Yesterdays musings on Charlotte Russe made me wonder about the larger picture of dishes styled ‘à la Russe.’ Did ‘Russian’ food become fashionable at some point in the rest of the world? Food fashions come and go, and have always done so amongst those who can afford to pick and choose. And what did the rest of the world consider to be specifically ‘Russian’ features or ingredients?
The first recipe I have found so far is for partridges, and it appeared in The Lady’s assistant for Regulating her Table, (1787), by Charlotte Mason. I really don’t know what is ‘Russian’ about this dish.
Partridges à la Russe.
Take some young partridges; when they are picked and drawn, cut them into quarters, and put them into some white wine; then set on a stew-pan, with slices of bacon, over a brisk fire; throw in the partridges, turn them two or three times; then pour in a glass of brandy, and set them over a slow fire; when they have stewed some time, put in a few mushrooms cut in slices, and some good gravy; let them simmer briskly, and take up the fat as it rises: when they are done, put in a piece of butter rolled in flour, and squeeze in the juice of a lemon.
One common theme which did develop in savoury dishes ‘à la Russe’ was some sort of pickle, or at least some vinegar. This idea appeared in an early recipe for a dish styled‘à la Russe’which can be found in A New System of Domestic Cookery, by Maria Rundell (1808).
Sturgeons à la Russe
When the sturgeon is cleaned, lay it for several hours in salt and water; take it out an hour before it is wanted, rub it well with vinegar, and pour a little over it. Then put it into a fish-kettle, cover with boiling water, an ounce of bay-salt, two large onions, and a bunch of sweet herbs. Stew it until the bones will separate easily; then take it up, remove the skin, flour it, and place it to brown before the fire, basting it well with butter; serve it up with a rich sauce, and a garnish of pickles.
The inimitable William Kitchiner, in his Cook’s Oracle (1817) includes a Recipe for Sauce to Wild Fowls for which he proudly asserts ‘the following sauce for wild fowl has been preferred to about fifty other; and, at one time, was not to be got without a fee of one guinea. It includes one tablespoon of ‘Sauce à la Russe (the older the better)’. In a footnote referring to this sauce, he says ‘by à la Russe' we suppose cavice, or corach, or soy, is meant.’ I can see the pickle in ‘cavice’ (which is supposedly ceviche). I am confused about ‘corach’ which the OED knows as an alternative spelling of ‘currach’ or ‘coracle’ – a small wicker boat used in ancient times in Scotland and Ireland – hardly the usage here. ‘Corach’ does appear in John Simpson’s A Complete System of Cookery (1813) in a recipe for Shrimp Sauce, along with a little lemon pickle, but so far I have not been able to clarify what exactly it is. As for sauce à la Russe referring to soy, I can only say that Dr Kitchiner got his culinary wires confused somewhere.
There is much more to be discovered on this ‘Russian’ theme – so please watch this space!