Mamushka

“When I think of home, I think of giant sunflower heads, and a pink tomato the size of a small grapefruit, with cracks in its sugary skin, ready to be torn and bathed in unrefined sunflower oil …”

Writing about the absolutely outstanding Florentine last week, and musing on whether it was the best cookbook I’d seen this year, I fell to thinking about my favourite from 2015, Mamushka by Olia Hercules.

I compare Mamushka to Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy in many ways – and let me tell you, Made in Italy is a book I’d wrestle a Tiger Shark to keep. I compare the two because both books have at their heart a deep hospitality, a true generosity. They are the greatest holiday you’ve ever had in cookbook form – where a hugely compelling host opens the arms of a place wide, and invites you in– the food, the culture, and above all the people, and the memories.

“This is the stuff of my childhood,” she says, “a life that I want to share with you.”

And Mamushka is an amazing voyage. There are dishes in here that transform the dark rain and skies over this North Sea, that’s for sure. Take for example the almost milkshake-pink Spring Radish & Tomato Salad, or the margarine yellow Soviet Goose Noodles. Throughout the book, brilliant photography – which critically, is more intent on the food than the crockery – brings this rich and exciting cooking to life. Hercules grew up, she stresses, only an hour away from Turkey, and the visual appeal of the book is wild with these “summers long and hot and our food a cornucopia of colour and flavour.”

Margarine is worth returning to, because its passing mention reminds me of one of the other great things about this book – the voice. Olia Hercules writes in a wonderfully engaging and open way. Margarine is “such a 1980s ingredient, I know,” she says, before insisting on its use in at least two dishes. “This is simply the best hangover cure there is,” she says of the Gherkin, beef & barley broth. “I cannot rave enough about the quantity and quality of tomatoes in the South of Ukraine,” she raves.

Of course, this openness of writing, the conversational voice, has a very moving and inspiring impact when she talks of her childhood, of her family, her home. This honouring of her roots deeply impresses the reader, particularly when she writes of the conflict in Ukraine prompting her into “frantically documenting the recipes that I was so scared I might suddenly lose.” At this early point – she says this in the Introduction – Mamushka is suddenly more than a cookbook, especially so for the family photographs throughout, poignant and tender, rich and celebratory.

And these recipes? Well, from cover to cover, the book is a treasure. Special mention goes to the Breads & Pastries – like the ‘Pampushka’, a sensuous and delicious Ukrainian Garlic Bread, and those melty, exceptional desserts – like the Baked Ukrainian Cheesecake – or the pancakes … Middle of the meal, the Aromatic roast pork loin is really quite incredible, as is the fantastic Mutton in coriander, which is worth the trip to the best butcher – or farm – for the ask. And, no view on this startling book can be complete without mentioning the Ribena-ey rocket fuel of the Blackcurrant vodka. This is so, so good, that by simple twist of fate, you might also have to learn to cook that Gherkin broth …

If a cookbook is ever a door thrown wide in greeting, a place at the table and a warm meal with a good dram, it is Mamushka. It is characterised by an intense kindness of spirit, inventiveness & encouragement, and a genuine sense of abiding welcome.

At the end, recalling this warm & brilliant book a year on, and its passionate celebration of cherished food, people and places, I’m suddenly reminded of that great poem ‘Hamnavoe’ by George Mackay Brown, and how, writing of his father, he closes:

In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him