Dine Like a Literary Character

Meals and tastes in Russian literature

By Federal Agency for Tourism

Fragment of a desk (1890/1890)Museum A.P Chekhov "Melikhovo"

Let’s take a brief tour of the daily lives and meals of classical Russian literary heroes from Chichikov in "Dead Souls" to Levin and Oblonsky from "Anna Karenina" to the gentry balls in "Eugene Onegin".

Still Life with Books (1625/1630) by Jan Davidsz. de HeemRijksmuseum

“Oblomov”, Ivan Goncharov

"What shall we have for dinner?" he asked."Sauerkraut with salmon," she said. "There is not a sign of sturgeon anywhere; I’ve been to all the stores, and my brother’s been asking around, none."

“Oblomov”, Ivan Goncharov

If they get their hands on a living sturgeon, now that a merchant in Karetny Ryad Street has ordered one, they say they will cut out a bit for me. After that, veal and porridge in a pan…"

Sauerkraut (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

Sauerkraut

Known in Russian as kislaya kapusta or literally ‘sour cabbage’, is one of the Russian cuisine's oldest features. The bitter-sour flavour is due to fermentation, a way of preserving food discovered by many peoples who relished the ensuing taste and the fact that it kept the product fresh for long.

In Russia the cabbage was finely shredded, salted and put in wooden barrels above a fine layer of rye flour. Carrots, apples, lingonberries and cranberries were added to the mix. The barrel was then covered with a round wooden piece, and a load was placed above to seal the cabbage inside. A few days in, foam would come out on the surface indicating that fermentation had begun. Once there was no more foam, the sauerkraut was believed to be ready. The barrel was stored in a cool place.

Portfolio: The Pitch Direct (1958-05-14) by Walker EvansLIFE Photo Collection

A few days in, foam would come out on the surface indicating that fermentation had begun. Once there was no more foam, the sauerkraut was believed to be ready. The barrel was stored in a cool place.

Sturgeon (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

Sturgeon was considered a noble white fish that was served to the Tsar’s table and added an exquisite feel to any banquet. 

It would be served cooked or fried, roasted whole, added to shchi or used as filling in pirogi pies.

Sturgeon caviar (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

From the 15th and 16th century, common folk enjoyed pies with viziga or notochord of various sturgeon species. It was and is still used to fill kulebyaka and rasstegai pies and pirozhki buns.

Truffles (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

Alexander Pushkin, "Eugene Onegin"

Before him roast beef, red and gory,
and truffles, which have ever been
youth's choice, the flower of French cuisine:
and pâté, Strasbourg's deathless glory,
sits with Limburg's vivacious cheese
and ananas, the gold of trees.
(Transl.by Charles Johnson)

Portrait of A.S.Pushkin (1827) by Orest KiprenskyThe State Tretyakov Gallery

Over The Seas Influence

Foreign dishes dot the pages of Russian classics, and Onegin's dinner at Talon, a fashionable restaurant frequented by the glitterati of the day, is one good example. 

When the novel was written, truffles were imported to Russia from France as a lavish gourmet delight, a proof of extravagant wealth of whoever would have them.

Mallards on a Pond (Before 1716) by Cradock, MarmadukeDulwich Picture Gallery

Pushkin's Pie

What Pushkin calls "Strasbourg deathless pie" in the Russian original, is in fact duck liver pate. Deathless, as the poet metaphorically puts it, is because of the way it was imported from France where it would first be preserved before shipment.  

Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread Still Life with Herring, Wine and BreadLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Tsimlyansky wine was called so after the cossack village of Tsimla, where, as legend goes, Peter the Great ordered his newly acquired French vine to be planted. At first, this variety was only produced on the Don from where it would be shipped to gentry houses in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Tsimlyansky is mentioned in Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s poems and his versed novel "Eugene Onegin". This was the wine that the great commander Mikhail Kutuzov drank to mark the victory over Napoleon. 

Glass of wine by Chin-ChinFederal Agency for Tourism

Tsimlyansky was served at official functions, balls or during official holidays. Dark red, with a ruby tint and excellent sparkle, this wine has a rich history and can still be enjoyed today. 

So on Shrove Tuesday always ate Russian pancakes;
Hospitable, a family grind,
Tea, and jam, and endless prattle;
On a rich pie (its saltiness,
Alas, excessive) and the wine,
Smoky bottles, tarred with twine,
To separate blancmange from roast,
A Tsimlyansky, for a toast…(Transl. by A.S.Kline)

Pancakes with salmon (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

Anton Chekhov, “On Mortality: A Carnival Tale”

Finally, the cook arrived with the bliny. At the risk of scorching his fingers, Semyon Petrovitch snatched up two of the hottest from the top of the pile and slapped them onto his plate with gusto. The bliny were crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant's daughter. 

Red caviar (21st Century) by tm agencyFederal Agency for Tourism

Podtikin smiled affably, hiccupped with pleasure, and doused the bliny in hot butter. Then, as if to tease his appetite, luxuriating in anticipation, he slowly, deliberately heaped them with caviar. He poured sour cream over the places the caviar left bare. Now he had only to eat, right? Wrong! 

Contemplating his creation, Podtikin was not quite satisfied. After a moment's thought, he topped the bliny with the oiliest slice of salmon he could find, and a sprat, and a sardine; then, no longer able to hold back, trembling with delight and gasping, he rolled up the two bliny, downed a shot of vodka, wheezed, opened his mouth... (Transl.by Constance Garnett)  

Sturgeon & Caviar/Ussr (1960-04) by Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

Vodka that Podtykin drinks has a special place as well. Considered one of Russia's symbols alongside the bear and the Russian nesting doll, ‘vodka’ was once the name for a herbal tincture before being applied to a strong alcoholic beverage in the 17th century.

The vodka we know today is the invention of the great Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, the father of the Periodic Table. It was Mendeleev who set the standard of quality for the beverage and insisted on having it patented. As such, vodka today means a clear colourless liquid with a soft alcohol taste and aroma and a 40-percent alcohol content.

Print from a Hana kurabe: Cucumber vine (1875-1890) by Artist: Shibata Zeshin Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Not simply a standalone beverage, it is a way to accentuate the taste of Russian cuisine. Vodka appetizers include pickles, smoked meat and fish, while the drink itself goes with thicker soups of the likes of solyanka, shchi or rassolnik.

Credits: Story

Сhief Сonsultant — Ekaterina Drozdova, restaurateur, gastronomic entrepreneur, food and social activist, Photo production — tm agency, Contributors — Proximity Russia, Denis Yershov, Alexandra Grigoryeva

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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