Bread #6 and #7: Russian Blinis and Black Bread
This time around I decided to explore the Yin and Yang of Russian Cuisine, bringing together the light and delicate with the dense and dark. The flat and fried with the kneaded and baked. Blinis, a home for crème fraiche, caviar, and smoked salmon alongside Black Bread, a bed for bold cheeses, spicy spreads, and cured meats.
Different in almost every aspect and yet, as they share the space of a single table, there is no battle between the two. There is instead a beautiful ballad; a harmonious celebration the sings of outward simplicity and inward complexity.
Behold the Russian Smorgasbord:
The recipes of both breads were garnered from two very prominent sources that are, still today, strongly committed to telling the very human stories of people all around the world, imbuing each account with a sense of beauty and bigger truths.
The blini recipe is one I came across in the Russian Cooking edition of the 1970 TIME-LIFE book series titled Foods of the World, one of four treasures I picked from the sloppily arranged stacks at Goodwill. I was initially drawn to the Foods of the World books for their collectors’ value but after skimming through the first few pages I became completely taken by both the photography and prose. Every picture and word, you could tell, had been thoughtfully considered and carefully placed with the purpose of completely transport the reader into the foreign landscape, taking captive the open mind and holding it hostage until what’s foreign becomes a familiar comfort. Take, for, example, this beautiful passage from the introductory chapter:
“Seen from the air the Soviet Union looks exactly as the schoolbooks promised. It is flat, is immense, a limitless plain of forest and field, only slightly mountain-wrinkled, that stretches beyond horizons, beyond time, beyond belief.”
The construction of the recipes that fill the space between is no exception. Again, every photograph and word gives honor to the prevailing tradition of Russian cuisine. Below, for your viewing (and possibly tasting pleasure if you choose to take on this deceivingly complex recipe), are my own photographs of TIME’s Russian Cooking Blini Recipe and images that accompany it (I’ve also photographed the cover and copyright information to give credit where credit is due):
Here’s my blini recreation topped with creme fraiche, smoked salmon and caviar in the spirit of Russian fine dining:
On a similar plane exists the NPR segment Kitchen Window, a platform to present the culinary-inspired personal accounts of chefs and authors, complete with moving anecdotes and cherished recipes. The Black Bread recipe comes from the segment Zakuski: Mighty Russian Morsels by Deb Perelman, the author of the very popular cooking blog, Smitten Kitchen. If you click on the title it will take you to the NPR site so you too try your hand at tackling the lovely and multi-faceted recipe within. It’s a recipe she carries with her in remembrance of the first time her husband’s family introduced her to their Russian roots through an extravagant meal presented with passion and love. Her account beams with pride for Russian heritage and plays tribute to the traditions of a family that’s now become her own. Though I can scarcely compete with Deb Perelman’s homage to Russian cuisine with her beautiful black bread, below is my rendition:
As these breads are fit for a single table they shall also share a single stage. I present to you a short play set in 1918, shortly before the execution the Russian Imperial Romanov Family, in which Tsar Nicholas II enjoys one last meal with his wife and children, unaware of the events to come.
To give more context the situation, at this point of time the Romanov Family is in exile. Tsar Nicholas II was forcefully abdicated from the throne following the February Revolution in which Russian Army forces joined the ranks with revolutionaries and effectively ended the reign of the Royal Russian empire. His abdication was in large part due to Russia’s devastating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. The poor management of war efforts lead to a serious lack of food and supplies on the home front and, by the end of WWI, nearly 3.3 million Russians were killed. On top of Russia’s humiliating defeat were a series of tragedies that began on the eve of coronation with the Khodynka Tragedy and followed him throughout his reign. Tsar Nicholas’s inability to loosen his grip on his father’s legacy in the face of mounting pressure from the rising revolutionaries, the Duma, and even his own royal army led to his downfall. Unable to envision Russia without an absolute autocracy and so protective of it that he hid the hereditary blood condition of his son, the imperial family’s last remaining heir, from everyone outside his immediate family, Nicholas ultimately fell on his own sword. His refusal to bend even a little to the rising tide of the revolution actually made it easier to knock him down. And as the Grand Duke Michael refused to ascend to the throne following Tsar Nicholas’s abdication, ending the three century reign of the Romanovs, the Bolsheviks seized power. Nicholas and his family spent a year in exile before they were executed one morning in the back the Ipatiev house, the last place where they were imprisoned. During that year, Nicholas maintained his faith that there were plots to release them from captivity, smuggle them to safety, and perhaps eventually restore the monarchy. Up to the bitter end, he held onto the belief that his birthright to the throne would prevail over all. Still, despite how desperately Tsar Nicholas clung to his royal title, he was said to have a taste for simple Russian food usually reserved for peasants. In fact, though he had his chef Ivan Kharitonov accompany the family in exile, it was more out of tradition then the need for extravagant meals. By all accounts, the Romanovs seemed satisfied to live off a soldier’s rations while at the Ipateiv house and his daughters even learned to bake bread. No doubt they missed their old life of luxury (the empress, for one, began showing serious signs of ill-health and discontent by the end), but, for the most part, they found comfort in each other and in the routine of preparing meals based on menus each night.
Keeping that in mind, I give you:
The Final Feast of the Exiled Romanovs
Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra are seated at the table with their son Alexei who’s sitting next to his father with his arms crossed over the table edge and his head resting against them. On the worn wood block table is a silver tea pot and samovar. A half circle of tea cups, vodka glasses, ornate bowls, and china plates, surround the somavar. The stage is cast with a low light. Alexandra takes a drink out of the tea cup in front of her. Nicholas twirls the stem of a vodka glass between his fingers. Alexei sighs and Nicholas brushes back his son’s hair with his other hand.
Nicholas II: What’s the matter, Alexei?
Alexei: My knee hurts. I think I want go to bed, father.
Nicholas II: Before dinner? Aren’t you hungry?
Alexei: Not really. I had another nightmare last night. More blood. I woke up and it was all over the walls. I can still remember it and now I don’t think I can eat anything because of it.
Nicholas puts down his vodka glass and looks toward Alexandra for guidance on how to respond. Alexandra looks down at her tea. Nicholas looks back at Alexei.
Nicholas II: I see. Well, they are just dreams you know. Bits of the past we can’t and shouldn’t forget but still, it’s nothing that can do you harm now, understand?
Alexei: Yes, father. Can you carry me to bed now?
Nicholas II: Very well, but after I will bring you your meal. You need your strength if you’re to walk again.
Alexei looks down at his feet.
Alexei: I don’t think I ever will.
Nicholas II: Nonsense.
Nicholas picks up Alexei and makes him soar against his arms. Alexei breaks into a smile and laughs.
Nicholas II: If you can fly surely you can soon walk.
Alexandra looks up at both of them, shakes her head, and smiles. Alexei continues to laugh as Nicholas carries him off, exiting stage left. Alexandra pours herself another cup of tea just as the chef, Ivan, enters from stage right with a large soup bowl and ladle.
Ivan: Dinner is ready, your majesty. A borsch as good as I could make it. Black Bread too, though your daughters will be bringing that out soon. They’re excited to show off their handiwork. They’ve become quite the bakers. The young Duchess Anastasia especially.
Alexandra: (placing a hand on Ivan’s) You still think it necessary to call me that, Ivan? Even with circumstances being as they are?
Ivan: Always, your majesty.
Alexandra: (wrapping both hands around Ivan’s) Oh, Ivan. Sometimes I wonder, do we deserve your loyalty?
Ivan: You should never wonder a thing like that. Rest assured, Madame, please. You are still, in the name of God, the Empress.
Alexandra: (letting go of Ivan’s hand) Yes, well tell that to all of Russia.
Ivan: If my voice counted for more I’d shout it far and wide.
Alexandra: It means the world to us.
Ivan: I’m glad.
Alexandra nods. Ivan smiles then turns his head down as his face falls and ladles soup into each of six bowls on the table before exiting stage left. Anastasia, Olga, Tatiana, and Maria enter stage right with two loaves of black bread. Anastasia hurries up to her mother and throws her arms around her neck.
Anastasia: Doesn’t it smell divine?
Alexandra: Yes, like Sunday morning in Saint Petersburg.
Maria: I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or you’re being smart. Where’s father?
Nicholas enters from stage left, takes a seat at the head of the table, and rubs at his eyes with one hand.
Nicholas II: I’m here. I just put your brother down. He fell asleep almost in an instant. I didn’t realize how tired he was though I suppose we all are.
Anastasia: Don’t be solemn, father, have some of the bread we made. Ivan taught us how to make it like you get in the market.
Nicholas II: Did he now? Well then I’m sure it will be the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful borsch.
Alexandra: Honestly Nikki, how can you still be so in love with that peasant gruel?
Nicholas II: Perhaps I’m in love with it for what it represents.
Alexandra: Yes, black and purple like bruises. What a perfect symbol it is of our country’s crushing defeat. If you can call it ours anymore that is.
Nicholas II: Of course we can. We are the Romanov’s, the heirs of this country no matter who manages to steal it from us. We must have hope about that. Now let’s try this bread shall we?
Anastasia: We baked it all day father, in the brick stove, just like the peasants do. Olga says we’re just like the peasants now. Is that true father?
Nicholas II: Of course it’s not true.
Anastasia: But even Alexei?
Nicholas II: Especially Alexei. You know that. Why are you questioning it?
Anastasia: Just, if he’s made to lose so much of his old blood, does that not make him less royal?
Nicholas II: That’s not how it works, Anastasia
Olga: In any case, we’re less than peasants. We’re prisoners now aren’t we?
Maria: Are we all criminals? I always did as I was told.
Olga: But did you prevent soldiers from dying in the war and peasants from dying in the streets?
Tatiana: One of the guards called us animals and said we should be caged.
Nicholas II: Enough! Can we not just have our meal as we always do, as if nothing’s changed?
Alexandra: Except everything has. Yes, while it’s true we still dress up in jewels, our clothes stitched in gold and eat at a table covered in fine china, I’m not sure anymore why we do it. Out of tradition you once said. Out of respect for our stripped away title because as long as we stay committed to our true selves, well, that’s what really matters in the end. It’s a lovely thought really but, truth be told, I’m not so sure I agree with it anymore. I’m sure though we if we turned our backs and refused to carry the weight of our title anymore, more pieces of it would be stolen in an instant. I know that most of the people that fill this house are not adoring servants sworn to protect our legacy, but empire-hating communists forced to swallow their spit-fire fantasy of slitting our throats at night. And I know that we eat borsch and bread day after day, not because it reminds us of beachside picnics or luncheons on the Standart, but because not even as chef as great as Ivan can conjure champagne, blinis, and caviar from midair. So we must take what we are given. We must adjust to being at home within ourselves and each other, because what else is there when the outside world has been drowned out by a heavy coat of paint on the windows. Sure, it’s a comfort at first, being in such a familiar space. Then the claustrophobia sets in and your eyes adjust to the dark and the walls get closer and I see it now, the blood Alexei goes on about. I can’t not see it now.
Nicholas: Please, dear, calm yourself down. You’re becoming hysterical. Look at how distraught your girls are becoming.
Anastasia: We’re all right, father.
Alexandra: I’m sorry. I miss our life is all.
Nicholas: We all do, but nothing lost is ever gone completely. We must have faith in the power of our Allies. I’m confident, right this minute, the Germans are working on some plot to restore the monarchy. There will be better days for Russia ahead once the revolutionaries come to their senses and realize how necessary the empire is to Russia and its identity. In the meantime, we’d do well to enjoy this lovely feast our very own daughters have helped prepare. The best bread and borsch in all the land. A meal fit for Tsar. So, my daughters, sit down and let’s cut into this bread shall we?
Anastasia, Olga, Tatiana, and Maria exchange worried looks then take their seat at the table. Nicholas slices bread and puts it on each of their plates. He then pours vodka into all their glasses.
Nicholas: A toast.
Olga: To what, father?
Nicholas: To the future of Russia and its continued legacy. May it be as glorious as this bread. This testament to the resilience and richness of our nation’s history. And, of course, God bless the hands that made it.
Anastasia: The peasants?
Alexandra laughs then lifts her glass.
Alexandra: Let’s drink.
Alexandra drains her glass then everyone else at the table follows her lead. Nicholas smiles at his children and his wife and they all force smiles back. They then silently and solemnly eat a meal of bread and borsch together as the stage goes dim and then dark.