Not by Bread Alone section

Svyatoslav Vitman, who is better known by his pen name, Svyatoslav Loginov, was born on October 9, 1951. He is a famous Russian writer, lover of exquisite food and cooking, winner of Aelita, Strannik and InterPressCon awards for his fantasy and science fiction, and is well regarded for his written works on fantasy worlds and good food.

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Winters in Russia are long and harsh, with short days and long nights. The work in the fields is over, but there is still little rest. This frosty season is the time for logging. In spring and summer, timber is coarse-grained and useless for construction, and logs are hard to move from the forest in this quagmire season. Winter is the only time left during which this arduous task can be completed. Beside their everyday cooking chores and cattle management, women have spinning, weaving and sewing to do. There’s a whole lot of work to do during the cold and dark season, and if it weren’t for the bright and festive pagan holiday, perhaps hardly anyone would make it through the winter.

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

The joyful holiday of Christmastide has been celebrated in Russia since ancient times. The holiday was dedicated to a god called Svyatovid and was associated with the winter solstice. Later, the introduction of Christianity shifted Christmastide closer to Christmas, and now the two festivals go hand in hand. And yet, Christmastide continues to be celebrated in a pagan manner, as before, with mummers, koledari and fortune telling (not always as innocent as it sounds).

Kutia, or sochivo, is the traditional dish of the season. Originally, kutia was made from spelt, but spelt has not been around since the time of Pushkin’s Balda, so today the dish is made from wheat, barley, or even rice. The recipes are widely known, as kutia is also served at funerals.

By contrast, the main courses of Christmas and Christmas Eve are meat based. Sadly, milk-fed calves and fattened steers are slaughtered as early as Pokrov day because it would be wasteful to feed them through the New Year. Chickens don’t escape either. They are counted in autumn and sent to the cooking pot. Some are kept for breeding, so no one would kill them in the midst of winter. Hunters start chasing hares and luring bears out of their dens at this time; however, to this day, forest game harvest has a lot to do with hunting luck, which is rather elusive. As a nod of remembrance to our hunting ancestors, it is customary for someone to dress as a bear on Christmastide.

Pork is the primary source of meat for Christmastide. Throughout the autumn, pigs were fed on small potatoes and spoiled vegetables: turnip, carrots, parsnip and the beetroots damaged by wireworms and other pests. By New Year’s Eve, they have gained sufficient weight and are slaughtered. However, not everyone can slaughter a pig. It has to be done carefully so that the pig doesn’t feel a thing and simply falls dead to the ground. Once the pig has breathed its last breath, the blood is immediately drained to make blood sausage. To do this, butchers pour hot porridge into a big bowl, put it over a bonfire (usually in the backyard) and stir in the blood. After a few minutes, the blood clots. As the blood cooks, butchers cut the carcass, remove the intestines, wash them and then stuff them with the clotted blood. The sausages are then tied up with a twine in several places before being smoked or scalded in boiling water for a few minutes.

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Speed and accuracy are crucial in cooking blood sausages. Poles and Lithuanians use pearl barley, in some parts of Ukraine people use buckwheat, and our fellow-countrymen use barley grits. Throughout the region, genuine blood sausage requires no side dish or bread—it’s a side dish in itself.

Next come the chitterlings. Old peasant households, which sometimes had more than fifteen members, slaughtered only one pig for Christmas. Naturally, there was no way a family this big would have a good meal with just one pig liver. Hence, the rest of the innards were consumed as well. Liver, spleen, lungs, brains and heart were cooked in boiling water, chopped with a knife, added to minced onions and used as stuffing for rasstegay1 pies.

One day, when I was a child, I asked my granny why pirozhki were stuffed with meat, and rasstegays with fish or chitterlings.

“Chitterlings make pirozhki moist, but rasstegays are just perfect,” she replied.

Many years have passed, and I still don’t know how to make rasstegays; however, I do concede that they were invented for a good reason and that there is a great depth of meaning in their existence.

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Today, rasstegays are typically served with meat broth; however, back in the old days, broth was only given to the weakest family member, while rasstegays were accompanied by shchi with head meat.

Shchi with head meat, or Ural-style shchi, is also a typical treat for Christmastide meat connoisseurs. In the old days, it took some effort to prepare shchi with head meat: you could only put a pot with shchi into the stove once, and the soup had to be cooked in one attempt. To make shchi a pig’s head is first chopped with an axe, placed into a pot with shredded cabbage (be it fresh, sour or minced), sliced carrots, onions, and a few handfuls of grain. The mixture is then covered with a lid, placed into a well-preheated stove, closer to charcoal, and stewed for about ten hours. The hostess then drags the pot out, transfers the pieces of head meat into a bowl and sorts them. The dogs get the bones, and the meat is poured into the rest of the cooked mixture. Shchi like this is so thick and hearty that a spoon would stand in it. Everyone eats from the same soup bowl using wooden spoons. The head of the family taps his spoon on the edge of the bowl and orders, “Eat from the top!” If someone tries to scoop deeper to fish out a piece of meat, the head of the household licks his spoon clean and hits the offender on their head. As soon as the bowl is half empty, the head of the household taps his spoon on the edge again and orders, “Get the meat!”

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

As for rasstegays, every member of the family gets their own from the hostess and is free to eat it with shchi or later by itself, no rules applied.

Sometimes, if weather allows, shchi is cooked with a whole head in a cauldron outside, then frozen and stored for a very long time. Frozen shchi is good for a road trip when, at a stop, a small chunk of frozen shchi is cut, heated in a pot and, voilà, dinner is ready.

Yet, the king of the Christmastide table is aspic, of course. Pig legs with hooves, flank, and neck end (which are very chewy) are put in a cauldron, covered with water, and placed over burning coal. A bulb of onion and some carrots are also be added to the pot. Aspic is cooked either on a stove or outdoors in the yard. If mixture reaches hard boil, the coals are moved aside. Modern recipes suggest skimming fat from aspic while cooking, but our grandfathers valued fatty aspic the most. Onions and carrots are left in the pot, too— for the lover of boiled onions in the family. Aspic cooks for about six or eight hours, or sometimes even ten. Salt is added shortly before it is done. The hostess then transfers the meat onto a cutting board and sorts it. Meat, fat and skin are minced, placed in bowls, and a broth is poured over the top. In a few hours, the aspic thickens and the fat, which most modern families remove, rises to the surface and congeals, forming a thin coating. Aspic is usually consumed with mustard, horseradish or crushed garlic.

In the old days, bones from aspic were not disposed of, but given to the kids. When I was little, I remember being in the kitchen, sucking the delicious juice out of the pork bones. Leg bones were the best as they were used in the game of jacks. Jacks made last year had already worn out, and a new set for desperately wished for! Knucklebones were sucked out, and then dried beside the chimney, sometimes painted, and the main one, litok, was lined with lead. Winter games would start on the whey fields, which were still clear from the snow. Fields like this served as stadiums for rural people. As soon as threshing was over and the field floor was clear, local kids would start playing ball. This particular ball game was the father of field hockey. Youth games ended with the end of Christmastide, but boys would keep playing until the fields disappeared under deep snow.

We have talked about the traditions surrounding the consumption of by-products, but let’s talk about the actual pork meat. In the old days, pork meat would not last long when fresh. As such, it was jerked, salted, smoked, and sausages were made. But fresh meat was valued above all. Pork pie is probably the best of the pies, yet cooking it was easier than any other pie. To make the pork pie, yeast dough was made in the same way as it was for other pies, and then the meat was cut into small pieces (not chopped or minced) and combined with cubed pork fat, fresh onions and a little salt. The dough was then placed into the stove over a low heat to bake for about thirty minutes. No words could describe the amazing taste of the final pork pie; one simply has to try it to believe it!

Rural gammon, by the way, didn’t resemble the ham we eat today in any single way. At first, gammon was just a method of storing meat without salt. Gammon was smoked until black, so it was as firm as Spanish jamón and tasted bitter, as if burnt. In the middle of winter, when all the holidays were over, women cooked shchi with ham (ham in Russian literally means “old meat” ). A piece of gammon was cut off and boiled. The first water was discarded or given to the pigs to drink. After that, as the bitterness reduced, shchi was cooked as usual. However, shchi was never as hearty at any other time of the year as it was at Christmas.

Let’s not forget about the drinks that were consumed at Christmas and Christmastide in the old days. Taverns sold “green wine”, a disgusting product of home alcohol distillation, a turbid liquid with green opalescence (hence the name: “green wine”). Consumption of this poisonous drink was disapproved; alcohol abuse was already the bane of Russians, as it is nowadays. Men brewed beer until they ran out of malt and hops. I can’t say anything about the quality of this drink but the smell from brewing it was so bad that malt sheds were built in the backyards, behind banyas3, hay sheds, barns and other facilities.

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Kvass was never made in the winter. Kvass is a summer drink and, in wintertime, proper fermentation can sometimes take weeks. Instead, uzvar, a fruit drink that was made by boiling dried fruit, was made from pears and apples. I have no idea why this beautiful word has almost disappeared from the Russian language. For me, uzvar sounds much tastier than anything else.

Another drink was syta, which was made of honey dissolved in hot water. Syta was also given to purebred horses. If syta was boiled in samovar with ginger, cloves and lemon peels, a sbiten was made, a drink that is known to everyone but tasted by very few. However, hot uzvar, syta and sbiten are hallmarks of all winter holidays, not only Christmastide. To this day, there’s nothing better than sipping hot steamy sbiten when it is freezing and snowing outside!

Christmas Cuisine Russian tradition

Три богатыря, три фантаста, три биографии. Известные российские писатели — что стоит за словом «успех»?

Заказать книгу Юлии Андреевой ­«Богатыри Невы» можно по e-mail: books@gir-magazine.com

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