letter from a summer kitchen

peachy

As soon as I heard that Olia Hercules was publishing Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine this spring, I asked our local bookseller to order me a copy. It arrived a few weeks ago but somehow I didn’t have time to open it and savour the recipes and the photographs.  But in the past three days, I’ve read the book cover to cover and although I have a few small quibbles—the notes for making uzvar, for example, have been cut short—I love this joyous testament to tradition and making the most of what one has at hand. To my delight, there’s a whole section titled “Summer kitchen memories”: Hercules appealed to Ukrainians from everywhere to send their experiences of this lovely phenomenon: a rustic building set apart from the main house, meant for preserving and social activity centered on food. These are small essays in themselves: “A secret attic and the foam from the jam pan”; “Homemade butter and dried apples”; and the gorgeous “Rhubarb buns and hailstorms”.

This time last year I was preparing for a trip to Ukraine with my husband and my daughter. We chose a company specializing in small cultural tours because honestly? I felt out of my comfort zone without any Ukrainian and unsure of whether I’d feel ok with renting a car and driving the rough roads in search of my grandfather’s village. I’ve never been on any kind of tour before but this one was stellar. There were just 7 of us and most of the time we were driven in a van by Roman, who was flexible and kind of unflappable. Our guide, Snizhana, was lovely and also unflappable. When 8 members of my grandfather’s family turned up at our hotel to meet me, she spent hours with us, helping us to make family trees to determine just how we were related. We made a video call to Forrest in Ottawa (also unflappable) to ask for some information I knew he had at his end. But what I really wanted to say here was that Roman drove us daily for 4 days up and down a steep road in the Carpathians to our hotel and we passed a couple of farms and there was a smell in the air, like wine-y fruit, like smoke, like summer becoming autumn, and one morning at breakfast, there was a jug of something called uzvar and it tasted like that smell. Earthy and smoky and I couldn’t get enough of it. The recipe is in Summer Kitchens.  A dried fruit infused drink made with pears or apples or cherries (or all three, with plums maybe), and in this book there’s even a recipe for how to dry the fruit (which would have been dried and smoked in the wood-fired masonry oven called a pich) in a warming oven, then smoke it on a barbecue with fruitwood chips. For the past day or two I’ve been wondering what to do with the 60 pounds of Merton Beauties John picked the other day, an apple with a spicy pear-ish edge to its flavour, and now? I’m going to dry some and make uzvar.

uzvar

I realize too that the farms on that steep road had summer kitchens. The families were sitting under trees at wooden tables and chimneys jutted from small buildings near the main house. We’d drive up or drive down and I’d press my face to the window by my seat, wanting to know everything about their lives because I felt that I might find myself there, another version of myself, the granddaughter of a man who stayed and married and who knew what to do with the bushels of pears and cucumbers. A woman knew how to make fresh cheese and horseradish horilka and who would take apples to the market to sell from a basket at her feet.

Today in my summer kitchen I made 3 peach pies (unbaked) for the freezer with some of the 20 pound case I got in Sechelt the other day, I sliced and froze 8 pounds more of the peaches to wait in ziplock bags for a winter dessert, and I made a double batch of pesto, also for the freezer. I don’t have a pich but I do have a maple worktable and lots of light and the otherworldly voice of Rhiannon Giddens to make the work go well.

On that road in Ukraine, the air held the smoke of fires preserving fruit for winter and this book holds that too. And so much more. Recipes for varenyky stuffed with berries or homemade cheese, for kvas and borsch (with duck and smoked pears), for sourdough breads brushed with garlic oil. And I’ll remember this man who stopped so we could stroke his gentle horse’s face.

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In an essay I wrote about traveling to Ukraine, I used brief passages from folk poems. This one spoke to me so deeply:

My dear mother, what will happen to me if I die in a foreign land?
Well, my dearest, you will be buried by other people.

But they would still be mine, wouldn’t they? The women in their summer kitchens, fermenting tomatoes in big jars, the children gathering windfalls, the dogs asleep in the dust.