Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Traveller’s Food Tales: Russia: Part II.

Yesterday I gave you a short story on Russian street food as seen through the eyes of a late eighteenth century British expatriate. Today I want to move forward a few decades, and look at some of the dining habits of the noble classes – again, as described by a British expatriate.
The following is an extract from The Character of the Russians and a Detailed History of Moscou, (1823) by Robert Lyall, M.D., ‘Member of the Imperial Societies of Agriculture and Natural History, and of the Physico-Medical Society, at Moscow, and of Several Societies in Great Britain.’ 

In the chapter of the book entitled Disagreeable Customs of the Russians, the author is responding to comments made by ‘Dr. Clarke’ about the ‘real Russian.’  I have selected some of the food-relevant comments from this section, and only wish I could counter-attack with some Russian commentary on British manner and customs!

I have lived, and I have travelled, with different nobles, in my official capacity; I have arrived in the family circle of noble families, of the highest and of the lowest classes, at all hours of the night, and of the day;- and I only recollect, a few times, having seen a nobleman take even a dram of sweet Votki in the morning, except upon the road. The custom in Russia is to drink tea and coffee at a pretty early hour, and generally without eating either bread or sweet cake. The Russian breakfast follows at 10, 11, or 12 o’clock. The dinners and suppers generally consist of a number of good dishes, in which a mixture of German and French cookery prevails, besides some of those which are almost peculiar to Russia, as stchi, salted cucumbers, klukva, and kvass. I have seldom had to complain either of the number, or of the quality of the dishes at the tables of the first nobility. On the contrary, the attention paid to eating, and drinking, and cookery, has always appeared to me by far too serious an affair in Russia. Almost all the higher nobility either have had foreigners to teach their slaves the art of cookery, or still retain them, in order to satisfy their delicate and fastidious palates. Others have sent their vassals to the Imperial kitchen, or to the tuition of some distinguished cook in the capitals, in order to be taught so important an art. In some of the larger establishments of the nobles at Moscow, four, six, eight, and even above ten men-cooks are employed, besides half a dozen, a dozen, or a score of assistants in the kitchen ; and scarcely will you find the poorest and the meanest noble without a man-cook, even when living retired in the country. The cause of this is evident. A slave being once taught, costs his master little or no expence, besides his maintenance and his clothes. In Russia, women-cooks only get employment among the merchants, the clergy, and free people, and in foreign families.

The Russians certainly indulge themselves in eating too frequently and too abundantly; and the fair ladies, no doubt, destroy the beauty of the female form by a want of discretion on this score. To use terms which may least offend them, the nobles may be reckoned des gourmands et des gourmandes , - and, as already said, they are great sleepers. 

That “the principal articles of diet are the same everywhere, grease and brandy,” is not true. The remark never was applicable, nor is it applicable, to any class of the Russians. It cannot respect the higher nobility, who have excellent dinners and suppers, with rich and highly seasoned sauces, who merely take a dram of sweet Votki, or of Liqueur, as a whet before commencing their repasts, and who are very temperate as to wine; it is not applicable to the lower nobility, whose mode of life is a combination of that of the peasantry and of the superior nobility; it cannot be applied to the clergy , or to the merchants, the poorer of whom live in a style little better than the peasants, while the richer imitate the nobles, although many of both classes, but especially of the former, freely indulge in the use of brandy ; and it is notorious, that black bread and kasha (buck-wheat pottage), with butter, or with oil, form the chief articles of Russian food, among the peasantry, in the army, and in the navy, and that kvass is the universal drink of all the lower ranks, and is even found at the tables of the highest nobles of the land. It is true, however, that grease, and butter, and oil, enter extensively into the cookery of the Russians, and that the lower orders are much addicted to indulgence in the use of their vino, called brandy. But assuredly they form “no articles of diet.”

Dr. Clarke, in one of the most lamentable periods of Russian history, when truth was more than amply severe in the dismal picture of Russian manners, often saw with a prejudiced eye…..

… It may have been more common about the end of last century than at present, for individuals of all ranks, and at the first tables, to retain the same knives and forks during dinner, at the conclusion of each dish, cleaning them upon a piece of bread, or sometimes without this ceremony, laying them down upon the table cloth. The same indecorous custom is still prevalent, but certainly, in the houses of the more polished nobles, your knives and forks, if you put them upon your plate, are taken away and replaced by others; among the lower classes, when left upon the plate, are taken away, wiped, and returned to you. But at a Russian table, everyone pleases himself, so that it not infrequently happens, that one half of a party have their knives and forks changed, while the other half retain theirs, from the commencement to the conclusion of the repast. In some houses I have seen little low silver stands placed upon the table, one for each guest, on purpose to lay the knives and forks upon when not required for duty: a custom which always reminds me, in some degree, of the different military guards in Moscow placing their arms upon stands, until they be required to make a salute to some by-passing officer.
… At the first tables, jellies, marmalades, and preserved fruits, are generally served up as a part of the dessert, and every guest has his own plate; but sometimes it happens, that the same spoon makes the round of the table, with the preserves or jelly, and serves the whole company; each individual having filled his mouth, kindly passing the spoon for the accommodation of his neighbour. Among the lower nobility, the ladies and gentlemen—I beg pardon, la noblesse—having retired from dinner, often find fruits and jellies placed upon a covered table, to which they approach, and help themselves at their pleasure, one spoon serving all the party, however numerous; or sometimes a servant hands both the jelly and the spoon in succession to each individual. This practice is carried to the perfection of disgust, among the rich merchants, among the clergy, and among those peasants who have acquired wealth by their industry.

And the recipe for the day is for kasha. Sadly it is not from a nineteenth century Russian text, but an English-language cookery book of the 1940’s – which seems pretty interesting however, and perhaps will give us some other recipes in the future.

(Buckwheat kascha)
Ingredients: 1 ½ lbs. of sifted buckwheat flour, butter, sour or fresh cream, or melted butter.
Method: Sift the buckwheat flour, spread it out in a large frying pan, and fry it slightly to color it. Then put it in
an earthenware pot with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of butter, and just enough water to cover. Put the lid on the pot and cook in a slow oven for 2 to 3 hours. It is advisable to stand the pot in a pan containing a little water. Serve with either cream or melted butter.

Recipes of All Nations, compiled and edited by Countess Morphy (New York, 1946; first edition 1935?)


Galina L. said...

No one cooks buckwheat like that in Russia now, while buckwheat grouts are very popular.

korenni said...

Buckwheat groats are delicious, especially with sour cream or yogurt.

I don't suppose you have a recipe for kvass anywhere? I remember as a child reading in a child's biography of Catherine the Great that when she first entered St. Petersburg, she was astonished at the difference between it and the German cities she was used to -- and that included the sellers of hot kvass hawking their wares on the snowy streets. The author made kvass sound delicious.

Galina L. said...

I think author mistaken kvass (a cold fermented beverage) for sbiten (hot infusion winter drink made with dry herbs, spices and honey). Herbs like St.John's Worth and Sage were used for infusion, and spices such as Ginger, Cinnamon, hot pepper added as well.That drink pre-dates drinking hot tea in Russia, and it went out of fashion after the Revolution. Infusion of SJW+honey sounds like a good idea in a cold winter day!