The temporarily defeated Russians made a strategic withdrawal, but could recover on their own land, and had a massive population from which to draw more troops. Napoleon’s depleted Grand Armée may have won the battle, but they lost the war – defeated in large part by the bitter Russian winter as they made their way home.
What has this got to do with food, you ask? Well, there is a particular Russian rye bread called Borodino, or Borodinsky Bread which is associated with this day. Myth says that a wife of a General, wishing to cheer the troops on the eve of the battle, made a batch of the staple Russian rye bread, adding wild coriander seeds which she had gleaned that day. Truth says that sour rye bread had been around in Russia for centuries. And common sense says that it would have been logistically impossible for even the most caring and skilled General’s wife to have made rye bread for many thousands of troops (a few select officers, perhaps, but that is not the myth.)
I have been unable to find a genuine historical recipe for this Borodino bread, but can assure you there are many ‘on the net.’ There is however, is an interesting explanation of the Russian method of making sour rye bread in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1778) – a very interesting non-cookery book source of recipes. I guess if coriander seeds were to be added, it might represent the real thing. The article makes a point about the Russian preference for a degree of acidity in their bread, and also discusses the making of quass (kvass) – a fermented beverage made from rye bread.
The manner of making the Russian rye bread. – In the morning they mix as much rye flour with warm milk, water, and a bason full of grounds of quass, or leaven, as will make a thin dough, and beat it up for half an hour with the chocolate staff before described*; this they set in a warm place till night, when they add more meal by degrees, working it up at the same with the staff, till the dough becomes stiff. They then return it to its warm situation till morning, at which time they throw in a proper quantity of salt, and work it with the hand to a proper consistence for bread; the longer this last operation is continued the better; they then place it before the fire till it rises, when it is cut into loaves, and returned once more to the warm place where it before stood, and kept there for an hour before the last part of the process, the baking, which completes it.
*In the instructions for the preparation of quass there is reference to “ a machine resembling the staff of a chocolate pot, but larger”, for the ‘working’ of the liquid.
Quotation for the Day:
Every few thousand years some shepherd inhales smoke from a burning bush and has a vision or eats moldy rye bread in a cave and sees God.