Thursday, March 07, 2013

Sustenance in Siberia.

It was interesting, I thought, visiting Lapland with the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, in the early eighteenth century. Today I want to take you to Siberia with a German guide, in the mid-nineteenth century. Naturally we will focus on the food.

Our source is Travels in Siberia: including excursions northwards, down the Obi, to the Polar Circle, and southwards, to the Chinese frontier (1848) by Adolph Erman. We join our guide in Tobolsk, the original capital of Siberia.

The chief attention of the inhabitants of Tobolsk is devoted to sustenance and to warmth: it must not, therefore, be thought extraordinary if, in a description of that town, the subjects of food and clothing be much enlarged on, as on the choice and mode of procuring these depends many a peculiarity of the land and its inhabitants.
At the feasts which our friends in Tobolsk gave on several occasions, either, as was generally the case, by way of religious celebrations, or else to commemorate some public or private event, the direct influence of the church upon the kitchen was very manifest; for, in order to represent the superstitious meat, or pirog (from pir, a festival), exactly according to the dietetic prescriptions generally accepted, the most curious variety of vegetable and animal ingredients were inclosed in dough, of different degrees of fineness. The correct and orthodox preparation of this chief viand seemed to satisfy the consciences of the faithful, and they did not stickle much about the other dishes, of which, indeed, they ate less. Along with the usual berry wines, good European wines, also, are generally to be had here, of which the stronger, and consequently the most easily preserved from the frost, are brought here on sledges, and so undergo much less enhancement of price than other liquors liable to congelation.
The resources for the table furnished by the trade with Southern Asia, are, from long usage, become so indispensable, that they are looked upon as if they were the produce of the country. The most important of all is tea, — a comfort which no townsman is willing to relinquish. … tea is taken at least twice a day; and in summer, as well as winter, the family assemble at certain hours for that purpose. Among the middle classes, the family and servants take tea together. Otherwise, there is sure to be a samavar in the izba, or servants' apartment. In the evenings, and on festive occasions, conserves of various kinds are served with the tea, after the Chinese fashion. In the first place, there is the nut of the stone pine or Cembro nut, a Siberian production; then a great number of fruits from Southern Russia in Europe, prepared in Chinese sugar (ledinez, icelike, from lied, ice), and which are carried here, under the name of Varenia (confection), in the course of a very active and constant trade. The fruits of Bokhara as, for example, the Uruk, are here dressed as vegetables.
… In the spacious market-place before our dwelling, was to be seen every morning a numerous assemblage of the inhabitants of the adjoining country. There were Russian peasants, and, less frequently, Tatars, who supplied the town with the productions of the soil. The waggons, laden with hay and wood for fuel, were now the most numerous. At this time of the year, kitchen vegetables are rarely brought to market; and a good stock of fermented cabbage (sowerkrout) is to the townspeople indispensable. The pickling of vegetables and fruits does not seem to be very usual here; and it is only on feast-days and great occasions, or at the tables of the rich, that one sees, besides kale, a few other vegetables which are kept from the summer in cold cellars. The most esteemed of these is a very aromatic, yellow, conical root, measuring four or five inches in its greatest diameter. It is seldom that even beef is brought into the town at this season; but every one has either a sufficient stock of it already, or else he buys it of the flesh-dealers in the Gostinoi dvor, or bazaar, who obtain by barter in summer from the inhabitants of the southern government, and especially from the Kirgis, whole herds of cattle, the flesh of which they store in ice cellars. Every household is well provided with corn for the preparation of Quas; and in a particular division of the bazaar, flour is the staple article of a constant trade.

Sadly, I was unable to find an authentic Siberian cookery book, so am unable to give you an authentic Siberian recipe.

What else could I give you than a genuine Victorian Siberian Punch? There are many things that go by the name of Siberian Punch, but the example below is suitably snowy. The rather abrupt and unannounced addition of fruit at the end is an demonstration of the fact that recipe-writing is an inexact science.

Siberian Punch.
1 quart thick cream
½ pint white of eggs beaten
½ tablespoon cornstarch
½ pint fine sugar
⅔ cup best brandy
Let cream come to boiling point. Mix eggs, sugar, corn starch together, then stir slowly in boiling cream, until cooked, let cool, add brandy when partly frozen and candied fruit.
The Federation Cook Book: A Collection of Recipes by the Colored Women of California (1910)


Anonymous said...

It is fascinating that the Siberian Punch comes from California. Are there many English recipes for it? I don't remember running across any. I was interested in the rather Russian tea taking ritual in Siberia. That the whole family, servants included, took tea together (presumably all enjoying the preserves?) mostly.Do you suppose the separate samovar in the servants quarters was in large establishments?

SometimesKate said...

Add a bit of nutmeg, and you have egg nog! I remember reading somewhere about the Siberians hanging horsemeat out to freeze in the winter, but I don't recall where I read it.

Unknown said...

I would like to try this!sia

The Old Foodie said...

Hi All. I am not sure about the English versions of this recipe - it was certainly very common in American cookery books. will check and see if I can find anything interesting.
And - I must look into Siberian cookery and see what interesting snippets I can find on it!