Beef for the Empress: Catherine the Great's secret to beauty and health

The soft-boiled beef made frequent appearances on the imperial table.

The soft-boiled beef made frequent appearances on the imperial table.

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Known for both her love of order and of food, it should come as no surprise that Catherine the Great’s meals were chosen for their health benefits.

The dining table of Empress Catherine II (the Great) was marked by its diversity of dishes as well as the precision of its meals.

Catherine’s personal dining timetable was clearly defined. She arose early, at 6 a.m., and started her day with extremely strong coffee with thick cream and almond toast. She had two cups of coffee and left the remainder for her servants, who simply added more boiling water into the pot with the coffee grounds.

Lunch began at 1 p.m. and usually consisted of three or four courses, combining indigenous Russian dishes with trendy foreign ones. The meal was accompanied by plain water or water infused with black currants. She didn’t drink much alcohol — only a small glass of Madeira, on her doctor’s advice. Supper was hardly worth the title — Catherine usually had one or two apples or iced water with a drop of berry juice. She believed that eating a small meal at the end of the day prevented headaches.

Food was important in Catherine’s court. A skilled diplomat, Catherine ordered her chefs to cook the favorite dishes of her honored guests. She had a special courtier whose job it was to escort visitors and find out their food preferences. She was also kind to her cooks. Should a dish be overdone or undersalted, Catherine gave no sign of displeasure, and no punishment followed. She even protected the lower-ranking cooks from the ire of the head chef.

Although known for promoting foreign food among her subjects, she also loved Russian cuisine. In one typical tale, Catherine visited renowned Russian scientist and author Mikhail Lomonosov to make up with him after a quarrel. Conveniently, she arrived just in time for supper. Lomonosov protested that the empress had not announced her visit in advance and so therefore the only food he had to offer was shchi (cabbage soup) and porridge. Catherine responded that she loved these dishes, and Lomonosov hosted her gladly.

This story illustrates Catherine’s preference for simple and wholesome food, such as beef. Beef is a natural nutrient mine. It can also be digested quickly and easily, making it a good meal for those with stomach problems. It also raises the amount of hemoglobin in the blood and lowers the amount of cholesterol. Beef is recommended for those who do sports or whose work involved hard physical labor as it promotes bone and muscle strength. But those engaged in more intellectual pursuits should include it in their diets also; it helps to improve memory and calm nerves.

You can experience all these positive effects by trying this original recipe for the soft-boiled beef cooked for Catherine the Great.

Soft-boiled beef: how to make it

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg beef (rib eye, ideally)
  • 200 g pork fat
  • 3 cups water
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 clove
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 Tbsp vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
1. Put sugar, salt, vinegar, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf and cloves into the water to Cover the piece of beef with the pork fat and let it sit in the pickle brine for 2-3 days.

2. Remove the beef from the brine. Boil the pickle brine and let it cool.

3. Mix water and flour together to form a soft dough and roll out to a size to cover the baking dish. Put the beef into the baking dish, pour the brine over the beef and cover it with dough.

For the dough:

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups flour
4. Put into an oven heated to 200° C and let cook for 3 hours.

Serve with pickled cucumbers and boiled potatoes. The beef can be served in one piece or sliced against the grain.

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