Olia Hercules answers questions about Ukrainian fermentation.
From regional pickles to apples fermented in pumpkin puree, an exploration of Ukranian traditional recipes
Editors note: This publication contains the video of the talk from the Fermentology webinar series, as well as a lightly edited transcript of the lecture.
Renowned author, Olia Hercules, shares her knowledge about traditional fermentation practices that take place in special traditional kitchen spaces, called “summer kitchens.” She takes us on a journey through a number of regional pickles from fermented tomato sauce to apples pickled in pumpkin puree and whole watermelons fermented in wooden barrels. She discusses the pickles’ traditional uses in cooking as well as modern interpretations. Olia's book, Summer Kitchens, is available here: https://bit.ly/SummerKitchens-OH
Today, I want to talk to you about fermentation from a Ukrainian home cook's perspective. I was born in the south of Ukraine in 1984, ended up in the UK, and didn't actually really start cooking until my late 20s. Eventually I retrained and became a chef. Funnily enough, every time I went back to Ukraine, especially since I wrote my first cookbook, “fermentation” has became a real trend and a buzzword in the UK.
I'd come back home and whenever I would mention the word fermentatsiya (“fermentation” in Ukrainian) to my mom or my auntie or whatever, they'd just laugh in my face. Of course to us, fermentatsiya was just the fabric of everyday life. It was just something that everybody did, and I wasn't really conscious of it. Whenever I'd say fermentatsiya, they'd laugh. In Ukraine, we use the word kvashennia, which just means to make things sour, and that's what people have been doing for, well, hundreds of years, I suppose.
One of my first childhood memories would be close to September and there'd be these pickling operations happening in the summer kitchen. I'll quickly explain what a summer kitchen is. I wrote a book about it.
All over Ukraine, there are these little outhouses that people built. You've got your main house, and then you've got a separate little house (which sounds glamorous, but it's literally just one room inside). That room is a kitchen where people cook all throughout the summer. They do their everyday cooking inside it. It's usually positioned a little bit closer to your garden patch, but really, people have small holdings — it's like a big vegetable patch. In these kitchens, apart from just doing your day to day cooking, you would also be doing all of the pickling. This is this really huge operation in the summer, especially in September, once you've got your glut of vegetables or fruit.
Of course, we lived very seasonally. So you couldn't just pop into a supermarket in the winter and pick up a tomato. You had to preserve everything that you would have grown. We had this delicious fermented food all throughout winter. The first chapter in Summer Kitchens is actually called “The September Sessions.” It's a strange thing to open a book with a pickling chapter at the beginning. Normally, you would go from your breakfast to whatever is next, and then cakes, and then at the end maybe you get a little bit about pickling. However, to us, it's such a central thing and such a central thing to this tradition of summer kitchens1 that I've put it at the front.
For Summer Kitchens, I've traveled all over Ukraine. Ukraine is huge. It's bigger than France even. I traveled from region to region to find recipes and people's stories. Ukraine is actually extremely diverse. People always say, “Oh, it's all about potatoes and dumplings and cabbages.” Which are great and they do exist, of course.
But Ukraine is also a very varied culture — and a varied eating culture as well, very diverse. However, all of these cultures have this summer kitchen in common. They also all have these wonderful pickles.
I'm going to talk about different pickles from different regions and then I also want to tell you a little bit about how we use those pickles. Of course, we sometimes use them simply as an addition to your meal, a pickle on the side, but we also use them to cook with. Ever since becoming a professional cook, I’ve found many more ways of using them in my cooking.
So the first one is our gherkins, just pickled cucumbers. It's one of the most common things. We've got some dill umbrellas in there, and of course, it's just the brine. Nowadays I use maybe a 5% brine. In Ukraine, it may be a little bit saltier than that. The way that we make pickles can be very fast. In the summer that's my dad's favorite. He just does a quick ferment, and they're still semi fresh with just a little bit of bite. Me and my mom, we like to go “nuclear” as we call it.2 We like them when they make you contort your face! There's plenty of things that you can do with the brine too, of course, and with the cucumbers themselves.
Of course, you've got kraut. That's another super widespread thing. We usually add some grated or match-sticked julienne carrot into it. My mom adds a little bit of sugar. Back in the day, my grandmother would use the tougher leaves that you've got on the white cabbage. She would put them underneath all of the kraut. By the end, once you've finished your barrel, you've got these really wonderful whole leaves. These leaves would also be used as stuffing. You'd stuffed those leaves as you would with golabki, as they call them in Poland, or holubtsi, as we call them in Ukraine. It's a super delicious thing. I will tell you more about this dish in a little bit.
Then we've got cabbage and beetroot pickle. This is from Transcarpathia, but this kind of pickle is made in quite a few regions of Ukraine. White cabbage is cut into quite big chunks, like pyramid chunks almost. Then we've got some horseradish in there and some bay leaf and some beetroot, and again, it's a brine. There is also a dash of vinegar in there as well, which I think it's more of a modern addition. People in the past didn't used to use vinegar. But I find that for those who are just starting fermenting, and doing it for the first time, it does stabilize it a little bit and doesn't let it go too crazy. Whenever I do use vinegar in this ferment, I try to use raw vinegar. There's a bit of sugar in there, as well. It all becomes funky and delicious. It's a super, super tasty one. I love this pickle so much.
Then we've got chilies — chilies with quite a lot of lovage or perhaps celery. I would use a very simple brine, plus whatever flavorings that you like and whole chili peppers. Once they're really nice, fermented, and soft, they kind of detach themselves from the papery skins. Then I just squeeze it out, blitz it, and make this delicious fermented chili sauce essentially — like a Ukrainian sriracha. The celery leaves and the celery itself becomes really tasty also.
Fermented aubergines are fantastic. This kind of tradition comes mainly from the south of Ukraine and also closer to the Romanian and Moldovan border.
To make them, you boil them until they're soft, about 20 minutes or so. Then you drain them and you slash them. Then you create a beautiful mix of vegetables. The more traditional mix is just cooked carrot, caramelized carrots and onions, which is an interesting thing to be adding to your ferments. You might think, “Oh, vegetables have to go in raw,” but actually, not at all. With something like this, it's really nice to add this sofrito vibe to it. For example: my friend, Katria, from my hometown, Kakhovka, adds garlic, chili, and mint, all fresh, all kind of blitzed up to turn it into this rough paste.
You then stuff the slightly opened aubergines — they're still joined by the stem, but you've got the opening you slashed. You stuff them with your flavorings and then press them down. They will release enough of their own liquid, or they should, but you can always add a little bit of brine. Then you leave them. They take about three months or so. So with a perfect glut of aubergine in August you make this, and then in winter you've got this really tasty thing. They are delicious.
I found this recipe for apples fermented in pumpkin puree in the village near the City of Poltava, which is central Ukraine. It was a complete revelation to me, because neither my grandma or mom ever made these.
Ukrainians don't actually like pumpkin that much. I read a really interesting essay about it that claimed that because it grows so fast and so easily, we're not interested. It's like, it's too easy to grow — whatever, just give it to the pigs. Anyway, it does have a use in this beautiful ferment.
To make this ferment you get a really nice pumpkin, and you boil it or cook it in whichever way you want. You basically just need to get a cooked puree. Then you add some salt to make a 3-4% pumpkin brine — essentially a puree brine. Then you just stick whole apples into it.
Here in London, I think we use Golden Delicious, but a couple of French varieties are good too. I find that, for this recipe, the closest to what they use in Ukraine works best. They're yellow and with slight speckles.
When I visit people I always start my questions with: What are the recipes that perhaps your mom or your grandma used to cook, but you stopped cooking — or something interesting? The woman that told me about this recipe and her summer kitchen was like, “Oh, what's interesting? What's interesting?” Luckily, her grandson was right next to her. He said “Grandma, don't you remember those apples in the pumpkin puree?” And she responded, “Is this interesting?” I said “Yes! Yes please! Please, tell me about this. This is very interesting.” She described the dish without any measurements or anything. I had to develop this recipe.
So I put it all in. I put the apples in. I put it into the puree, and I left it in my kitchen. I think I was so nervous about it not working that I just left it there. I didn't even put it into a cold place or anything. It was wintertime, so it was cold in my kitchen, but not the ultimate fermentation temperature that you'd want. I left them there for three months. Eventually, I decided to check up on them, and I was like, “I have to see if it's actually worked.” I opened it up, and it was so interesting. There were really tiny little bubbles going. It was definitely alive, but it was very subdued and lovely. And I thought, “Ooh, this is exciting.” So I got it out, and that's it. Even after three months, there was this really fresh mint right next to the pips. The white flesh still tasted almost like raw apple, but all around it was really delicious, and slightly fizzy, and fermented tasting. They were really tasty. The ones on the bottom turned into mush, but it was such delicious mush.
In Ukraine, weirdly, we hate the pumpkin. At this point it's done its job. That's it. We'll just feed it to the pigs. But it was delicious. I blitzed the apples that fell apart with the pumpkin puree. It was really, really tasty with pork or with roasted cauliflower. It was just really, really tasty puree that would cut through any fatty or rich dishes, to add just a little bit more seasoning. I think it's one of my favorite discoveries. It almost had a berry flavor, because the pumpkin gave some of its flavor to the apples, and the apples exchanged and gave its flavor to the pumpkin puree. It was just fantastic. I highly recommend that you try this one.
Then there is what we call mors in Ukraine. In Russia, the word mors is used for a berry drink, interestingly. But in Ukraine, we call fermented tomato puree mors. You can either blitz your tomatoes straight away and ferment them in this form. What my family does is almost tear or cut the tomatoes, and squash them a little bit, and add an amount of salt per tomatoes. You just make it up, I guess. People really don't measure things very much. You just know how much to put in. Once you put the salt in you mix it together and then cover it. If it's summer, I would cover it with something so the insects can't get in. Then you just leave it for a couple of days. If it's hot, like within a day or two, it will already be bubbling up a little bit.
You can use it in so many wonderful things. You can use it to make a sauce. Traditionally, it's used to add sourness to borsch. However, in modern cooking, you can find so many wonderful uses for this kind of thing. It's really cool. You have to watch it, because after a while, if you don't put it into a cold place, it can become quite alcoholic. You don't want this to happen (ditto with the apples, by the way) so just watch out. Don't turn it into alcohol.
Closer to Moldova and the Romanian border, where two of my great grandmothers were from, is the Bessarabia region of Ukraine. If you know where Odessa is by the Black Sea, it's a couple of hours to the west. Here you can find fermented peppers.
To make them, you make a kind of a sofrito with onion and carrot. You just sweat it down, a little bit of oil. And then you mix it with chopped white cabbage. Then you massage it. We never do much pummeling with any blunt objects or anything. I asked my mom, “Don't you just use a pestle?” And she's like, “No, you go with your hands.” She's strong. But just lightly massage it. It's fine. You don't have to go crazy with it.
Then you just stuff the peppers, basically. And again, you put them into a large jar, or your fermentation crock, or whatever you're using, and put some brine in. 4-5% brine works really nicely. You can also add whatever else you've got lying around: if you've got some cherry tomatoes, garlic cloves, celery, or even little cucumbers. People put a jumble of things in there, always with dill seeds and maybe some allspice berries as well. Then you just leave it for a few days in the warm kitchen until it starts fermenting. Then you take it down to a cellar.
It's a really, really tasty kind of pickle. I love it very, very much.
These are a little bit more unusual. Physalis are a cousin of the the Mexican tomatillo, which I've used for this fermentation when in the UK when I couldn't find any physalis.
You would ferment them in exactly the same way as you would tomatoes: you just pop them into a brine and add whatever flavorings you want. And then you get this really delicious thing where it pops in your mouth. My mom calls them champagne tomatoes.
They are a really, really tasty pickle on their own. Or you can also dice them up and make a little salsa. It works really, really well.
In Ukraine, we ferment everything. Everything we find. Whatever you’ve got a glut of, we ferment. Of course, in the south where I'm from, it's super hot in the summer. We've got watermelons everywhere.
After the Second World War, for example, there was a shortage, big shortage of sugar, but there was enough watermelon. So people started making this thing called bekmes. You take watermelon pulp and get rid of the seeds. Then you just — basically, like you would with pomegranate molasses: put it into these massive pots outside and over fire and stir it. You'd just reduce it down, no sugar added, obviously. It's just watermelon juice reduced into this what we call diabekmes or “watermelon honey.” And that's what people used in their sweet baking and stuff. It's really interesting.
I made it once. I had 20 kilos of these massive watermelons. We got about 14 liters of juice out of it. And then we got about 500 milliliters of this watermelon honey. And the flavor was amazing, because it actually started smelling and tasting of pumpkin by the end. So interesting!
Traditionally, they would be in massive wooden barrels. These days, people just put them into whatever containers they've got. You just put them in whole and make some holes in it. Sometimes you put them into a brine and then keep them there for about three or four months.
Sometimes people make a brine out of the watermelon juice. You put the small watermelons in whole. From the big watermelons you'd get the pulp and the juice, and then mix it with salt, and put that over the smaller watermelons.
In Ukraine, you'd just eat them as a pickle — as a vodka chaser, basically. But it was a bit of a wild card recipe including it in my book. I was like, “Who the hell is going to ferment watermelons in the UK, or the US, or whatever?” My granddad, for example, used to actually ferment them in the bathtub outside. Weirdly, they had this big bathtub outside. And he would fill it with little watermelons and then pour brine over. And that's how he would do it. He would cover it with something so the insects don't get there.
A really great couple in California, Andrew Chang and his partner, fermented one watermelon in a bucket. I was so proud of them. It was such a fun lovely thing, and they made some cocktails with it —I believe it was margaritas or something. So why not? If it's a vodka chaser in Ukraine, why not make a great cocktail out of it? Hopefully some people will make use of this recipe and try it. It's cool.
It is probably an acquired taste, but I love it. It's a little bit salty, a little bit sweet, and overall, really pleasing. And the rind, obviously, is edible and really delicious.
This is just a quick thing. This is not, obviously, a vegetable or a fruit. This is actually baked milk. Ryazhenka is a baked milk — like yogurt essentially. To make it, you can get raw milk (that's the best kind, if not raw milk, unhomogenized is good). And then you would put it in a low oven at 100 degrees Celsius (212 F), or maybe just a little bit over. You put it in the oven and leave it overnight.
In the morning, you wake up, and you've got this delicious crust that's created on top. You can just chop it up and have it in your breakfast or whatever. And then underneath, you have this really beautiful caramel-colored milk.
What you do is add a couple of big spoonfuls of smetana, which is basically like a Ukrainian crème fraîche. Obviously, you are making a live culture, so you would cover it — traditionally with granddad's big sheepskin coat or something. You cover the pot, and then the next day you've got this yogurt, which is naturally sweet because the milk solids have caramelized within the milk. It's a really, really tasty thing.
Recently in Ukraine (by recently, I mean probably since Soviet times) people stopped keeping ferments over winter. Sometimes, they did. Even in my mom's youth, they probably had barrels of this and barrels of that. But because they are such big volumes, it doesn't over-ferment as quickly, and the cellars would be quite cold (which would slow the fermentation).
More recently, people start fermenting, but then they can it. So obviously, they ferment it, get it to this stage where the flavor is quite pleasing to them, and then they kill the fermentation process by boiling everything. Then they just put it into jars and can it.
When I was little, we had no idea about the health benefits, absolutely no idea. To us, it was just like, “Oh, pickles.” My mom would say, “Oh, stop eating too many gherkins” or whatever. “There's salt in it.” In the '80s, everybody thought that salt was the enemy. So we had absolutely no idea of the potential health benefits, and what I think people got used to and really loved was the flavor. You’d boil it off (killing the fermentation), put it in a jar, and seal it, and they would last you for a couple of years. But people still do have barrels and do traditional fermentation, but less and less so I'm afraid.
This is kind of a dandy cousin of bigos (“hunters stew”), I suppose. It's my mom's recipe. Originally, I think she used something like a pork knuckle, but I've used pork belly, too. The pork belly is roasted on a bed of kraut, and the kraut is mixed with apples and onions, prunes, dried apricots, caraway seed, and coriander seed. It is super aromatic and delicious. All of the pork fat gets cooked into the kraut. It's a really nice dish.
This is a soup that we make closer to the Romanian and Moldovan border. In this area they make a fermented liquid which is confusingly called borsch.3 It is not a soup, but is also called borsch.
To make it you get some maize flour, and then you make a mush with a little bit of water and let it ferment — almost like you would be making a sourdough starter. Then you dilute it by adding warm water to it, some lovage, and some other flavorings. You get this fermented maize water, essentially. It's used quite a lot to add sourness to different dishes, including chicken soup with homemade noodles and mushrooms and chicken.
I mentioned that we use gherkins in soups. So in Russia, they've got the rassolnik, which is normally made with pork, and pearl barley or buckwheat. At the end, they would grate the gherkins and also add a bit of the gherkin juice to cut through the fat and add this really delicious sourness. I have a vegetarian version in my book. It's a rich mushroomy broth with pearl barley. Instead of grating the gherkin, I slice it, which works really nicely. I eat it with crème fraîche on rye bread (we love crème fraîche so much)!
This is a really old recipe from my grandma that uses the leaves that I mentioned before — the cabbage leaves that we keep underneath all the kraut. I don't know why it went off the radar. By the time I came along, my grandma never really made it any more, so it has this legendary feel to it. My mom always talked about it, but I've never tasted my grandma's version. I’ve recreated it based on my mom's stories.
It uses the fermented cabbage leaves, which are actually quite soft by the time they've fermented for a couple of months or so. I use cooked pork (leftover pulled pork essentially) and some grains, such as pearl barley. I mix them together, season it really well, and wrap it in the leaves. I make a sauce with mushroom stock, crème fraîche, and loads of garlic and butter. Then I basically pour the sauce over them. If you have one, a wood fired oven is the traditional way of baking it, but it can be done in a normal oven as well.
When you put it in, it's full of sauce, and you might think, “Oh, my bloody hell. What's going to happen with all this. There's too much liquid!” But they absorb all of that sauce. In the end, they get a little bit burnt on top. It's such a delicious dish. I really, really love it.
What else to do with your ferments? Another recipe in my book is a salad. I use my fermented apple and a little bit of the fermented gherkin. I also use some kraut in it too. You can also add a little bit of a fresh apple to add a little bit of freshness, and a bit of shallot or thinly sliced onion and a bit of toasty flavored oil. We use unrefined sunflower oil in Ukraine, but sesame oil or something similar would work well too. It's just a really nice winter slaw, essentially.
This was an overview of the things that I really have loved in all my life and in the last couple of years. I really hope that you enjoyed learning about them and can try them yourselves as well.