Russian forests offer an abundance of berries in the late-summer.RIA Novosti/Alexey Malgavko
As August fades away and the first cool breezes of autumn sweep across Russia, a large part of the population reaps the benefit of the harvest. Outdoor stalls and supermarkets are stocked with fresh farm produce including delicious green vegetables, fruits and squash, beetroots and potatoes.
Twelve years ago, when I heard a couple of friends grumbling about wasting a nice summer day working hard in their dacha (summer cottage) compound, I volunteered to help. My great grandparents were the last generation in my family that lived off the land that was with us from the 14th century. As someone who was raised in the urban jungles of New York and Bombay, this was a great opportunity for me to return to my roots.
Unlike my grumbling friends, I enjoyed working on the potato field that was by their dacha, which also had an abundance of berries nearby. Sakhalin’s mild summer made a day out in the field feel a lot less strenuous for someone who was used to much hotter weather and humidity.
It felt so easy and natural to work on those fields and walk in the nearby forests. The greenery, fresh air and nearby river combined with the small wooden dachas, provided a great contrast from the brown and grey structures of the city and its increasing traffic jams. The dachas in the area where I spent my summers were basic, yet colorful, and lacked most modern urban comforts. All one needed was a bit of imagination to go back to the days when Russian and European fairy tales were being written.
My enthusiasm was contagious and these friends who were grumbling about dacha duty also got into the mood. There was a joke going around that the novelty of such work made foreigners enthusiastic. It felt so natural to do the work that my friend’s mother who saw me in action said I had the hand of a farmer.
The first harvest was a smash success, and we managed to gather 10 big sacks of potatoes, from a relatively small plot of land. This emboldened me enough to try all sorts of experiments over the next few years. I managed to farm beetroots and zucchini as well as tomatoes.
I remember the pain that my hands felt after hours of digging and working with hoes and spades. It was a very nice pain, knowing that I felt one with the earth, just like my ancestors did for generations in distant Kerala. The farm work is also a great workout for the upper body. If you look at the combination of dacha time in the warm season and shoveling snow in the winters, it’s easy to understand why so many young men in Russia have well-toned bodies without even stepping into a gym.
The harvest isn’t just restricted to dachas and farms. There is also a bounty of riches in the forests. There are various types of edible berries that can be found in the forests. September is the time to pick blueberries from the hills, as well as large number of wild berries, from which jam is made. My favorite is the sea buckthorn berry, which can be found in the forests of Sakhalin. Sea buckthorn is rich in micronutrients and vitamins. Its shrubs can also be used for medicinal oils.
These delicious yellow berries incidentally grow in Laddakh as well, and there was a juice made from the so-called Leh Berry in Indian supermarkets. It didn’t appeal to Indian palates unfortunately and has disappeared off the shelves.
There were plans to bring a million hectares under cultivation in Laddakh by 2020. One can only hope the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Defence Research and Development Organisation are able to succeed in their efforts to grow sea buckthorn berries in the desert near Leh.
Russia’s harvest season is also a wonderful time for outdoor picnics. The countryside is at its charming best, and easily accessible from any major city via elektrichkas (suburban trains). The weather is usually still warm, but lurking in the background are the chilling winds, foliage and rainy days of autumn, which are followed by a cold and unforgiving winter. In most parts of India, we’re blessed with so much sunshine and good weather that we tend to take all of it for granted. It’s only when there are long patches of non-stop rainy days in the monsoon that some of us crave for sunlight. Russians, on the other hand, bask in the sun and enjoy every bit of autumn warmth.
The harvest season and autumn, with their riches and riot of colors have the incredible power to turn ordinary people into poets. With the ruble staring at lows, this is a good time to plan a trip to Russia and enjoy the most beautiful period of the year.
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