Daniel Brooks

I’ve just spent the past five weeks in Spain, a few miles from Malaga. Thoughts of Russia faded.  Perhaps the beach, warm evenings and rose wine had something to do with it. Russia was replaced by pondering Spanish ways of doing things but only to a limited extent. We were in the Costa Del Sol, an expat bubble populated in large part by a thriving population of Northern Europeans in various stages of being burnt by the sun, well slept and overfed. Our focus on Spanish culture had much to do with eating and drinking.

I found myself trying to understand Spanish food, especially tapas. They were everywhere. At first, I thought a tapa is a kind of an open sandwich with something like shrimp or fish on top, eaten in a bar with wine or beer. This is not the entire picture. At home in Spain, tapas are a small dish, shared by several people having a meal together. When guests are invited to a Spaniard’s home, the table is loaded with as many tapas as the hostess can prepare. It is an exercise in shared excess. These can be dishes made of meat, vegetables, tomatoes and using a variety of sauces, mostly involving tomatoes and yes, pieces of bread with things on top such as sardines. Mayonnaise is involved. After spending time sharing tapas and talking, the main course comes, some kind of fish, meat or poultry dish. This insight hit home. Tapas are ‘zakuski’, meaning antipasto or hors d’oeuvre in Russian. As we had meal after meal in Spain, the urge to ponder Russia returned.

In my home country, the U.S., meals are straight to the point. In my childhood many moons ago, I remember how my parents would sit in the living room with their friends before a meal. We could hear them murmuring and laughing downstairs. Cocktails were served with lots of ice. A bar with all kinds of hard liquor on it was prominent. Snacks were served on a coffee table, involving crackers, nuts and dip. The guests would have a few drinks, at least one too many, and then go noisily to the dinner table. The meals didn’t muck around. There was a salad, meat course, starch, bread, then desert. After that, back to the couches and soft chairs in the living room for night cap after night cap.

In Russia, couches are used to watch TV, read and sleep. To have a meal, people sit in chairs at the ‘stol’, or table. The meal begins and ends there, often over a period of time lasting several hours. Relaxing on a comfortable couch after dinner is not done, even if your nether regions have gone numb.  Neither is leaning forward to pick up finger food off of a coffee table from a sofa. I’ve tried many times to move my Russian guests to the living room after a long meal. It can’t be done. The table reigns.

Russian friends of ours have a summer home in France. Their new German neighbors invited them over one day for a drink. Everyone was given a cocktail with ice in it and a few crackers, with salted nuts. The evening was spent sitting on couches. My Russian friends were miffed. That was it? Why the ice on a cold day, something everyone knows is dangerous for human throats? What about the food?

Later on, the Germans were invited over for a Russian meal. At my Russian’s friend house, the dinner table was covered from end to end with zakuski, or snacks. If there is too much food on the table, the end has justified the means, provided everyone has a big appetite. Several cheeses, a range of cold cuts, olives, bread, butter and three kinds of salad. Better four, if there is enough room on the table. The booze is ready for action, on the table, waiting for good times ahead. This is the precursor to the main meal which follows, being hot and involving some meat, fish or poultry along with what a starchy side dish, usually potatoes.  The wine flows all along. Afterwards, tea and several kinds of sweets.  Often two or three boxes of chocolates are put on the table and one or two kinds of cake is made available.  After the meal, usually cognac is available, or the guests are given more wine. The Germans threw in the towel. It was a total victory.

In traditional households, vodka is served, and it remains the most popular Russian drink if measured in volume of alcohol consumed per capita. However, among many Russians, vodka is being replaced by wine and other drinks. This is a good thing for non-Russians. An evening of straight shots of vodka can be hard going. Nevertheless, most Russian households keep a bottle of vodka somewhere in the vicinity, often in the freezer. I know we do.

In my own household, I have tried many times to serve an American style meal, for the sake of simplicity and in remembrance of the old days. I always suggest the same thing. Let’s give folks a salad, some kind of entrée such as mashed potatoes and steaks. Pie. This never comes to pass. Even when my wife agrees, on the day guests are due to arrive, I’m sent to the store to buy a vast supply of food, sufficient for an army. My wife kicks me out of the kitchen and begins cooking. She makes as many salads as she has time to prepare, food supplies allowing. I shut my trap.

Recently, due to sanctions, import substitution has kicked in.  While the economy is stagnating, the supply of steaks has improved. High quality rib eyes, T-bone steaks, sirloins plus many more cuts of beef, many laden with fat, can now be purchased. Polls show that the Russian population mostly supports the improved supply of such beef, provided they can afford it. These babies aren’t cheap. It is possible to find high quality, grass fed beef and tenderloin as well.  One cut I recommend is called vyrezka, meaning tenderloin, especially if marinated.

Nowadays, when guests visit our house, we serve a big, mixed green salad made of lettuce and without cucumbers. This is becoming more and more popular in Russia. Often, Russians put out salads that involve mayonnaise, sometimes mixed with food items in strange ways. If it is a new salad, found that morning on the internet by the presiding cook, proceed with caution. A Russian salad made with vegetables usually involves cucumbers, the national vegetable, and dill weed which finds its way into everything. At our house, salad is made without mayonnaise. This is often appreciated by our guests.

Many Russians have now travelled and know all about cheeses, sausages and other delicacies made in Europe, where good things come from. To make an overwhelmingly favourable impression on guests, cheese and prosciutto hand carried into the country from Europe are always a big hit. When we recently returned to Russia from Spain, our check in luggage weighed precisely 23 kilograms, the limit, a large portion of which was comprised of sausages.

I find that the meat dish in Russia can suffer from the time it takes to consume vast quantity of food that precedes it. Often the meat or fish dish is cooked in advance and by the time it reaches the table, it has seen better days, as have many of the guests. I try to gain an advantage with a certain strategy, being a newcomer to the country. We visitors need to try harder. Just as everyone takes their seats to tuck in to the sea of zakuski (antipasto), I fire up the barbecue. It’s prepared in advance and it burns while the antipastos are under siege. Once everyone has had a warm up, the coals are ready at which time, the meat goes on the barbie, my flanking manoeuvre. This is theatre with all the flames and a lot of smoke. It creates a captive audience. Once their zakuski are more or less behind them, give or take a slice of sausage or two, the guests are given cooked steaks straight off of the grill, while they are sizzling. The chances of escape are nil. There is no better way to serve food than when it is freshly cooked and the best time to eat it is immediately, steaming hot.

Some lolly-gaggers in Russia don’t want high fat cuts of meat. I often make a second offering of grass fed, low fat veal, marinated overnight. Usually people on a diet get second billing and this is my way of helping the minority feel included. Don’t tell them I use ample dosages of high calorie olive oil in my marinade. It’s the thought that count.

These few words hardly scratch the surface of the sea of Russian cuisine. There are many other Russian food traditions, the love of soup, mushrooms, bread, pickled items and much more. The list goes on and on. It all ends up going on the table with no end in sight.

Food and the table (stol) are an important part of Russian culture. Don’t be surprised if you need a day to recover. Afterwards, ponder the next meal. Works for me.

Copyright Daniel Brooks 16 October 2018