Why living off the land can be a bit of an acquired taste

The Russian Easter table features several dairy dishes

The Russian Easter table features several dairy dishes

The first surviving reference to Russian cuisine was made by the 10th-century Arab historian, astronomer and geographer Ibn Rustah. According to Rustah, the eastern Slavs lived entirely on mare’s milk. Even today, I still read, in a glossy magazine, outlandish claims about the Russian soup okroshka, that it is made from a mixture of beer and vodka, and that Russian borscht is served rotten.

The cuisine of any nation is defined by the countryside. Russia may be enormous, but its soil is not rich, and the harsh climate means that for most of the year it cannot be cultivated. But Russia’s plentiful forests, deciduous and the coniferous taiga, were always able to provide enough fuel for the national form of heating – the Russian stove. The stove has an extremely low coefficient of efficiency – no more than 30pc – and the interior of the stove is big enough to allow a grown person to climb inside (and have a wash, a rural tradition). To get the internal temperature high enough to bake bread requires at least 10 logs – ie, a small tree. But once the oven has heated up, several dishes can be cooked slowly at the same time, and enough bread and pies baked to feed a large family. Historically, Russian cooking was not done on an open fire: rather, its dishes were “stewed” in the oven for several hours without any fat or oil being added.

The most famous and popular Russian soup is undoubtedly shchi, the cabbage soup, a dish foreigners find hard to understand. Rome’s ambassador to Moscow in the 17th century wrote: “If they want to hold a sumptuous feast, they make a soup out of food and a few cabbage leaves. If this dish turns out to be not to their taste, they pour a lot of sour milk into it.” There are actually many variations of shchi, and our national love of soup means that there are many recipes for them: a 19th-century cookery book offers 115, including soups made from bread and wine, cherries and buckwheat.

Fermented cabbage, full of vitamins and easy to store, was the main Russian vegetable in winter and spring. Onions and garlic have always been a staple, but green salad never flourished.

Salting vegetables and mushrooms using natural sour milk fermentation, also known as souring, is a major part of Russian cuisine. A pickle made from salted cucumbers and cabbage was once central to our national cooking. Apart from shchi, these pickled foods are used to make dishes such as solyanka, rassolnik and kalya. At one time ducks and geese were salted in large quantities, and also fish: the Domostroy, a 16th-century literary treasure-trove of household advice, mentions more than 10 ways of salting fish. And, of course, there is the famous Russian black caviar.

Fish is used to bake special pies which are known only in Russia – kulebyaka, rybnik and rasstegay. We have a saying: “You can make a pie out of anything.” There are open ones, nipped ones, vatrushkas filled with cottage cheese, sweet ones, sour ones and salted ones. And no article on Russian food would be complete without a mention of the popular okroshka and botvinya, both cold soups based on bread kvass, a national drink made from malt or flour. Again, okroshka is something you need to get used to, to have eaten it as a child, prepared using kvass made by your grandmother. As 19th-century French writer Théophile Gautier put it: “After several months in Russia, in the end you get used to cucumbers, kvass and shchi, the national Russian cuisine, and you begin to like it.”

Maxim Syrnikov is the author of several books on Russian cuisine.

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