One of her greatest pleasures in summer was the very Russian sport of hodit’ po gribi (looking for mushrooms). Fried in butter and thickened with sour cream her delicious finds appeared regularly on the dinner table. Not that the gustatory moment mattered much. Her main delight was in the quest. ~~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Nabokov hits on something many of us reading his words cannot really sense, cannot really feel. For those of us who grew up on canned button mushrooms or pristine white globes speckled with dark bits of their manure-rich growing medium, it’s difficult to appreciate the crucial role of mushrooms in Russian (and indeed nearly all Slavic) cooking.
Strings of mushrooms drying in the air over doorways, beams, on trays, and the massive stoves in Russian houses and huts promised flavor for the daily kasha, pel’meni (similar to ravioli), fish, and potatoes that made up the average Russian diet even on non-fast days. Another method of preservation included marinating or pickling — in other words, fermentation.
But behind the long lists of mushrooms recipes in most Russian cookbooks* looms the shadow of the Russian Orthodox Church, specifically its proscriptions against the consumption of meat and dairy foods during Lent. Of course, long frigid winters, poverty and serfdom, availability, and ease of preservation also ensured that mushrooms became a pillar of Russian cuisine.
In a land prone to periodic famines, knowledge of wild foods served the Russian housewife well as she strove to prepare food for her family in spite of scarcity. Although mushrooms provide very few calories, always important during famine and periods of want, the flavor of these fungi boost caloric intake by making bland foods more palatable. What’s more, they perfume such foods with hints of a meaty taste (umami), thanks to the amino acids present. Don’t forget, most people preferred not eat vegetarian foods if they could help it, Tolstoy aside. Tolstoy, given his class standing and financial security, could afford to make that choice, a choice serfs and peasants could not make. (A similar argument could be made today … .)
Ironically, it’s a meat-based non-Lenten dish that is most associated in the West with Russian mushroom cuisine. Beef Stroganoff (Бефстроганов), the one Russian mushroom-rich dish most familiar to Westerners and thought by many to be an invention of a French chef, appears to be Russian to the core, influenced possibly by a brush with Hungarian cuisine. Sour cream and mushrooms serve as gustatory markers for Russian foods.
The dark, wet forests of late summer and autumn offered, in Nabokov’s words, “that special boletic reek which makes a Russian’s nostrils dilate — a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves.”
Two hours before service, cut a tender piece of raw beef into small cubes and sprinkle with salt and some allspice. Before dinner, mix together 1/16 lb (polos mushka) butter and 1 spoon flour, fry lightly, and dilute with 2 glasses bouillon, 1 teaspoon of prepared Sareptskaja mustard, and a little pepper. Mix, bring to a boil, and strain. Add 2 tablespoons very fresh sour cream before serving. Then fry the beef in butter, add it to the sauce, bring once to boil, and serve.
2 lbs tender beef
¼ lb butter
2 spoons flour
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon Sareptskaja mustard
[Recipe from Classic Russian Cooking: A Gift to Young Housewives, by Elena Molokhovets, [Moscow, 1861], recipe #635, translated and introduced by Joyce Toomre (Indiana Press: Bloomington, 1992, p.213-214)]
According to Toomre, “Molokhovets’ simple recipe did not endure. Already by 1912, Aleksandrrova-Ignat’eva was teaching the students in her cooking classes to add finely chopped sautéed onions and tomato paste to the sauce, a practice which still turns up in modern Soviet and American recipes, with or without the addition of mushrooms. It is worth noting that Aleksandrova-Ignat’eva served this dish with potato straws, which have become the standard modern garnish for Beef Stroganov.”
*Cookbooks provide much information about the importance of various dishes: as examples of this tendency, we find 34 mushroom-related entries in Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (1990); 86 in Elena Molokhovets’s Classic Russian Cooking (1861); and 32 in Lynn Visson’s The Complete Russian Cookbook (1982).
And be sure to read the chapter, “Autumn and Mushroom Hunting,” in Catherine Cheremeteff Jones’s A Year of Russian Feasts (2002).
To be continued …
© 2010 C. Bertelsen