Sunday, February 8, 2009
Voyager Bien: The Russian Way
Before landing in St. Petersburg, Russia, I really only had two main culinary expectations: Borscht and Blinis. In fact, Russian cuisine is so misunderstood in America that I hardly anticipated the most important part of my travels - EATING.
Luckily Mother Russia proved me quite inept. Weeks after my return, and I still craved the meals I ate there, desperately trying to recreate even the simplest recipes my host had made. The main difference I noticed right away is ingredients. They didn't need to boast Organic, free-range, hormone-free or grass-fed -- This food was straight from the source. Fresh handpicked forest mushrooms, plump farm chicken, savory garden dill, sweet watermelon.. Rudimentary flavors punched by their authenticity. "It doesn't taste like this at home.." I found myself murmuring throughout various meals in Russia. Even their version of cottage cheese, the creamy large curds packed with a side of fruit compote kept me poking in the fridge each morning for more.
What I am most grateful for though is the opportunity to stay in a Russian home versus a tourist hotel. From the moment I stepped inside the long, narrow, 12 ft tall checkered hallway of our host's somewhat decrepit pre-WWI greystone apartment I felt like "OK.. now THIS is real Russia."
Cloudy glass-paned french doors lining the North side of the hall led to various rooms and hidden spaces, from around the crook at the end of the dark hall came the aroma of cooking food. Ksenya and I obediently slipped off our shoes at the entryway and tiptoed with our luggage down the icy hall, our host gliding ahead of us in her robe begging pardon for appearances. Our room had an enormously high moulded ceiling and broad double-paned oriel windows, baroque china cabinets and dark wardrobes filling most of the space. As soon as we'd set our things down, we were lead through an unseen doorway to a large room that served as office, dining room, (and as we later deduced) bedroom to our host. We were sat at the table and immediately served wine in antique crystal goblets. Though we had feasted on Georgian food a mere hour or so before, Katya was just finishing preparing dinner, which I immediately understood was not optional. Katya's son and daughter-in-law appeared then, from another door somewhere in the hall and joined us around a pedestal bowl of golden pears and red grapes on the octagonal wooden table. All three of them knew bits of english, but conversation tended to carry out in Russian, which added to the otherness of my delerium. A hefty chicken breast was placed on my plate, followed by a heaping spoonful of the largest-grain rice I've ever seen. Battered and fried green squash appeared next and more wine filled my glass. I gave in and unfolded my napkin. It was the most tender, moist and flavorful chicken I've had in years, and merely panfried along with the rice according to Katya. My stomach hardly minded it was already full. I was going to be okay with 'the Russian way' I realized, and let my mind slip away, focusing instead on my comforted tastebuds.
Mornings were met casually around the table, Katya emptying the cupboard and fridge in a continental breakfast style.. Loose black tea was first served in brittle china teacups, followed by an array of items: rye toast with herbed cream spreads, salami and sliced gouda, the aforementioned cottage cheese and preserves, Stolle cheese pie, морст (a cloudy red fruit juice in lingonberry, cranberry or cherry), and of course fresh oranges, yellow pears and grapes. We learned quickly that even though this seemed like on-the-go morning fare, it was rarely treated as such. One morning in our coats ready to attack a full day (and even after professing our rush), we clocked our quick little breakfast in at 2 hours. Conversation, guide books, family photos, online searches.. Katya loved the company. What could we do? Drink more tea and eat more food!
After -or in addition to- most meals at Katya's, boxes of sweets were brought out, even with breakfast. Chocolate covered wafers, truffles, and wrapped candies.. My favorite of these (a TOTAL "Super Bon!" item) came in a modest small square box under folds of thin waxed paper. Called клюква в сахарной пудре, they are simply fresh cranberries coated with powdered sugar. The tart blast of the cranberry juice upon biting through the sweet shell is shocking and incredible - and addictive.
One chilly evening Ksenya and I returned to the apartment and stepped out of our boots, immediately to be motioned by Katya to the table. She served us a home made Forest mushroom soup topped with chopped fresh dill and sour cream, piles of sliced rye bread and of course wine. It was honestly the best soup I have tasted in ages. The mushrooms were massive and meaty, and elegantly flavored unlike any I've had. Somewhere between a chantrelle, a porcini and a shitake. I asked Katya what kind of mushroom and her response was that she picked them in the forest herself but days before our arrival. Ksenya tried to ask their type in Russian, but Katya just shook her head. "You don't have mushrooms like this in America, so it does not matter."
On our last day, we took a drive into the countryside with Katya and her friend. We were on our way to Vyborg, a little medeival town on the border of Finland, by way of Katya's summer home near the Nevskaya Guba Bay. Every several miles along the highway's shoulder an old woman was sitting in a folding chair, a stack of jars containing pickled vegetables or bunches of hanging dried herbs by her side. There also sat scattered tribes of parked empty cars, an occasional person stepping into the thick woods, gathering basket in hand. This reminded me, I had been wanting to talk to Katya about getting her mushroom soup recipe to post on my blog. I asked her if that was something she would be interested in, and was met with a reaction of befuddlement. "It's not the RECIPE.. It.. just won't taste the same," she said, swishing her hand in dismissal.
I smiled stiffly in defeat and turned back toward the passing woods outside, watching a couple of gatherers returning from the forest depths with heaping baskets, knowing she was right.
Next up: Dining out in the city!
Vintage images from from a Soviet cookbook printed in the USSR, 1952. Title loosely translated is ‘Book Of Tasty And Healthy Food’.