24 July 2013

From Russia with food

It's been very warm here lately, so warm. You would instantly pick up on my surprise if you had any idea about the average Dutch summer, about what it's like. If you don't know, let me tell you what the average Dutch summer is like. A rainless week is rare here, successive rainless weeks and the ones that requite no coat or jacket are unimaginable. That's all you need to know, really, to ascertain how unusual it is that the sun's been out for two weeks and counting now.

The sun's been out, and how! Despite an occasional breeze and a number of benign thunderstorm clouds today, there hasn't been much disagreement between the day and night temperatures, and although it did get ugly and sticky and nervous and sweaty earlier this week when the temperatures soared up and pulled oxigen out of the air (so it seemed), these days are my favourite. Have you seen the light lately? Operatic! Under its intese glaze tree leaves and roof tops and canals and cars and bicycles turn into well-polished crystals whose sparkle is so untamed it hurts the eyes, no pair of sun glasses being able to aid. I can't get enought of it. And the sky! Have you noticed how it shucked off an early summer whitewashed tog and now takes on an urgent deep blue, more and more so as time marshals the days forth? It's hard to believe it in the midst of a heat wave and with the ever-cheerful summer fruit amongst us, but the earth is slowly, unnoticably still, peeling away from the sun towards...the next season. I don't want to think about it.

Look at that, two paragraphs on weather, la di da di da. I could have just said that due to the reigning meteorological conditions there hasn't been much cooking, I'm afraid, but all the better because I've been meaning to tell you, finally, about a few edibles I crammed into my suitcase on my recent trip to the motherland.

I grew up on buckwheat, a Russian grain staple that looses in importance only to bread.  A latchkey child, I couldn't wait to rush home after classes, my stomach rambling like an engine, swing the refrigerator door open and pile kasha on a rimmed plate, douse it in an inordinate amount of ketchup (I had a protracted infatuation with the stuff) and wolf it down in a jiffy. Not for once I didn't head back to the kitchen for seconds. I never grew bored of it. I took buckwheat for granted, if you will. It never occurred to me that when I go abroad buckwheat could be hard to find -- my encounter with buckwheat in Amsterdam happened in an establishment named Ecotic Foods -- and that it would taste awful, too. For a while I thought the fault lay with my method, which is this: cook 1 part rinsed buckwheat groats in 2 parts water until the liquid is absorbed. Was it what made my buckwheat groats turn to mush when hot and form a brick once cool? I tweaked the proportions, tried different brands, but to no avail. It tasted chalky, off. Last Thanksgiving I used it as stuffing for a turkey, as my late grandmother would stuff with it a Christmas goose, hoping that it each kernel would stand on its own and not cling to the rest, or at least that it would swell up under the cooking juices and get, perhaps, tastier. No such thing happened. I stopped to bother.

Then came a realization. One night during our trip my mother served (with a view to impress Anthony, no doubt) a traditional buckwheat porridge (kasha), steamy and aromatic, with aptly sauteed mushrooms (in sour cream), and it dawned on me that, as far as I'm concerned, Russian buckwheat is the best. It's not chalky. It's nutty, and with an aftertaste that comfortably lingers on the palate between mouthfuls. Even more important: cooked, the groats still stay shapely. I brought two packages with me, and when my parents come for a visit soon I'll have them bring more.

I have an image in my mind of eating caviar -- salty, briny, elegant, bursting on the tongue under the slightest pressure from the teeth -- by the spoonful from a canning jar. Unfortunately I can't say with certainty now if it's a product of my imagination or a fact, but I'm fairly confident that if it did happen it must have before or at the dawn of the 90s.

For us, as for everybody else I suppose, it had always been a celebratory treat, served on somebody's anniversary or at an expansive family gathering at my grandmother's between New Year's and Orthodox Christmas. A triangular of soft white bread coated thinly with butter and crowned with a teaspoon of black caviar, one a pop and no seconds. There would be none anaway. A number of caviar finger sandwiches stricly matched a number of mouths at the table. If my memory is no illusion, I must, then, have sneaked in the kitchen to appropriate a few spoonfuls.

My grandmother always bought caviar, ossetra or beluga, by weight from "her" fish guy, a friend of a friend of a friend, at a local market. The caviar was non-pasturized, so you had to go with a trusted source. When perestroika stroke and then the shock of the 1991 rippled through the newly born Russian economy there was little affordable luxury left. Prices grew by the day. My family struggled through the whole decade and then some. We never starved, but there was no more caviar, or rather, no more legal caviar.
Searing prices for the delicacy drove to overfishing which drove the wild sturgeon population in the Black and Caspian seas to endangerment. Subsequently, a ban was laid to protect the fish, but it  didn't -- what does? - stop smugglers. You could go to a market and discreetly ask around, and in a while a man -- usually shady-looking, always in tracky bottoms -- would come up and offer the product at a "good" price, almost for "nothing". It was a dangerous bargain. For obvious reasons, the quality of caviar was very poor and food poisoning was not uncommon.

I got this 58-gram can in Moscow for the equivalent of around 60 euros in roubles. My cousin pointed us to a certified store that sells ossetra caviar -- extracted from the farmed sturgeon -- directly from and at the prices determined by a manufacturer. I got the smallest can. I haven't opened it yet, but when I do it will be for the first time in twenty years. What!

I don't like vodka. Please believe me I never had it straight. I'm thankful that vodka exists, if only because it's key to Moscow Mule, my favorite cocktail, crisp and refreshing. I'm also happy to use vodka as a natural disinfectant, but that's all. As I said, I never had it straight. Largely, because I think I won't like it, that it will probably go down my gullet the way a handful of pebbles would, painfully. Plus, those stereoptypes -- Russian babies are fed vodka; and on and on and on -- they take my goat, and I rebel.

Belaya Berezka ("White Birch") is Russia's best-kept secret. My family swears by it, and now Anthony does too. It contains birch sap, and I'm told it's the softest, smoothest vodka with a unique (birch?) aftertaste. I can't vouch for its taste for lack of knowledge of it (read above), but I witnessed firsthand that, downed in volumes, this vodka specimen does, indeed, spare the head from pains and aches the next day. And as such, a few bottles were wrapped in tube socks and squeezed in the suitcase.

During our every march through a local Shakhty supermarket, Anthony scoured the shelves for unusual packaging design. The looks of this yeast pass the muster and do what yeast should do: leaven the mood. As do these chocolate-hazelnut candies.

From Russia with food.