Russian winter is not conceivable without snow and various pickled fruits and vegetables that are served when the weather turns cold. They are such an important part of the menu that can be considered a phenomenon of the Russian culture.
Russian food traditions began to establish at the time when the meals of the aristocrats and common people differed in quantity and serving, not in the ingredients. Pickled cucumbers and soused apples were common in both rich palaces and peasant huts. For instance, the Kremlin’s Armory Chamber has on display 16th century bowls that were used to serve various pickles to the royal table.
Such bowls are part of history now, but the art of preserving fruits and vegetables for the wintertime is very much alive, and many Russian families still pickle cucumbers and ferment cabbage even though they can find almost anything in the nearest supermarket. They use jars instead of tubs and barrels, but that does not change the essence and the taste.
Symbol of Russian cuisine
Pickling cucumbers is a simple process: you put vegetables together with garlic, dill umbels, currant, cherry, oak and horseradish leaves, then fill the mixture with hot salty water, put something heavy on top so that cucumbers do not float, and leave it in a cool dark place for fermentation. However, cucumbers turn out fragrant and crispy only in the right temperature. They can get rotten if it is too warm or lose all their taste if it is too cold.
So barrels with pickles used to be stored in entrance rooms, in cellar, in a special pit in the ground and even in the river under the ice. Pavel Syutkin, historian of Russian cuisine, notes that at the beginning of the 20th century, such places were found near the Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin, where every merchant had their wooden platforms on the riverbank. Barrels were tied to the platform and were pulled out and sent to shops when fresh supplies were required. And they were required quite often, not only because spicy pickles are a great after-bite for a shot of vodka. Pickles and their brine are a common ingredient in many traditional dishes. Brine was used in kalya, the 16-17th century Russian soup that later transformed into rassolnik, and in marinades. Thus, a 16th century book mentions beluga, sturgeon and whitefish “in brine and under broth”. In the 20th century, pickled cucumbers became part of dishes that had never included them before, for instance the popular “Olivier” and beetroot salads where they replaced more expensive products that were inaccessible to Soviet cooks. That only confirmed the fact that any food gets better if served with a crispy, pickle-soaked cucumber.
Fermented cabbage, or sauerkraut, is the number one ingredient of Russian cuisine, an invaluable source of vitamins during the long winter. It is not surprising that the Russian people made tons of sauerkraut. The 17th century Dutch traveler Cornelis de Bruijn noted that Russia “has ordinary white cabbage that the Russians preserve in large quantities, and which commoners consume twice a day.” The process of fermenting cabbage for the winter season began at the end of September on the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross and involved the whole family and sometimes even several households. Cabbage was divided into “white” (light crispy leaves in the middle) and “gray” (greenish softer outer leaves), and both were put to use. Gray sauerkraut was used for cabbage soup, and white sauerkraut was served as a separate meal or as a side dish for meat and fish. Anise and dill seeds, cranberries and apples were added for special flavor. The recipe for sauerkraut has not changed, but now it is prepared in jars instead of barrels. It is used in cabbage soup and borscht, and as a filling for pudding, dumplings and pies. Just plain sauerkraut, seasoned with sunflower oil and mixed with finely chopped onions, is also a frequent treat during the Russian winter.
Out of the forest and onto the table
Mushrooms are the heart of the Russian cuisine, because it is the simplest substitute to meat given vast forests and the shortage of cattle. Therefore, people have long learnt to preserve mushrooms by pickling them. Thick and bitter varieties are boiled first, while tender ones are pickled in a “dry” way: sprinkled with salt and interlaid with currant, cherry-tree and horseradish leaves, black pepper and dill shoots. Aromatic pickled mushrooms are a wonderful snack and a great way to diversify meals during the Lent. They are also used in soups and pies, as well as in various salads. Here is a recipe for an exquisite mushroom salad by a famous writer Alexander Kuprin: “Just take some pickled mushrooms, then slice thinly a Crimean apple and one tomato, then chop up an onion bulb, boiled potatoes, beets and cucumbers. Then, you know, mix it all together, add some salt and pepper, season with vinegar with Provence olive oil, and sprinkle a little sugar on top. Serve it with melted Ukrainian lard in a saucepan, you know, so that the pork rinds float and sizzle in it… Simply amazing!”
The taste of summer during winter
For a long time, sousing was the only way to preserve fruits and berries for winter. Cranberries, lingonberries, cloudberries and apples (the Antonovka variety) were the most common choices. This is the description of preparation of soused apples from a novel by Ivan Shmelev: “Fresh and fragrant oat straw is placed at the bottom of the tub, golden Antonovka apples are put on top so that they do not touch each other, and again row by row go the straw and the apples, and then everything is filled with warm licorice water. They lift the heavy tubs and take them out carefully. Then the straw is removed. For many days now the apple fragrance will float around the house.” “Licorice water” refers to water with the root of the licorice plant: it provides sweetness while also preventing the mold.
Soused fruits and berries were a favorite winter treat for all people, both rich and poor. Today, the recipe is almost forgotten, although you can take a glass jar instead of a tub, and use sugar or honey instead of licorice. When apples are ready, take them out very carefully, like Christmas toys, and the process itself will create a magical festive atmosphere. You can eat them as a separate treat or as a side dish for a Christmas roasted goose or duck.
If we say that there is a DNA of the Russian cuisine, then the pickled products are its essential and century-old elements. Even today, when we have access to any food at any season, we still cannot imagine meals without crispy pickled cucumbers or racy sauerkraut.