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 Bessarabski Market for our 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.

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.