As you know, I love a good traveller’s food tale, and I have a very interesting one for you today. The information comes from an article in The Universal Magazine, Vol. 34 (London, 1794) which gives the following introduction:
A History of Kamtchatkca, the North-east boundary of Asia, having been published at Peterburg, in the Russian language, by order of her Imperial Majesty ….. and we take this opportunity to lay before our Readers some Extracts from it, which will appear more curious and entertaining, as furnishing a true Idea of a Country and People Europeans never yet had a proper Knowledge of.
I had to look it up: the Kamchatka Peninsula is in the Russian Far East between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk - a wild and far-away place for European visitors, who must have been very scarce in the late eighteenth century.
I have made a further extract from the Universal Magazine extract, focusing of course on the food-relevant information:-
Of their Diet and Liquors, together with their Method of Cooking.
Having already mentioned that the food of the Kamtschadales consists in roots, fish, and sea animals, we shall now relate their method of dressing them. And, first, we will begin with the fish, which they use instead of bread. The principal food, called Yokola, is prepared from every sort of fish, and serves them them for houshold bread. They divide their fish into six parts; the sides and tall are hung up to dry, the back and thinner part of the belly are prepared apart, and generally dried over the site; the head is laid to sour in pits, and then they eat it like saltfish, and esteem it much, though the stink is such that a stranger cannot bear it; the ribs and the flesh which remain upon them they hang up and dry, and afterwards pound them for use; the larger bones they likewise dry for food for their dogs : In this manner all these different people prepare the yokola, and they eat it for the most part dry.
Their second favourite food is caviar, or the roes of fish, which they prepare in three different ways; they dry the roe whole in the air, or take it out of the skin which invelopes it, and, spreading it upon a bed of grass, dry it before the fire; or, lastly, make rolls of it with the leaves of grass, which they also dry. They never take a journey or go a hunting without dry caviar; and, if a Kamtschadale has a pound of this, he can subsist without any other provision a great while; for every birch and alder tree furnishes him with bark, which, with his dried caviar, makes him an agreeable meal; but they cannot eat either separately, for the caviar sticks like glue to the teeth, and the bark, although it should be chewed ever so long by itself, they are hardly ever able to swallow down alone. There is still a fourth method, which both the Kamtschadales and Koreki use in preparing their caviar; having covered the bottom of a pit with grass, they throw the fresh caviar into it, and leave it there to grow sour. The Koreki tie theirs in bags, and leave it to sour; this is esteemed their most delicate dish.
There is a third sort of diet, called by the Kamtschadales tchupriki, which is prepared in this manner: In their huts, over the fire- place they make a bridge of stakes, upon which they lay a heap of fish, which remains there till the hut becomes as warm as a bagnio; if there was no great thickness of fish, one fire would serve to dress it; but sometimes they are obliged to make two, three, or more fires. Fish dressed in this manner is half roasted, half smoked, and has a very agreeable taste, and may be reckoned the best of all the Karmsthatka cookery ; for the whole juice and fat is prepared with a gradual heat, and kept in by the skin, in which it lies as in a bag, and, when ready, may be easily separated from the fish; as soon as it is thus dressed, they take out the guts, and spread the body upon a mat to dry ; this they afterwards break small, and put into bags, carrying it along with them for provision; and, when dried, eat it like the yokola.
The Kamtschadales have a dish, which they esteem very much, called huigul: It is fish laid to grow sour in pits; and, though the smell of it is intolerable, yet the Kamtschadales esteem it a perfume. This fish sometimes rots so much in the pits, that they cannot take it out without ladles; however, in that cafe they use it for feeding their dogs.
Mr. Steller fays, that in summer the Samojeds likewise sour their fish, but that the earth, being frozen, preserves it much better; the Jakutski also dig deep pits, in which they lay their fish, sprinkling it with wood-ashes, and cover it with leaves at top, and over all put a layer of earth: This method is better than any of the former. The Tungofi and Cossacs of Ochotska preserve their fish in the same manner, with this difference only, that, instead of wood-ashes, they use the ashes of burnt sea-weed. They boil their fresh fish in troughs, take it out with boards, and, letting it cool, eat it with a soup made of the sweet grass.
As for the flesh of land and sea animals, they boil it in their troughs, with several different herbs and roots; the broth they drink out of ladles and bowls, and the meat they take out upon boards, and eat in their hands. The whale and sea horse fat they also boil with roots.
There is a principal dish at all their feasts and entertainments, called selaga, which they make by pounding all sorts of different roots and berries, with the addition of caviar, and whale and seals fat.
Before the conquest, they seldom used any thing for drink but water; but, when they made merry, they drank water which had stood some time upon mushrooms. At present they drink spirits as fast as the Russians: After dinner they drink water; and every one, when he goes to bed at night, sets a vessel of water by him, to which he puts snow or ice to keep it cold, and always drinks it up before morning. In the winter-time, they amuse themselves frequently by throwing handfuls of snow into their mouths; and the bridegrooms, who work with the fathers of their future brides, find it their hardest task to provide snow for their family in the summer-time, for they must bring it from the highest hills, be the weather what it will, otherwise they would so disoblige as never to be forgiven.
I am most intrigued by the merry drink made from ‘water which had stood some time upon mushrooms.’ Is this some sort of psycho-active mushroom juice? I would love some local knowledge here, so if you have some, please let us all know via the comments.
As the recipe for the day, I give you an English version of sour (although unfermented) fish from a cookery book of the time.
To Pickle Salmon.
Take two quarts of good vinegar, half an ounce of black pepper, and as much Jamaica pepper; cloves and mace, of each a quarter of an ounce, near a pound of salt; bruise the spice grossly, and put all these to a small quantity of water, put just enough to cover your fish; cut the fish round, three or four pieces, according to the size of the salmon, and when the liquor boils, put in your fish, boil it well, then take the fish out of the pickle and let it cool; and when it is cold, put your fish into the barrel or stein you keep it in, strewing some spice and bay-leaves between every piece of fish; let the pickle cool, and skim off the fat, and when the pickle is quite cold pour it on your fish, and cover it very close.
The London Cook, Or the Whole Art of Cookery Made Easy and Familiar
(London, 1762) by William Gelleroy