July 01, 2006

The Stuff of Folk Songs

When we think of summer’s abundant berries, we usually think of the Far North, where cloudberries, cranberries, whortleberries, bilberries, and lingonberries flourish. 

But southern Russia is home to two prized berries that often escape the culinary eye: the ryabina (Sorbus aucuparia L.), known in English as the rowan or mountain ash berry, and the kalina (Viburnum opulus L.), the guelder rose. In keeping with the theme of this month’s issue, I wish I could ascribe these berries to traditional Cossack cuisine, but in fact the Cossacks ate the same foods as their southern Russian and Ukrainian neighbors. 

Even Nikolai Gogol, whose work is filled with mouth-watering descriptions of meals, gives food short shrift in his story of that proud Cossack, Taras Bulba. Gogol casts the Cossacks as ferocious and hard-living, and especially hard-drinking. When they are flogged for misbehavior, the punishment is “to many of them a trifle, only a little more stinging than good vodka with pepper.” When they set off on a campaign, their hetman warns them against getting drunk. Brandy, he says, is to be used only for medicinal purposes: “If a ball grazes you, or a sword cuts your head or any other part, attach no importance to such trifles. Mix a charge of powder in a cup of brandy, quaff it heartily, and all will pass off…”

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