leftovers · no recipe

Introduction to Soviet Creativity and Practicality

So far we have touched upon (veeeeeeeery vaguely) the Northern region of the Soviet empire, i.e. Archangelsk’s ‘sochni’ (I also mentioned that the Northern Russian pies are made from a mixture of wheat and rye flour, I can add also that the form of the pie is usually square and there’s no double crust – the filling is more like topping, even in sochni it’s in some way rather a topping than filling =) See Archangelsk in the North under Karelians?

Here, just look, what a vaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast enooooooourmous multinational country!

USSR Ethnic Groups 1974
USSR Ethnic Groups 1974

No-no, I’m not being nostalgic in any way, not of USSR at least =) I took this picture from Wikipedia’s entry about USSR, it’s an Ethnic Groups map from 1974. A so to say classic condition of USSR, full of nations, republics and natural resources. No Chernobyl yet, no Afghanistan yet, no Perestroika yet. Very boggy life of a normal Soviet citizen.

In this blog I intend to revive and revise the good ol’ timesculinary geography by gathering together the pieces of the cuisine puzzle of the USSR. I’ve got a vast work head of me, haha. Of course, I’m no expert, so mostly I’m able to speak of those regions my relatives are from or generally about the country.

As I have previously (not once) promised, I’ll talk about dacha and prostokvasha, the latter being a part of my leftovers topic that I’m going to develop. These two realities can be applied to the whole USSR with some reservations: not ALL people had (and have) dachas and not all of them were (and are) fermented-milk freaks=)

This is supposed to be mostly food blog, so let’s first concentrate on this prostokvasha thing, that’s been mentioned in my posts not once and that really deserves being talked about. Remember matsoni and kefir? Here’s matsoni on the left, the one I used to bake khachapuri. It’s a Georgian version of prostokvasha, more zesty and if you have ever tasted ewe milk yoghurt or ayran (which is actually made from matsoni), you know what I mean. We, Russians, love fermented milk products, that’s what I missed in France and Greece, my favourite being kefir and ryazhenka or BAKED milk (!). Prostokvasha is kind of absolutely naturally produced yoghurt, a fermented milk product, the name meaning in Russian ‘easily soured‘, so it’s the most basic type of fermented milk, very useful, on the base of which you can get loads of other stuff. I got lots of new information about these goods from that Pohlyobkin‘s book and would love to bake my own but haven’t ventured out yet=) Besides, it’s believed that fermented milk is digested easier than normal milk.

Prostokvasha is a wonderful example of how practical and creative Russians (ans Soviets) can sometimes be. Although in Europe (and recently here too) milk seems to never go off, in Russia we still have this tricky milk that tends to go off before the ‘best before’ date. So, multiple solutions arise in the head of an average homo sovieticus. ‘Children, drink milk and you will be healthy‘ cried out Soviet propaganda songs or better ‘The one who drinks milk, will jump high! will run far, the one who drinks milk!‘. I have a wonderful 1958 Soviet propaganda book about child diet and healthy life, I will certainly post some shots from it, as soon as we have a sunnier day to make nice photos. A common picture will be a plump healthy boy/girl drinking a mug/Soviet glass of milk. And all that quite effective milk propaganda also meant a certain amount of milk that will inevitably go off in an average Soviet family. And a real Soviet housewife never finds it a nuisance!

This abundance on the left was never to be found in its entire enormity anywhere except Moscow, perhaps, but what people remember is that kefir was of smetana (=sour cream) thickness and smetana was never of kefir thickness. And all those glass bottles were better than any recycling process – cause they were returned to special collector points (extra working places!) for 10 kopecks and then reused: filled up and sealed with that aluminium foil cap which was of a specially designated colour for each dairy product. Glass doesn’t take in any harmful substances or microbes, so if it’s rinsed it can be reused with no problem. I still remember having silver cap for a milk bottle, purple cap for bio-kefir, golden for ryazhenka and green for kefir. Oh, and those sirok little thingies, they are just amazing, like a small ice-cream but made from tvorog glazed in chocolate, with vanilla flavour or with sweetened condensed milk and unfortunately getting so much artificial now that you don’t want to buy them (one of the things I dreamt of while being in Europe – you see how foody I am? =).

Back to our moutons. Prostokvasha can be divided in two of its components: sivorotka which is whey in English and a thick ‘hat’ which is actually your future tvorog (=cottage cheese)! Wanna make some prostokvasha yourself? Just open the milk package and leave it open for two days (or less if it’s not that fresh) in a warm place. In order to make things run smoother, add a Tbs of sour cream (which is one of my favourite products of all times and most of the Russians will agree with me). The thing you get can either be eaten as a very light yoghurt (better sweeten it and shake before eating) or… Wanna make some fresh homemade cottage cheese? You’re twice lucky if your milk has gone off cause you won’t then need to sour it artificially with lemon juice or a splash of sour cream. So, heat your prostokvasha over medium heat (NOT in an enamelled pot, better aluminium), stir and you’ll see the whey liquid part from the ‘hat’. Wait till this hat thickens and stops growing. Strain the whole thing, don’t discard the whey, cause this is also known as buttermilk (see further) and what you get IN the strainer is your fresh cottage cheese = tvorog (on the right) – and  now you can

  1. add herbs, garlic, lemon juice, roll it, cover with plastic and put in the fridge to get your soft cheese for breakfast
  2. add sour cream and sprinkle sugar to taste
  3. bake some blinis (coming! I promise!), put the sweetened tvorog in the middle, fold like an envelope, heat on both sides and enjoy filled blinis
  4. make some pasta dough and use your tvorog as a filling – this is how you’ll get vareniky
  5. generally, you can use it anywhere where cottage cheese or even cream cheese is required (I used it even to complement my scarce feta stock for Tiropsomo).

tvorog from prostokvasha

Another option to ‘get rid of’ your suddenly soured milk is to use it in the batter for the above-mentioned blini, olad’i (thick small blini), dough for pirog=pie (not to be confused with the Polish pierogi), etc etc. You can easily imagine how many recipes using buttermilk (sour milk) there were in all times in Russia (don’t forget to throw a glance on the map). So no need to buy buttermilk (=pahta in Russian) if you see it required for a recipe. Just make some yourself.

For more national versions of fermented milk I have no other proposition apart from referring you to Wikipedia entry about Fermented milk products. Perhaps you’ll find a new thing to eat=))) And on to dacha now…

***

garden

Dachas are here not only since Soviet times, they served also something like a second home in the country for city-residing aristocrats and well-off city dwellers back in Russian empire times (that’s before 1917; ever read Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard?).

We have been typical dachniks in my family from 1972, when as it was quite common at that time my grandparents were gifted with a plot situated in cooperative dacha grounds, thanks to their job at the factory. So all of their workmates got their plots somewhere near and our street (with dacha houses aligned) got the name of the factory – Izhorskaya. At that time Soviet government was no fool to give so much freedom for its citizens as PROPERTY (=capitalism), so EVERYTHING was in an utmost way regulated. First, an allotment was generally no more than 600 m² (famous shest’ sotok plot), just enough to have your garden and a small house, second – this very house should be of a standardised size, the second floor (if any) being strictly UNinhabited. We still have those rules somewhere on a shelf in our dacha house which was of course upgraded in the 90s with INhabited second floor (a cosy wood-panelled creation of my Grandpa’s).

Nevertheless, THAT was already some freedom, a place to live how you want, to escape from town, to spend your summer economically and to employ your inherited ability to CULTIVATE and the love for the sole and nature (as almost all the aristocrats were killed/expelled during the glorious Social revolution, we’re mostly all the descendants of peasants, so dacha was a reminder of home in your native village). Or just a perfect place to drink vodka in a secluded place.

crazy garden strawberries in September

A usual dacha house is typically painted in green (as is ours), has triangular roof, large veranda f0r summer meals and storage of all things, Russian-style pechka (=fireplace) where you burn all those leaflets and old newspapers you gather throughout long winter days longing for summer at your dacha place =). The dacha complex usually includes banya (kind of sauna that’s also a place to wash yourself, i.e. a traditional Russian bath), garage (for those who are bourgeois enough to have a car) saray (not the Turkish saray meaning a palace=) to store your garden and construction instruments and just all the junk and here comes usually the first to be built and surely the most necessary building – a toilet (YES, OUTSIDE, no comment =). Your garden is full of flower beds BUT the main point is to grow your OWN potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, marrows, herbs, strawberries (and all kinds of ….-berries, we love them), there’s an orchard with apple and plum trees (all depends on the region or your own ambitions and craziness), a ditch = kanava to take water and (originally) to protect you from the fires (we got our dug out in exchange for a bottle of vodka) and a greenhouse for your desperate attempts to grow some thermophilic plants in this bloody climate (especially in the North). And then comes yet another problem – where the hell (s0rry) use/sell/give out all those berries, compotes, jams, winter salads etc etc. =) One has to have lots of relatives to help you with the load!

Paradise apple tree

Of course now people tend to materialize those child dreams to bloody (second time this word!) cover in concrete the whole 600 square metres – or less cardinally just turn all the potato plots into eternal grass lawns that you just need to mow on time. And from the 90s there are huge awkward dachas in pseudo-Gothic/Hellenistic style with tall ugly fences and god knows what else (according to the taste or more exactly to the level of its absence in most cases). They have wi-fi, hi-fi, swimming pools and NO CUCUMBERS =) Of course there were also gosdachas (from Soviet times – a dacha that was handed down from one politician/military man/VIP to another, without actually owning it) and now dachas for the same politicians but with an individual river bank plot etc etc, but mostly dachas especially if there are their original owners and BUILDERS in view – they are still the same. And people rediscover their dacha plots now, buy new plots, sell their parents’ one, build, grow, make kebabs and still drink vodka. Imagine how ghastly the roads leading to the country get Friday evenings? EVERYBODY’s there =) no, not exactly, the rest is moving their elbows on a crammed elektrichka (suburban train) or marshrutka (commercial bus). The same picture is in the opposite direction on Sunday evening.

on a neighbour's porch

What else to tell you about dacha? That you’re lucky if you have a pond/river nearby, a garden-house for outside meals, a forest somewhere round for mushrooms/berries/firewood picking and if your dacha is not very far away. My dacha has always been a very dear place to me, I’ve spent all my summers there since my birth, although I tend to lose that special attachment to it with the years. For my grandparents it’s a whole lotta part of their lives as it’s for many aged people nowadays. They prepare sprouts, seeds, materials during winter, they plan the garden and construction, we make them presents ‘for dacha‘, always having it in mind when we change furniture or clothes (cause dacha is typically a place for all the junk and just old stuff). I’ve surely missed something about dacha, but I think that’s already enough =) So next time you’re in Russia, eat some dairy products and get to someone’s dacha for some authentic experience! What can be better than tea on a veranda with an electric samovar?

electric samovar for dacha tea

Your unemployed G.

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2 thoughts on “Introduction to Soviet Creativity and Practicality

    1. thanks, I’m glad that it turned out useful for you! I’m planning more entries about Soviet stuff, but with all this anti-spring weather, I’m falling back into winter sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

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