Sunday, May 8, 2011

Excursion to Russia, 1: The rebirth of Russian cooking

I'm doing something a bit different for my next two or three posts, which is take you on an excursion into the food of a country I've been fascinated by since I was about eleven, but whose food I only really discovered on a trip there last year: and that country is Russia.
I was drawn magnetically to this extraordinary country, its colourful, passionate, turbulent, imaginative people, their frightening and inspiring history, and magnificent literature, music and art. As a child and adolescent I read lots of Russian fairytales, plays, novels and short stories, and listened with delight to recordings of Russian folk music we had at home. For years, I dreamed of going there, but it wasn't till May 2010 that I was finally able to fulfill that dream. Not only did the country meet my expectations, it far exceeeded them. Even the things I was expecting: the awe-inspiring scale of rivers and lakes and forests and plains, the gorgeous distinctiveness of the architecture, the scary relics of the past, the amazing richness and depth of the artistic traditions that still remain, had a huge impact, at first hand. But other things were quite unexpected: a combination of dry humour, nonchalance and exuberance; riotous spring vegetation and clothing and bright blue skies; the charming,intimate beauty of smalltown houses, the vibrant energy of the cities. And the excellent food.
Food wasn't really something I'd ever thought about in connection with Russia. Aside from caviar, vodka, pickled fish and borscht, I had no real image of it. And of course during the long Soviet dictatorship, there were so many food shortages and privations that the notion there was such a thing as Russian cuisine fell by the wayside, at least in Western minds. The few tourists who braved Soviet restaurants reported stodgy, badly cooked, badly presented food, and though the upper classes of the Soviet system ate very well out of the public eye, the majority of people certainly did not. And that did not improve but actually worsened for a while after the regime finally crashed in the early 90's. We kept hearing horror stories from people who'd visited Russia in the past, and resigned ourselves to an amazing cultural experience but bad food. So it was wonderful to be surprised into the discovery that things had completely changed. In my opinion, it's as good a sign as any of a country's recovery from hard times, when people start taking pleasure and pride in preparing and cooking food again, not only for themselves and their families and friends, but for strangers. And not just for tourists, or the wealthy, either, but for ordinary locals looking for a meal out. But the excellence of the food wasn't the only surprise; the other was the discovery that this was no modern phenomenon, and that travellers in pre-Soviet times had also commented on the excellence of the food.
A fascinating 1857 English book I own called Russians at Home, by Sutherland Edwards, describes the menu at a typical modest restaurant in Moscow then: 'the usual dinner supplied for three-quarters of a rouble(half a crown) consists of soup, with a pie of minced meat or minced vegetables, an entree, and some kind of sweet. That, too, may be considered the kind of dinner which persons of moderate means have every day at home. ' Edwards also talks about a popular Russian cookbook of the time, entitled 'Forty-Two Dinners' which rather in the manner of the successful Four Ingredients cookbooks of today, centred around a gimmick: four dishes only per dinner, up to dinner 42, with always a soup to start with(starting with soup is very much a Russian tradition.)Edwards quotes some of the menus: Dinner Twenty-Seven, for instance features a/batvinia, a hearty soup made of boiled beef, boiled beetroot, spring opinions, caraway seeds, and a puree or sorrel or spinach, with a somechopped boiled egg; b/stuffed carrots; c/roast mutton with mushrooms; d/ Compote or jelly of almonds. Thirty-Three, a Lenten dish(Russian Orthodox tradition strictly observes the no-meat fast all through Lent), was: a/Oukha, or sterlet soup(the sterlet is a popular fish found only in the Volga); b/Fish cutlets with a sauce of oil and vinegar; c/Fried perch; d/Kissel(a kind of blancmange made with almond milk and fine oatmeal.) Other foods he mentions include various sorts of game, icecream, gingerbread(he makes the intriguing remarks that in pre-Christian times pagan Russians used to makes offerings of carved gingerbread to their deities—the tradition of shaped and decorated gingerbread endures to this day.) He also lists traditional drinks, from gallons of tea of course; kvass, an effervescent drink made from the flour of black bread and malt and served very cold(though rather an acquired taste for foreigners, it is still very popular in Russia); vodkas of all sorts, from the plain kind to flavoured ones(there are many kinds: for instance in Dr Zhivago a red rowanberry vodka is mentioned; and in Russia we sampled a honey and pepper vodka from Ukraine)and champagne, of which, he says, the Russians are very fond and consume in great quantities. While wealthy people drank French champagne, most people then as now drank the bubbly made in the Crimea or the Don River area, which cost only a fifth of the French variety.
By contrast, while Edwards extols these home-grown champagnes, the Frenchman Etienne Taris, in his 1910 book, La Russie et ses Richesses, sniffily says that the Russian wines can appropriate French place-names all they like, 'one can always tell their true origin'! Grudgingly, he admits that the soups are very similar to peasant soups in France; that the mushrooms are excellent, the fish and game very good; but otherwise he is not enamoured of Russian food, with its sweet and sour dishes, pickled fish, sour cream and black bread, tastes which are foreign to the French repertoire: and he makes the acid observation that 'no wonder there is such a fashion for French food in Russia!' But in both books, the exuberant Russian attitude to food—and life—is amply documented and obviously delighted in by the writers; but that's even more obvious in the quintessential Russian cookbook, Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives, which was the massive best-selling cookery tome of its day. It was an amazing compendium, a mix of hilariously extravagant, slapdashly insouciant and thriftily careful recipes, and a good deal of household advice, written by an extraordinary woman who ran a country estate. Reprinted umpteen times from its first appearance in 1861 to 1917, it became a huge cultural phenomenon, cherished by generations, carried into exile, and lovingly parodied by Chekhov, among others. Repudiated by the Bolsheviks as a symbol of 'bourgeois decadence', the book went underground after 1917, was circulated in 'samizdat' copies, and was never officially reprinted in its entirety during the whole of the Soviet period. But a few short months after the crash of the Soviet regime, reprinted copies of the book were being sold on the streets of Moscow, and today the book has once again taken its place as the great classic of Russian food writing. (It is now available in English, translated by Joyce Toomre, as 'Classic Russian Cooking', Indiana University Press)
That exuberance and abundance has come back now; and so we discovered a Russia where markets and shops are again filled with colourful arrays of fresh ingredients from every corner of this vast land; where even modest restaurants offer simple, fresh and delicious traditional menus and street-corner vendors sell smoked sausage hot dogs, cold glasses of kvass, caramelised almonds and luscious icecreams. We discovered the most spectacular and tasty candied fruit ever, specialities of southern Russia, from whole cumquats to apricot and strawberries; beautiful salads, from grated beetroot with garlic and vinegar to spectacular bowls of greens, tomatoes and olives; fantastic smoked and fresh fish from the cold northern lakes; a wide variety of soups; mushrooms served in all kinds of ways(Russians are very very fond of mushrooms—it's a favourite family outing, gathering mushrooms in the forest) a tempting array of zakuski, the tapas-like nibbles served with vodka, from olives and gherkins to pickled fish and little pies and dumplings; lovely berry and nut tarts; and the prettiest gilt gingerbread outside of fairytales. We also discovered that Russians, like Australians, love cooking outdoors, and a favoured recipe for a good meal out with friends consists of a handy river bank, a barbecue constructed of stones and charcoal, some freshly-caught fish, lamb shashliks with spicy sauce, various salads, some loud music on a radio, and plenty of beer!
Traditionally, Russian cuisine is dominated by the bounty of waterways and forest, by fish and game and mushrooms and nuts and berries and honey, but also by the necessities of long winters: by lots of pickled and smoked and salted fish, meat and vegetables. But because of the vastness of the land and its many climactic zones, it has access to an extremely wide variety of other things: the Caucasian vividness of fruit, vegetables, wine and lamb, for instance, and rich dairy products, especially cream, but also good yoghurt, and some cheeses. And the imaginative quality which has always characterised the Russian temperament is being fully applied now to local cuisine, so that traditional dishes are not only being cherished for what they are, but also experimented with, and new ways of highlighting the country's excellent produce, borrowing from all kinds of culinary traditions, are being tried.
It's not going to be long before the West generally discovers another foodie paradise; indeed it's already beginning to happen. This September will see the first-ever Flavours of Russia culinary tour organised from Australia, featuring celebrity guest and famous gourmet Maggie Beer. Watch for a touch of Russian becoming the new foodie fashion!

1 comment:

  1. it's had such a bad reputation for stodginess uptil now.