For the best part of two years, I’ve been art-directing and designing for the digital cookbooks start-up, 1000 Cookbooks. Having been on the inside looking around this incredible resource for so long, I rather vainly considered that my own top-ten list was possibly of interest, not least because it’s been formulating in my head for most of the time I’ve been working on this project. So, start with #10 and then take a look at the rest, none of which appear in any order of preference…
The introduction to a cookbook and the acknowledgements which more often than not mark the end of it often guide my instincts for the measure of what lies between; I always read something from them both when I first pick up a book. Here, the first few hundred words are quite intoxicating, almost lyrical. They introduce the author’s Ukranian homeland with a sense of wonder and they bear the weight of the responsibility she feels to do her job well. Good food writers have an ability to entwine a sense of time and place around their subject. When Olia Hercules writes, ‘I remember the aroma of the first prickly cucumber in May, my mother chopping it straight over the chipped enamel bowl…‘ it’s that ‘chipped enamel‘ detail which dazzles – it goes beyond time and place and captures a sense of history and tradition and something altogether more vividly personal. In those acknowledgements, Hercules thanks her publisher for ‘digging my style and letting me write organically without trying to be anything that I wasn’t‘ and it’s a gratitude that any reader of this book should share. That blessing enabled a love story for Ukraine and its food culture to be told with an almost palpable sense of joy.
But what of the food? Diana Henry describes it more succinctly than I might: ‘Exotic, earthy dishes, vibrant colours, big flavours.’ It’s exactly this. I could quite happily have bought the book for the broths and salads sections alone. Throughout, there are recipes for meals which are bold and assertive, food which wants to sate appetitie and bring comfort. It’s unusual for me to leaf through a book and want to cook many things from many chapters, but notes have been scattered across the full breadth of Mamushka‘s pages.
And it’s beautiful: Kris Kirkham’s stunning photography and Linda Berlin’s styling has created a look which seems searingly authentic. But smaller details, too, such as the soft background washes of pattern and texture which sit behind the text, the Ukranian and Russian translations which sit above the recipe titles, and the odd collage of candid and family photos from the author all create something winningly original.
I hesitated to include this book in my top ten, because there were many other books which I’ve cooked from much more and lived with far longer, but each time I pull it from the shelf it makes me happy to read it again, to look at it again and to plan which next dishes to try from it. And I’ve repeated several of the things I’ve tried more than once. Maybe its lustre will fade in time and maybe I’m going through a never-to-be-repeated again thing for beetroot and gherkins right now, but Olia Hercules is a food writer to savour and Mamushka feels like it’s done enough to rightfully earn its place.