From Mother Russia with Love: A Monster of a Stove and Tolokno


You can’t cook porridge with a fool.
~~ Russian Proverb ~~

An example of Russian Lenten food, tolokno or oat flour with liquid, demonstrates the use of the astonishing Russian stove.

Streamlined in the 15th century, the Russian stove incarnates the old adage, “The kitchen is the heart of the home.” Much of Russian peasant folk culture and ritual derives from these massive stoves. Taking up anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of the living space in a peasant hut, the importance of these life-giving stoves cannot really be fathomed by those living in today’s centrally heated houses.*

According to Anne Volokh in The Art of Russian Cuisine (1983):

One wall in the kitchen is entirely taken up by a massive wood-burning brick or clay stove with a large oven, more or less at the height of a table. An extension of the stove, usually an adjacent room, utilized the heat of the stove and served as a bed. The peculiarity of the original Russian stove was that it did not have burners. The oven was the only place to cook, which meant that pot did not come in direct contact with the fire [unlike a hearth]. For this reason the original Russian cuisine abounded in braised, stewed, or baked dishes. Even boiled foods like soups and kasha took on some of the character of stewed food because of the slow cooking process.

One of those boiled dishes, tolokno, took a long time to prepare.

First, the housewife would soak sacks of whole oats in water for 24 hours, sometimes even lugging the sacks to a stream or river and leaving them there while the current (and maybe even fish!) moved over the rough cloth. Once the grains swelled, the next step — heating them in the Russian stove — took another 8 -10 hours. To finalize the drying of the oats, the housewife cleaned out the stove and refired it, placing the oats inside to allow them to dry completely until they smelled of malt. But before the oats could be used, they had to be ground and then sifted. Mixed with milk or meat stock (on non-fasting days), this pottage filled empty stomachs quickly. When the cupboard looked like Old Mother Hubbard’s, water sufficed. The repeated heatings affected the nutritional value of the grains, chiefly thiamine and folate (especially important for pregnant women) , but overall oats provided a relatively great deal of nutritional bang for the buck. (See more about the nutritional value of oats HERE.)

Pesant with a Tankard, by Anton Chirkov, 1933

Both the Russian stove and the food it produced point out just how human ingenuity created the wherewithal for survival. Facing the challenge of the long, menacing Russian winters demanded such technology.

*See Snejana Tempest, “Stovelore in Russian Folklife.” In: Food in Russian History and Culture (Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies), edited by Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre (1997). Families slept on parts of the stove and grown men could even bathe in some of the larger ones.

**Click HERE for more about the mechanics of the Russian stove.


© 2010, 2015 C. Bertelsen

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