any visitor.
We ate cheese a lot of sheep and goat’s cheese in Transcarpathia – it is a rural, mountainous area so perfectly suited to grazing herds of sheep and goats. Generous plates of several types of thinly sliced cheese were on the table at breakfast and often lunch and dinner too, ensuring that even after the main event had been eaten there was plenty of food for anyone still a little peckish. In Nizhneye Selishche we visited a cheese-making factory, where the owner had spent time with cheesemakers in Switzerland and then brought his knowledge back to his native Ukraine. He was producing three different types of cheese, but the majority of production was a three-month aged, washed rind cheese. His small factory provides jobs for about 10 local people, plus enabling local farmers to sell their milk for a good (and guaranteed) price.
We also hiked up into the Transcarpathian hills to visit some cheese-making shepherds. The shepherds live up in the hills throughout the summer to tend their flocks of sheep and goats, each day they milk each of the animals by hand three times and then make fresh cheese on the hillside. If you have ever made cheese you will know that you usually need to heat the milk up to about body temperature before adding the rennet – which is the catalyst for separating the curds (the fatty, solid part that forms the cheese) from the whey (the watery part). As the shepherds add the rennet immediately after milking the milk is still warm enough from the animals that there is no need to heat it up. We ate the freshly made cheese on hunks of caraway bread with a fermented chilli pickle on top, it was heaven and we were very happy.
Alongside the cheese, on the platter provided by your host, you will also inevitably find salo, a Ukrainian staple! Olia refers to it as Ukrainian ‘narcotics’ in her book Mamushka, which gives you a sense of just how important it is. The raw pork fat is dry cured with plenty of salt and occasionally other flavourings and cured for a few days before being thinly sliced and eaten with bread and salad or fried to top dumplings or anything else that would benefit from a little salty, fried pork fat. To be honest, I was a little dubious about the deliciousness of cured pork fat, because the key with salo is that there is much more fat than meat, often there is no meat at all. Jo, on the other hand, an avid eater of fried bacon rinds was extremely excited to be heading to a country where eating pork fat was a national pastime! However, I was converted. Good salo has a creamy richness that pairs perfectly with the sourness of a Ukrainian pickle, the juiciness of a sun-ripened tomato or the crunch of a small sweet cucumber.
So now that I have whetted your appetites with the deliciousness of Ukrainian cuisine – and I haven’t even really mentioned the fragrant broths, hearty stews and heavenly salads – you may all be asking where can you try some of these delicacies. If you are looking for an unusual holiday that really gets under the skin of a place then I can absolutely recommend Nataliya of Experience Ukraine’s tours – I believe there is a trip to Transcarpathia this September. To cook your own Ukrainian feast I suggest buying Olia’s beautiful book Mamushka. We’re also planning a Ukrainian Supper Club here in Northern Ireland, but as we have a rather busy Autumn ahead it will probably be Spring 2019 before that little dream becomes a reality. In the meantime, keep an eye out on the blog for some Ukrainian inspired recipes including an aromatic mushroom and buckwheat broth.