Our journey began at the Kiev train station in Ukraine. We were catching an overnight sleeper train all the way down to Mukachevo, a city in Transcarpathia. Feasting on an overnight train is crucial to anyone travelling in any country through Eastern Europe. It’s one of the best experiences and we started this trip with a feast like no other.
With layers of cultural influences and flavours of historical movements, Transcarpathia (also known as Zakarpattia Oblast) is a region located at the feet of the Carpathian Mountains situated on the border of Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. There is an incredible mix of Ukranian, Romanian, Hungarian and Romani culture living in this region and it is also home to several Ukrainian ethnic groups such as Boykos, Lemky and Hutsuls – that originate from Slavic tribes.
After our train arrived early in the morning to Mukachevo (waking up to the fog surrounding mountain villages was a view I will never forget) we drove through small towns and streets with colourful houses and bright fences. We passed grandmothers selling berries in jars, towns filled with women wearing gypsy dresses and green fields with village houses. It felt like I was in a colourful fairytale book and everywhere I looked was just so much colour and vibrancy. I guess even though I was brought up on the other side of Ukraine (the eastern side bordering with Russia) I really did feel culture shock. I felt like I was in another country, it was just completely different to what I knew as Ukraine, and what I expected.
We were a group of travellers part of a culinary tour with Experience Ukraine (a travel company lead by Nataliya and Tanya) and Olia Hercules (cookbook author and chef), and it was 10 days filled with so many adventures. We stayed in the most relaxing guest house with views of the Transcarpathian hills in the background and the most wonderful hosts. Alessia and her husband have this beautiful wooden house with a garden where they grow their own vegetables and herbs. They make their own wine and they have a great variety of pickles (my favorite). So our arrival was very welcoming. After a day of travelling, visiting a strawberry farm and meeting a local cookbook writer and feasting on smokey ham hock soup, we arrived to our guest house. There Olia got straight into showing us how to make manti (dumplings). They were delicious…and topped with fried shallots with plenty of wine on the side, it was just another incredible feast.
Sharing a room with my mum, I woke up to my favorite sound…a rooster waking up the whole village. Probably the best natural alarm there is. Our rooms and the entire house smelt like this fresh clean wood. Everything just felt so pure.
(Read more below)
A quick catch up with old Ukrainian friends in Kiev
Coffee stop in Kiev
And the train feast began…Olia Hercules sourced the most incredible produce. We had fresh vegetables, herbs, salo (cured pork fat) bread and more.
As the trip began with so much food and eating, there was something that started to happen that I didn’t really expect or think too much about. Connecting with the community. I’ve always said and felt that food can bring people together and this trip was an example of that.
Whether it’s in a community that is in your home town, or a community that you’ve become part of in a new city, or just a temporary addition to a deeply layered culture during a trip. I think, community…the feeling of it can really bring just pure joy.
When we travel we are all looking for something. Whether it’s to relax, to adventure, to get inspired, to learn or all of it, all at once. I’ve been to Ukraine over the years a few times, visiting the apartment where we lived in Kharkov (east border of Ukraine and Russia), the streets that I used to play on and scrape my knees when I was a little girl, my old preschool, and where my dad grew up with his friends. I already had that connection and understanding of the first part of my life, but this time wasn’t really about going to visit the home where my dad grew up with my grandparents and where I spent my first 5 years, no, this time was about exploring the life and place that I knew in my eyes but I didn’t actually know. This was about seeing the other parts this pretty big country has, and it showed me that just like so many countries, we are all layered, they are all layered. With history and time creating this most beautiful layered culture. This trip also made me think. So many of us global citizens come from places that are located somewhere else…well at least many of us. There is nothing like the sensation of a connection that you have with a place because of memories, your family and the general invisible tie or attachment that you may have. Thats how I feel and I know my friends feel too (just with different places). I always always always am so happy to go back to Ukraine (and Belarus which is where my mums side of the family is and where I was born).. It always provides me with that soul searching understanding of who I am and why I am this way, one of the puzzle pieces, and that simple understanding of a culture that you know so well but you don’t because.. well…you’ve spent most of your life somewhere else. And so back to what I was saying about community. They say community is so important to living a longer and healthier life, and it’s funny that I always find at home in Sydney I have one community, but I also sense that community feeling on the other side, and in a few places around the world (Spain, Italy too). After all we are all just separated by imaginary borders.
And so, this little village in Transcarpathia that was humble and giving and kind to us filled my heart and my mums heart.
This trip was an impromptu decision, when mum and I were drinking champagne one night at the end of the year. I knew we had to do this and I’m so so happy we did because it gave me so much clarity and like I said, filled my heart with even more happiness and joy.
Thank you.. to Olia, Nataliya, Tanya and everyone who came on this trip. You created a heartwarming, inspiring beyond words experience. Check out the photos below…for more stories and moments from this trip!
After arriving in the overnight train we had breakfast next to a forest. Feasting again, this was going to happen a lot throughout the trip (afterall it was a food tour)
Local strawberry farm
Kerstin with a super grin carrying all those just picked strawberries
Olia showing us how to make manti! These were SO delicious.
Everyone got hands on and helped to make these manti
Manti with fried shallots. Ahh so yum! This was our first dinner altogether at the guesthouse.
We also met local bee keepers where we had honey with local cheese and tea.
After a day of exploring we made these piroshki with Alessia (our guesthouse host). She made a filling of paprika and potato which is something I've never had before( this influence from Hungary and Romania was present in so many of her dishes)
Feasting as always( breakfast, lunch and dinner) with locally made apple juice. So addictive.
We took a short break here and I went wandering through the pathway with elderflower growing on the sides of the path. So magical! And I found the principal of the local school we have visited earlier just on his tractor, working and on his way to the fields.
We walked for hours to reach cheese shepherds and found a feast(yet again) waiting for us! This photo above shows a bucket of natural whey, we literally were drinking this out of mugs. Below is a picture of the cheese hanging.
We hiked all day through hills and forests for this cheese and local shepherd in Transcarpathia! Definitely the hardest journey I’ve ever made to taste incredible cheese! We were greeted by the shepherd and his friends and family and then had an impromptu feast of wood fired pork rilette, raw onion (spring onion), bread, salo (cured pork fat), a stew of goat (I think from memory it was goat) which I assume was also cooked in their milk because it was quite creamy AND vodka. And fresh milk and whey and cheese. This is what makes a meal so special and it was one of the best in my life. Firstly it was unexpected, secondly the hospitality from the shepherd and his family, thirdly the food was all made from scratch (I’m sure the vodka was too), fourthly we hiked up steep hills and walked through old Ukrainian forests, fifthly it was just so delicious.
So many wild flowers...
Olia made a lamb broth over a fire and then we also had lots of other veggies cooked by her husband Joe. So delish!
On the last evening during our stay in the village, we all got involved and spent the entire afternoon cooking. It was so nice to share this on a long table outside in the garden with many guests being people we had met along the trip. The principal of the school was even there! It was just such a nice evening to the most magical week. After eating we danced along with the local musicians and just had such an amazing night! The local theatre group even performed…it was truly special.