Most of you know by now that I love travelers’ food tales from times gone by – and to judge by the feedback, many of you do too. Today I want to give you a taste of the street food (and drink) in the eighteenth century Russian Empire, as seen through the eyes of William Tooke, F.R.S., ‘Member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences and of the Free Economical Society at St. Petersburg.’
In Volume I (of three volumes) of his book View Of The Russian Empire During The Reign Of Catharine The Second And To The Close Of The Present Century, published in 1799, in the chapter entitled Slavonians, Mr. Tooke has this to say:
They have usually two meals in the day; in the forenoon about nine o'clock, and in the afternoon at three. The family at these times eat all together; and, when it is numerous, first the males and afterwards those of the other sex. They allow themselves but a short time at table, and are easy and cheerful. Even among the inferior people the table-linen, platters, and Vessels are kept in great cleanliness. If strangers sit down with them there are very copious potations. Intoxication is not disgraceful, and even among people of good condition, if a lady be overtaken in liquor, it is no subject of reproach. They are never quarrelsome or scurrilous in their cups, but friendly, jovial, courteous, speak in praise of the absent, and boast of their friendship; and those that are not able to stand, find ready assistance from those that can. On journies, merchants and others take their food with remarkably few formalities. In towns and great village-stations, women sit in the street, near public houses, with tables having roast and boiled meat, fish, piroggees, cabbage-soup, cucumbers, bread, and quas, consequently a superb and everywhere a cheap repast, which is taken standing, and always accompanied with a glass or two of brandy.
Some of the foods described in this piece have been mentioned in previous blog posts. In a story about the food of Russian factoryworkers in 1828 (again, as seen through European eyes) there is mention of the ubiquitous cabbage soup and kvass (quas), and The Manner of Making the Russian Rye Bread was given in another post.
The ‘piroggees’ which make up the ‘superb and everywhere a cheap repast’ must have captured the interest of the late eighteenth century British visitors to Russia, for fairly soon, interpretations of the idea began to appear in cookery books. The Family Receipt-book, or, Universal Repository of Useful Knowledge and Experience in all the Various Branches of Domestic Economy, published in London, in about 1810 included the following commentary and instructions:
Russian Fish Pies, or Pasties, &c.
The old Russian cookery consisted, and still consists among the lower and middling ranks in life, principally of pies or pasties; not made in dishes, but merely inclosed by a good standing crust, like those country pies or pasties called in England turnovers. Thus, frequently, even a whole salmon, either salted or fresh, being scraped and well cleaned, for the Russians are very nice in washing all their fish and meats, the inside is filled with onions, boiled carrots cut into round slices the cross way, and hard boiled eggs chopped small, seasoned with pepper and salt, and covered up in a large round sheet of paste doubled over in a sort of half moon form, and neatly closed by pinching round the circular part. In this manner, all sorts of fish are dressed; the stuffings being often varied, and sometimes composed of sour crout. Meat pies are prepared in a similar way. The Russians, however, are also fond of ragouts, and boiled or roasted fish and meats, very much done. They have, likewise, two kinds of favourite soups, one or other of which is every day dressed. The first of these soups called shchee, is made of sour crout, and a very pleasant sort of tartish small beer, named quass, with onions, bacon, and beef or mutton highly seasoned. This is quite excellent; but, on fast days, fish is substituted for the meat. The other soup is called borsh; and the chief difference between them is, that salted beet root is substituted for the sour crout.