Hit the books: In Russia, home is where hearth is

Although Russia was the world’s third-largest oil producer and exporter (at least until its invasion of Ukraine), its people have traditionally relied on the country’s vast expanses of exploitable forests for their food needs. cooking fuel. Access to an essentially inexhaustible supply of firewood has profoundly influenced Russian culture, governing how food is prepared, which impacts the form factor that the home’s oven and hearth take, which in turn shapes both the house itself and the domestic dynamics that surround it.

In his latest book, The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Cuisine, prolific author and eminent food scientist, Darra Goldstein turns her gaze to an ingenious people who overcame their climate, repeated famines, hunger and political repression to establish their own culture and cuisine. If you are what you eat, Goldstein exemplifies what it means to be Russian.

CPU Press

Extract of The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Cuisine by Darra Goldstein. Published by University of California Press. Copyright © 2022 by Darra Goldstein. All rights reserved.


Culinary practices

Russia is not a fast food culture. The nature of traditional Russian cooking was largely determined by the design of masonry stoves which had come into use around 1600. These massive structures for cooking and heating could measure up to two hundred cubic feet, occupying a good quarter of the living area. space in one-room peasant cottages. They were built of brick or rubble covered with a thick layer of whitewashed clay. (For heating, wealthy families also had so-called Dutch stoves covered with beautiful tiles – even utilitarian objects provided an opportunity to display their prosperity and aesthetic taste.) their stoves had no chimneys and much smoke lingered in the air, with ill effect. Wealthier peasants lived in “white” cottages in which the smoke was evacuated through a chimney.

Unlike other countries where fuel was scarce, leading to the adoption of quick cooking methods, Russia boasted vast forests and therefore abundant firewood. The thick walls of the stove retain heat very well, and many of the most typical Russian dishes result from it. When the stove was newly lit and very hot, with embers still glowing at the bottom of the hearth, cooks placed breads, pies and even blinis in the oven to bake. It took two to three hours to bring a cold oven up to temperature. Experienced cooks inserted a piece of paper to determine when the oven was ready for cooking, based on how quickly the paper browned and burned. Bread was so central to Russian life that oven temperatures were often described in relation to bread baking: “before bread, after bread, and at full throttle” (vol’nyi dukh). As the heat waned, other dishes followed: cereal porridges cooked to a creamy consistency, followed by soups, stews and slow-cooked vegetables in bulbous wooden pots. terracotta or cast iron. When the oven temperature had dropped to barely lukewarm, it was perfect for growing dairy and drying mushrooms and berries. During the winter, the stove was lit once or twice a day, and in the summer, only when needed for cooking.

At the back of the masonry surrounding the traditional Russian stove, high above the ground, is a ledge. This lezhanka (from the verb “to lie”) was the warmest place in the peasant house. There the elderly or infirm could find solace and children could laze around like the beloved folk figure Emelia the Fool. Most stoves also offer niches for storing food, cooking equipment and wood, as well as niches for drying mitts and herbs. The oven cavity itself is massive, large enough for uses far beyond baking. The stove could become a makeshift banya when planks were fitted along the warm interior walls of the oven, and this cleaning ritual continued well into the 20th century. It usually took place on a bread baking day, when the oven was already heated, and was considered particularly beneficial when the steam from the hot water gave off the aroma of medicinal herbs. Some Russians took a “bread bath”, believed to have healing powers, using diluted kvass instead of water to create the steam. In some regions of Russia, women crawled into the oven to give birth, as it was the most hygienic place in the cottage. Beyond these practical uses, the stove played a highly symbolic role in Russian life, delineating traditional female and male spheres, with the cooking area to the left of the hearth and the “beautiful corner” dominated by the icon to his right. And unsurprisingly, given its importance for sustenance, warmth, and health, the stove was believed to hold magical powers beyond the alchemy of turning dough into bread. Mothers would sometimes place sick infants on bread peels and ritually insert them three times into the oven in hopes of curing them.

The masonry stove prevailed in rich and poor Russian households until the 18th century, when Western-style stoves and the new equipment they required gradually came into use. Many Russian stoves were modified to include stovetop burners in addition to the oven, and in some households a stovetop replaced the stove entirely. Pans and griddles have largely replaced the usual earthenware and cast iron pots, perfect for slow cooking in the Russian stove. Cooktops also affected the way ingredients were prepared. In kitchens that could afford meat, large roasting or braising roasts gave way to butchered cuts like steaks, tenderloins and chops that could be prepared a la minute, often in more elaborate, though less Russian.

The Russian stove released deep, smooth flavors through slow cooking, although its low heat allowed for culture and dehydration, which produce intensified flavors that are also characteristic of Russian cuisine.

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