Kalyna is the Ukrainian name for the vibrant red berries of the guelder rose, which are a symbol of hope and patriotism in the country. The berries are the subject of many folk tunes, including a marching song that went viral on Instagram earlier this year; it has since been sampled by Pink Floyd. And they garland the hand-painted panels around the front door of Café Kalyna, a Ukrainian café in Nether Edge, Sheffield.
Anastasia, the artist behind the signage, can usually be found serving coffee and enthusiastically explaining the traditional dishes on the menu to non-Ukrainian customers. The 27-year-old moved to Sheffield with her partner Arseniy in March of this year. They had previously been living in Kyiv; when their apartment was bombed they fled to a church in the suburbs that Arseniy’s family had links with – it was safe because it had a basement. ‘We were there for two weeks with no light, no water, and every day we could hear “boom, boom”. Then it became really too close.’ They spent a month with Anastasia’s mother in the village she grew up in before deciding to come to the UK, both for safety and to better support their families. They chose Sheffield because she’d heard about its lovely outdoor space and felt it would be a good place to inspire her artwork. ‘I speak to my mother every day and she’s so happy I’m here, but it’s hard. Your life is just one suitcase, and you realise it will never be like before.’
The café is the brainchild of Sally Mastin, a Sheffield native who has run independent businesses in the area since 2013. She is host to two Ukrainian students but was looking for more ways to support the people affected by the war before they had even arrived. ‘One of the first questions they asked was “can you help get us a part-time job?”,’ says Mastin. ‘We found loads of places that were desperate for staff but they didn’t even get an interview.’ When a small café next door to Sally’s bar became available, it quickly became the obvious answer; ‘there was no planning, there was no crowdfunding, it was let’s do it and think later.’ At Café Kalyna there are shifts for Ukrainian speakers with any level of English. And in return the employees contribute to this tiny capsule of their culture.
Sasha, one of Café Kalyna’s chefs, can often be heard singing along to the Ukrainian folk songs that pepper the playlist. Previously a maths teacher, Sasha and his wife Nina, an engineer, chose Sheffield because their eldest son lives here, but that meant leaving their younger son behind in Ukraine. Before the war he worked in computer programming; now he’s fighting on the front line. Of the group he started out with, only 40 percent are still alive.
Sasha and Nina are generally found in the kitchen, often jovially bickering with the others about the correct way of making borscht (‘they all have an opinion – there are potato battles’, Sally jokes). This passion for the way the food is made is one of the connections at the heart of a team who otherwise are only linked by their nationality and their shared experience. Anastasia explains that varenyky – half-moon shaped dumplings stuffed with potato and fried onions – are a favourite meal from home, while Sasha recommends trying the shuba salad, which is made with layers of beetroot, carrot, potato, egg and pickled herring. The slices of honey cake are understandably popular, with their slivers of almost caramel-rich sponge cake layered into a perfect stack with plenty of smooth, buttery icing.
The business is still being fine-tuned, and currently relies on support from donations to balance the books. There are English lessons and CV-writing workshops available for refugees, but Sally hopes to also add Ukrainian lessons for host families to the schedule, and perhaps evening events that showcase the cuisine. But offering a familiar menu to Ukrainians who’ve just arrived in Sheffield has always been a matter of pride to the whole team. Some customers are moved by the music, or are reminded of childhood by their slice of cake. Many arrive as strangers but leave as friends. As Sally puts it, ‘We get a lot of emotion.’