WORLD FOOD – Russia At The Table

24 Jun 2002

The Russians. Unpredictable in matters political and economic, disorganized in their domestic affairs, sloppy in their daily lives. In a word, enigmatic. So what is the Russian soul really like? What hides behind the golden domes of Orthodox churches and the sober, worried faces of the babu_ka – those little grannies in headscarves?
Leaving stereotypes behind, it is possible to discover the hospitality and profound sentiment of the people who populate the huge expanse of territory we call Russia. They are friendly, courteous and always ready to celebrate at a moment’s notice, with any pretext. A real Russian will never invite you to a restaurant but to his home, so that you can taste the best local cooking.
It is no coincidence that salt and bread, the most precious elements on the table, are the symbol of hospitality in Russia. Bread is a necessity, and in ancient Russia salt used to be more treasured than gold. ‘Bread and salt’ is an expression still used today in Russian to mean ‘welcome’. And as in the past, important guests, newly-weds and VIPs are welcomed with karavai>/I> – a traditional round loaf with sea salt in the middle. The correct traditional response to this gesture of hospitality is to take a little piece of bread and dip it in the salt before popping it in your mouth.

Now for the Russian table! The finest expression of the mysterious Slav soul – its mirror image, its symbol, its representative. At the table we get to know these people at their most sincere and moving.
Like the Russians themselves, the table is at once untidy, simple and sophisticated. It’s a cheerful hotchpotch, despite the fact that life isn’t always easy here. The real Russian table says something about Russia itself – its geography and its traditions – more than any number of textbooks. Marinated mushrooms, of all types and colours, are an invitation to discover the life of the great forests and the vast expanses of the country’s fields. Freshwater fish recall the country’s rivers and countess lakes. Traditionally home-pickled cucumbers and cabbage and homemade apple compotes tell the story of the long Russian winters, which last far longer than the summers. The huge variety of fruit and vegetables explain the observance of fasting, which is still quite important in Orthodox tradition. But it is the meat dishes, such as pelmeni (large meat-filled ravioli) and beef Stroganoff, invented at the end of the 19th century, have become the real emblems of Russian cuisine.

Each dish represents a facet of the Russian soul: the various zakuski (hors d’oeuvres) are an expression of diversity, of the joy of chaos; pirojki, fish- or meat-filled pastries, are stand for surprise; soups give off warm and intense aromas; blinis (crêpes) are synonymous with the inevitable conviviality of family meal.
The table holds a place of honor in Russian culture. It is hard to imagine how business contracts can be discussed at the table in Russia! Almost all writers include a food scene in their books. Nikolay Gogol, for example, in Dead Souls, describes each of the characters, providing their menus or culinary habits as character notes. In Russian there are thousands of phrases, current expressions and proverbs directly connected to cooking.
In the first place, a good deal of family life revolves around the kitchen and the table. The first thing a Russians would build, even before completing the house, was the stove – and it was always the last thing to leave. The family would gather round the hot stove, the heart of the living area, to eat, talk, and even to sleep. And dishes cooked slowly on the stove are certainly a basic feature of Russian country cooking.
In city apartments, stoves have been replaced today by electric hotplates and gas cookers, but those that remain have not lost their symbolic value as a catalyst and point of attraction for families. In Russia, meals are almost always eaten in the kitchen, where guests are often welcomed and problems discussed. The kitchen is still one of the most convivial places in the home, a sort of family agora.

What do Russians eat? They eat a lot. Unlike the French, for example, who tend to prefer more refined eating, a self-respecting Russian table ‘should creak under the weight of the courses’. After a good Russian meal it should be hard to leave the table. A good boyfriend should eat plenty to show that he worked hard beforehand. Before the time of Catherine the Great, a daughter was considered beautiful if she weighed over 100kg, while Russian princes and tsars laid on banquets worthy of ancient Rome. During a princely feast described in a novel by Alexei Tolstoy, roast swans preceded spit-roasted peacocks and were followed by red meat and chicken pies, fish soups and chicken pasta, capons with ginger and boned chickens, not to mention duck with cucumbers, francolin with plums, goose with oats and bouleaux with saffron, after rabbits served with macaroni, quails in garlic sauce, blinisand pirojkis. Although people certainly no longer eat like this in Russia today, the severe climate does encourage them to eat plenty.

Russians are disorderly in their daily lives and this extends to their culinary habits too. There are no mealtimes, they eat continually – maybe at midday, maybe at one, or maybe at five in the afternoon. Breakfast may be as plentiful as lunch, including a main course. Some foreign restaurants in Russia are forced to admit defeat because they are unable to keep pace with their clients.

Natasha Mukhina is the western European correspondent of the Russian magazine Restaurateur

Photo: Pelmeni (Small pies filled with minced meat)

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