How to cook like an authentic Russian peasant
By Anne Willan
ORONESH, Russia I am landing in the black earth, the agricultural heartland of Russia, 600 miles south of Moscow. I look down from the window of the commuter plane at a patchwork of vast, tree-lined fields, yellow, green and black. "The yellow are crops -- wheat, barley, sunflowers," explains my son, Simon, my host on this trip. "The black is the earth tilled ready to plant winter crops, and the green marks abandoned land, not cultivated since the early '90s and the collapse of communism." We have risen at dawn to take the early commuter flight from Moscow, and in a rapid turnaround we are speeding along a two-lane road in an SUV knockoff from Korea.
Our destination is a 90,000-acre farm, where we are invited for lunch. Driving along, we pass laden truck-trailers carrying 30 tons of grain side-by-side with wooden horse-drawn carts, the axles of all bending beneath the weight of grain. Alerted by mobile phone, a shirt-sleeved little group awaits us (the temperature hovers around 90 degrees), including a couple of women, one a cheerful red-headed agronomist, the other the director of the nearby grain elevator (in her former job she ran a 500-person factory).
We shake hands all around, smile (I do not speak a word of Russian) and repair eagerly to the cool dining room. The table is packed with zakuski, little plates of salads, cured meats and fish that are the universal starter in Russia. Here I spot chopped cucumber with tomato, smoked salmon, pickled herring, pickled cabbage with yellow bell peppers, and the mayonnaise-bound mixture of diced carrot, turnip, peas and green beans that is so common we call it Russian salad in the west. One dish of lightly salted herring (a fish that is plentiful in the Baltic Sea) blanketed with chopped parsley is catchily called "herring in a fur coat." Some rolled packages prove to be blintzes stuffed with fresh cheese.
All of this generous spread has the fresh, bright flavors of homemade cooking. I'm intrigued, and with Simon as interpreter I invade the kitchen to find Olga Julickova and another world. On a single giant electric-powered stove, she and two helpers are preparing three meals a day for an average of 100 people, 140 at lunch. There are no machines, not even a water boiler, so cauldrons of water are kept constantly heating on the stove.
These three women do everything by hand, from peeling potatoes to chopping, slicing and washing up. Time is so short that food is taken out to the fields rather than being eaten on the spot. I can only imagine the appetites, and thirsts, of workers out there around the clock. Olga herself starts at 6 a.m. and ends around 11 p.m. -- for a salary, if she is lucky, of around $400 a month. But her round, smiling face shows no sign of fatigue and it's hard to believe she has two children of 15 and 12. She explains she has been cooking since 1992, first as a trainee for two years, then in a canteen. Her ingredients come from Lipitsk, the nearest sizeable town, and most are produced in the area, though she must buy wholesale. She has no refrigerator (and certainly no freezer) in the kitchen, but there's a walk-in cold store across the yard.
Here in Zavalnoe, the "village after the valley," I have been plunged into a time warp that continues throughout my four-day tour of farms in the black earth. Before 2006, farmers had no legal rights to land and therefore no incentive to cultivate it, nor means of raising capital. Thanks to a property law passed in the Russian Duma, all this has changed, but the adjustment has taken time. Foreign investment is pouring in and locals are rapidly learning the cutting-edge technology of modern agriculture. But even now it is estimated that only 35 percent of cultivable land in Russia is actually being worked.
Meanwhile the centuries-old tradition of hospitality continues. Everywhere I've been welcomed, and offered the simple, freshly cooked food that epitomizes the best of life in the countryside the world over. Long may it last!
RUSSIAN BEET AND POTATO SALAD
This classic Russian salad includes the beet tops as well as the vivid pink roots. In Russia it forms part of zakuski appetizers alongside small dishes of sliced salami, smoked fish, pickled cucumber and tomato salad. I like to serve the salad with chicken or turkey as an entree salad. If your beets don't have tops, substitute a few leaves of spinach or chard.
Sweet Russian dressing:
2. For dressing: Put the sugar, mustard, paprika and caraway seed in a large bowl with salt and pepper. Whisk in the honey and mayonnaise, followed by the white wine and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.
3. To mix the salad: Trim tops and roots from beets and slip off cooked skins with your fingers. Cut beets in 3/8-inch dice and stir into dressing. Peel and dice potatoes, then stir into beets. Add beet tops and scallions and stir gently together. Taste the salad, adding more of any of the dressing seasonings. Serve chilled or at room temperature. This salad keeps well up to two days, but scallion should be added just before serving.
Serves 6 as an appetizer or side dish.
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To comment, please click here. © 2012, Anne Willan. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International
To comment, please click here.
© 2012, Anne Willan. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International