A Year Of Russian Feasts

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9780971601307: A Year Of Russian Feasts

Equal parts travel memoir and cookbook, A Year of Russian Feasts combines Catherine Jones's warm, insightful writing style with her sensitive approach to discovering her family's heritage and its cuisine. Jones takes the reader on an unforgettable journey to her private Russia featuring celebrations, seasons, and people. Her forty recipes highlight Russia's finest dishes.

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From the Publisher:

Foreigners who spend time in Russia soon learn that there are actually two Russias-one public and the other private. The public Russia is typically cold and dark, backward and wary. The private Russia-the Russia of tea at a friend's kitchen table or of saut‚ed mushrooms in a village dacha-is almost unfailingly cozy and kind. It is this Russia that I discovered through my Russian friends, who invited me into their homes and took me into their confidence.

From 1991 to 1994, I lived in Moscow with my mother, Marie Cheremeteff Abernethy, a descendant of the Sheremetev clan of the Romanov dynasty, and my stepfather, Bob Abernethy, who was on a five-year assignment for NBC News. Those three years were some of the most exciting and turbulent times in recent Russian history. Communism was on the verge of collapse and Yeltsin was trying desperately to convince his fellow citizens that democracy was the path of the future. Gorbachev's ideas of glasnost and perestroika, loosely defined as "openness" and "restructuring," did in fact create a more accessible Russia, one that allowed me to make Russian friends, enter Russian homes, and explore Russian traditions and culture-all things that would have been difficult, if not impossible, under Communism.

As I pursued my culinary journey, I began to unravel the strings that connect Russian cuisine to country life, history, the Orthodox Church, and the changing seasons. The deepest roots of contemporary Russian cuisine lie in the foodways of village life, which have always followed the rhythm of the seasons. Spring is the time for planting; summer for preserving fruits and salting and pickling vegetables; autumn for gathering and drying mushrooms; and winter for relaxing around the fire with simple food and good company.

Whether in a village home or a city apartment, Russian kitchens showcase the same dishes, although somewhat refined, as they did centuries ago. Soups and stews simmer for hours in onion-shaped pots called chaguns, sweet and savory pies are baked for special occasions, and an endless array of potato, beet, and cabbage dishes tells the story of a people who live at a latitude of long winters and short growing seasons.

Atop these centuries-old traditions, Russia's nineteenth-century aristocrats layered a sophisticated, French-influenced cuisine that lasted as long as they did. In contrast to the simple yet tasty everyday meals of the common people, the uninhibited opulence of the Russian aristocracy had no limits. Following Catherine the Great's lead, every noble family who could afford one had a French chef. Food costs at imperial balls were of no concern, family fortunes would be squandered on a single feast, and tables literally buckled from the weight of their splendor. "A single goose was too much for one person and not enough for two," an old saying went.

This short-lived era of imported fancy foods and exotic hot-house produce left almost no lasting mark on contemporary Russian fare, except perhaps outside Russia's borders. During three years of dining in Russian homes, I was never served a Charlotte Russe, Strawberries Romanov, Beef Stroganov, Chicken Kiev, or any of the other typically European-influenced Russian dishes that seem to be more popular on Western menus than on Russian ones. What I did eat in Russian homes was delicious food lovingly prepared by skillful cooks.

Communism wiped out the Russian aristocracy and its opulence. Communist ideology denigrated all taste and style and promoted the industrial canned goods highlighted in Soviet-era cookbooks. The scarcity of fresh ingredients in stores and markets made preparing good meals a challenge. Dingy restaurants in Intourist hotels reserved for foreigners produced a ghastly assortment of barely edible dishes from processed meats and canned vegetables, notably anemic peas and carrots. Desserts were nondescript and the service was notoriously rude and inefficient. Most visitors to the Soviet Union left with a deservedly bad impression of Russian food.

But despite the extravagance of the nobles and the hardships of Communism, good Russian home cooking survived. Two bedrocks of Russian life keep its cuisine alive-the dacha and the Russian Orthodox Church. The word dacha refers to a plot of land in the countryside, with or without a house on it. The more symbolic definition is a place of retreat where Russians go to re-energize their bodies and souls by being part of nature's growing cycle. Tending their gardens, eating the fruits of their labor, and storing some for later are traditions that sustain the Russian table.

Feast days of the Russian Orthodox Church have kept Russia's finest and richest celebratory dishes intact despite history, despite hardship, despite everything. Easter's bliny (Butter Week pancakes), kulich (Easter bread), and paskha (Easter cheesecake) are religiously prepared in homes every year, as they have been for centuries. And the Russian Orthodox Church continues to determine menus in many homes-during the one hundred or so fast days and the numerous feast days of the liturgical year.

The forty recipes in this book are the best from my Russian collection. I can say without reservation that these dishes taste as good away from Russian soil as they do in the coziness of a dacha or beside a soul-warming samovar. They come from the yellowing pages of notebooks of my Russian friends, from cooks whose memory is their only guide, and from my mother's and grandmother's kitchens, where recipes call for a pinch of this and a handful of that. There is a good story behind every one of them.

My mentors in the Russian kitchen were Natalya and Antonina. Natalya, a retired journalist who devoted her time to her choir group and her grandchildren, taught me the joys of the Russian Easter table as well as everyday meals. Antonina, a retired nurse who filled her days with cooking for family and friends, shared with me the art of making fruit preserves and introduced me to the spiritual ritual of tea. A native of Siberia, she also taught me how to make real Siberian pelmeny (meat-filled dumplings) and how to eat them.

Anna included me in her family's festive New Year's Eve celebrations and invited me to a Russian civil wedding ceremony. Galina, a cook at Danilovsky Monastery, gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of Easter traditions in the monastery kitchen-I was the first American ever to be invited backstage. Viktor, a fun-loving retired baker, included me in his family's birthday celebrations. Lena chose me to be her daughter's godmother, and Mark and Masha prepared memorable vegetarian dinners in their communal apartment.

Natalya's husband, Yevgeny, invited me to his childhood home in the village of Kosilova, where I experienced the mystical ritual of mushroom hunting. He introduced me to his lifelong neighbor, Mariya, who lived off her land as her family had done for centuries. Mariya welcomed me into her home and showed me firsthand how a Russian villager provides for the winter.

It was through these people and experiences that I discovered the timeless world of Russian cuisine, customs, and traditions. My Russian friends introduced me to the real Russia, the private Russia, the Russia that enters the heart and warms the soul.

From the Inside Flap:

A Year of Russian Feasts conveys delight in the shared table. Read this book, and you'll understand why Russians consider guests a gift from God.
Darra Goldstein, A Taste of Russia, Editor: Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture

This is a remarkable look at an important culture and delightful read, too.
Dorie Greenspan, Baking with Julia

This book is a must-read for all armchair travelers, especially those that long for a taste of Russian culture.
Joyce Toomre, Classic Russian Cooking

A Year of Russian Feasts has only forty recipes but they are all keepers.
Joyce Goldstein, The Mediterranean Kitchen

This book perfectly reflects the way of life, traditions, and food of Russia.
Sergei Krushchev, Creation of a Superpower

A charming memoir which brings alive the mouth-watering culinary traditions of Russia. Read it and rush to your kitchen!
Suzanne Massie, Land of the Firebird

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