The New York Times of October 10, 1875 carried an extract from a book called Winter in Russia, written by the nineteenth century French writer and critic, Theophile Gautier. It is a marvelous description of life at the top of the social ladder in Russia at the time, as seen through the eyes of a very articulate visitor. One interesting observation is that eating out of season was quite the norm, at that time and place, for that particular social group.
A Russian Dinner.
Before seating themselves the guests approach a small round table where is set out caviar, bits of salted herring, anchovies, cheese, olives, slices of Bologna sausage, Hamburg smoked beef, and other relishes, to be eaten with biscuits, in order to stimulate the appetite. This lunch is taken standing, and accompanied by a kind of absinthe, Madeira wine, eau-de-vie de Dantzic, Cognac, and cumin, a kid of anisette, which resembles the raki of Constantinople and the Greek islands. Inconsiderate or diffident travelers, who cannot resist polite urgency, allow themselves to be persuaded to taste of every-thing, not dreaming that this is but the prologue to the performance, and take their seats at the dinner-table, having already quite satisfied their appetites. In all fashionable houses we find French cookery, and still the national taste is shown in some characteristic details. For example, by the side of the white bread is served a slice of the blackest rye bread, which the Russian guest crumbles with evident relish. They seem to be very fond of certain salted cucumbers, called agourcis, and which I found at first far from delicious. During dinner, after great draughts of Bordeaux, and of Veuve Cliquot champagne, which is found nowhere but in Russia, they take porter and ale, and especially kwas, a kind of local beer made of the crusts of black bread fermented, which one must learn to like, and which to strangers scarcely seems worthy of the magnificent goblets of Bohemian glass or of chiseled silver in which foams its brown liquor, And still, after a residence of several months, you come at last to like these agourcis, this kwas, and the chtchi, the Russian national soup. The chtchi is a sort of stew, into whose composition enters breast of mutton, fennel, onions, cabbage, pearl barley, and prunes. This odd compound has a most original flavour, which you soon find agreeable, especially if you are an experienced traveler, a cosmopolite of the cuisine, whose gustatory papillae are accustomed to surprises of every kind. Another favourite is the potage aux quenèfes; it is a clear soup, in which as it boils is poured, drop by drop, a kind of paste made of eggs and spices, which, surprised by the heat, forms into round or oval pellets, much like the dropped eggs of our Parisian consommés. With the chtchi are served little balls of pastry. Everybody who has read Monte Cristo will remember that repast where the former prisoner of the Château d’If, realizing the marvels of fairy tables with his wand of gold, causes a sturgeon from the Volga to be served to him, a gastronomic wonder, unknown at even the most luxurious tables outside of Russia. And in truth, the sturgeon merits his reputation; ‘tis and exquisite fish, the flesh white and fine, perhaps a trifle too rich in taste, midway between the smelt and the lamprey. He may attain very considerable dimensions, but those of medium size are best. Although not disdainful of such matters, I am not a Grinod de lat Raginère, nor a Cussy, nor a Brillat-Savarin, to speak with suitable lyric fire upon this theme, and I regret ti, for the dish is worthy of the most accomplished epicure; to such a man the sturgeon of the Volga would well repay the trouble of the journey. Partridges, whose flesh, perfumed by the juniper berries on which they feed, emits a fragrance of turpentine at first quite surprising, appear frequently on Russian dinner-tables. The enormous moor-fowl also, and the bears ham of fable and the filet of elk, serve as proof that it is no bill of fare of Western Europe which is laid before us. Every people, even though invaded by the monotony of civilization, retain some tastes absolutely peculiar, and still keep a few national dishes, whose flavor it is perhaps impossible for a foreigner to approve. For an example of this we may take the Russian cold soup, in which float crystals of ice amid bits of fish; its mixture of spices, vinegar, and sugar is as surprising to an exotic palate as the gaspacho of Andalusia. This soup, by the way, is served only in Summer. It is very cooling, they say, and the Russians are enthusiastic about it. As vegetables are for the most part raised under glass in this country, their maturity has no special date marked by the seasons, and they are always or never, “early”; every month in the year you may eat green peas at St.Petersburg. The asparagus knows no Winter. It is large, tender, succulent, and perfectly white; the stalks never have a green tip, as they do with us, and you may attack them at either end indifferently. In England, they eat salmon cutlets; in Russia, cutlets of chicken. The dish has been in fashion since the Emperor Nicholas tasted it at a little tavern near Torjek, and found it good. The recipe had been given to the hostess by an unlucky Frenchman who could in no other way pay his scot, and it made her fortune.
I have been unable so far to find out more about this Franco-Russian chicken cutlet dish, but will persevere, and let you know of any interesting discoveries. I am also unable to give you an ‘authentic’ Russian recipe, as, sadly, I am unable to read Russian. It is always interesting however to see how one country interprets the food of another, so may I give you two choices of soup from a book with the full title of The Practical Cook, English and Foreign: Containing a Great Variety of Old Receipts, Improved and Re-modelled, and Many Original Receipts in English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Dutch, American, Swiss, and Indian Cookery ; with Copious Directions for the Choice of All Provisions, the Laying Out a Table, Giving Small and Large Dinners, and the Management of a Cellar, by Joseph Bregion and Anne Miller, published in 1845?
The Russian Countrywoman's Soup
(Potage de Choux a la Paysanne Russe).
Cut in small pieces three pounds of the brisket of beef, and one pound of thin streaky bacon; put these in a stock-pot, add beef stock, and skim it; two hours after, mix with the soup two onions sliced, and sweated in butter; then a spoonful of flour, and a white cabbage cut up, washed and drained; boil these two hours, put into six sausages, which take up again ten minutes afterwards; skim the soup, and serve. This is the common soup of the Russian people.
Russian Imperial Soup
(Potage Russe a l’lmperiale).
Trim in small escalopes a small slice of sturgeon, and throw salt over it; cut in escalopes the fillets of a middling-sized eel and a sole; proceed with the essence and the fish as in the last article; then add to it roots, prepared as for the Julienne; boil it an hour, and pour it into the tureen containing the escalopes of the fish, some small whiting quenelles, with which mingle parsley chopped and blanched; add twelve livers of burbots, and twelve roes of carp dressed in salt and water.