WORLD FOOD – Russia At The Table

Blinis are the equivalent of what the French call crêpes, not the round rolls that are eaten with caviar as a starter. For a Russian, the word blini has a precise mental association: waking up in the morning with their aroma in the air and a pile of them growing as if by magic under the hands of the babushka. This is the classic ‘blini atmosphere’: there is none better in the whole wide world. And you mustn’t waste a moment because the blinis have to be eaten hot.
Large quantities of blinis, a symbol of the sun, are eaten during Maslenitsa, the most joyful feast of the year which signals the return of springtime and the reawakening of nature.
Blinis are a family dish – you never make blinis for just one person. Usually the crêpes are piled up in the middle of a large table, around which the family is gathered. Everyone stretches out their hands to take a new, hot blin. These crêpes accompany people all their lives, from birth to death. Women are fed blinis after giving birth, and if someone dies the family mark the occasion by making blinis.
Precise knowledge is required to make blinis. The frying pan must be heated in advance until it is red hot, then rinsed in cold water. Then, and only then, can you begin cooking. The first blin is never good, so it can be thrown away without regret or disappointment – the others will be better!
Blinis must be delicious-looking, full of mysterious images, of earth and sea and mountains; they must not be too pale nor must they be burnt. There is even a Russian expression: blin gorely “burnt blin, which means ‘bad luck’.
So how do you eat blinis? They can be eaten plain with melted butter, or with pâté or marinated mushrooms, with fish, cream or caviar. But, with red fruit jam, sugar or honey, they are delicious sweet too.
The only condition is that you must eat them with your hands. The rest is up to you: you can fold them, roll them, tear them.First one, then another, and a third. You have to forget your figure and good manners in this sport of ‘getting the hottest blin’.
When you have eaten a dozen or so blinis</I, you are in a spiritual condition akin to nirvana. Blinis stuffed with meat are affectionately called blinchiki. For the diet-conscious, there are cream cheese blinis too.

Although its origins lie further east, tea was soon adopted in Russia. 19th century novels are full of scenes at the table around a samovar. In those days Russians would drink dozens of cups in a row.
In Russia today tea is still drunk at all hours of the day, especially during meals. When you visit a Russian the first thing you are offered is a cup of tea. At dessert it will not even be offered, since it is taken for granted that tea will be served.
The famous samovar, once made of copper, later of brass and now even electric, serves mainly for decorative purposes, but until a short time ago it was indispensable in tea preparation. They say that, blended with smoke and clean air, tea made in a real samovar on a fire of pine cones has the flavor of the forest.
Russians prefer to drink tea with a slice of lemon and traditional Russian cakes like prianiki (decorated honey biscuits), baranki (small round, dry cakes) and bubliki (large sweet round doughnuts); but also all kinds of jam and honey, once diluted to make a popular drink in its own right.

The most important feature of Russian food tradition is not ‘the table’ itself, but ‘gathering round the table’, zastolie (from za stolom, literally sitting at the table).
The purpose of this is to gather together a certain number of people around a table to eat together. The atmosphere of sharing, joking, telling stories and swapping news is more important than the strictly gastronomical aspect. Zastolie can also mean gathering round a simple bottle of wine and a piece of cheese. The main thing is to spend a pleasant hour with friends, in an atmosphere of fun and friendly sharing.
Zastolie may be a carefully prepared special occasion, or can be easily improvised. The required ingredients are good company and an appetite – the rest will take care of itself. There are no rules in zastolie; everything happens spontaneously according to the will of the guests, so it may develop into dancing or even a fight (it all depends on the people sitting round the table and the alcohol consumed during the course of the evening).
Toasts are a fundamental element on these occasions. From the simple za zdorovie (to your good health), it might progress into the telling of a moral fable (especially at a wedding) or a poem or song. At the last words of the toast after ‘cheers’ shouted in unison, the glasses are emptied. Toasts lend a dynamic element to the gatherings and also make it possible to change the subject of a discussion.
Zastolie may be organized at any time of day, and may continue until dawn. But it does not matter how long it lasts, or what is eaten; all participants leave the table with a feeling of satisfaction and the desire to get together again soon, even though this may not be possible.

The strength of Russian cooking is its loyalty to popular tradition. The best type of cooking is the homemade variety, with a personal touch. This tradition, along with experience handed down from one generation to another, is the most important factor, as well as the cultural context. The little cucumbers or sauerkraut are best of all when they come from the babushka’s cellar; the tastiest ucha is prepared over a wood fire on the river bank after fishing; the most delicious tea is served on the terrace of a dacha and prepared in a samovar over a pine cone fire.
This type of cooking comes from the bottom of the heart and Russians put their very soul into it. Some Russian recipe books advise against tackling a certain recipe if you are not in the right frame of mind. If you are in a bad mood you will never be able to prepare a Russian dish successfully.
To understand this type of cuisine you need to come to Russia. It is impossible, in fact, to grasp the intimate nature of these flavors without seeing the country’s huge spaces, experiencing the cold Russian winter, joining in a toast and discovering the convivial atmosphere that is created around the table.

Natasha Mukhina is the western European correspondent of the Russian magazine Restaurateur

Photo: Blini (Pancakes)

Translation by Ailsa Wood

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