Have Your Cake and Eat It

PHOTO by Sergei Fadeichev / TASS
Food lovers and chefs show an appetite for the Russian North

The period since the late 2000s has seen an unprecedented nation-wide revival of Russian culinary traditions, which has gained extra impetus from the trade embargo and food sanctions. Numerous foodies’ festivals are held across Russia to celebrate and popularise regional cuisines; top chefs travel to remote corners of the country in search of fascinating specialties and little-known local recipes. Lenta.ru explores the mouth-watering tastes of the Russian North and its vast, yet untapped gastronomic potential.

Between Culture and Geography

The Russian North is an area without clear-cut boundaries. Although the term is generally applied to the northern areas of European Russia (including the Kola Peninsula, Karelia, Arkhangelsk and Vologda districts as well as the White Sea and Barents Sea coasts), scientists do not always agree when it comes to the geographical definition of some territories. While being rather difficult to outline from the natural or administrative perspective, the Russian North nevertheless remains very distinct in terms of culture, history and cooking.

The countless forests, lakes and rivers and its proximity to the Arctic seas have shaped a regional cooking tradition based on a plethora of local seafood, poultry, game, berries, mushrooms and herbs.

Fruits of the Northern Forest

You can’t imagine Northern Russian cuisine without mushrooms. Wholesome, delicious, satisfying and much easier to obtain than, say, game fish, mushrooms also preserve well and make an important contribution to the winter diet.

Believe it or not, it is possible to design a complete dinner menu - from cold starters to main course - based entirely on mushrooms. They can be used in pies, soups, kasha or as stuffing for fish and poultry. Different kinds of mushrooms are suitable for different dishes. However, it is saffron milkcaps, or ryzhiki, that are considered to be the real pride of the local cuisine and are always the first to disappear from plates. The mushrooms look plain in the forest and turn an unpretty sludge-brown when pickled, but their sweet-and-savoury taste with a piquant bitter note and delicate hay flavour more than makes up for the drab appearance. Saffron milkcaps have a pleasantly crunchy texture and an unbeatable gastronomic potential.

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Saffron milkcaps (ryzhiki) are edible mushrooms which grow only in coniferous forests

Nicknamed “the royal mushrooms”, the delectable ryzhiki were supplied to the imperial court in enormous quantities. They also used to be a key item for export to Europe, primarily Britain. For mushroom-pickers, saffron milkcaps are still the most sought-after trophy. It is hardly surprising that ryzhiki aren’t widely available in other regions of Russia as they are mostly consumed locally.

Berries are another remarkable local specialty. Northern forests and marshlands bring rich harvests of cranberries, cowberries, bilberries, blueberries, strawberries, hackberries and cloudberries. In the Arkhangelsk district and the Republic of Karelia berries are sometimes soaked in brine with a pinch of spices and herbs and offered as an appetizer.

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Cowberry fruits and leaves in the Republic of Karelia

A Fine Kettle of Fish

Until recently, households in central Russia could seldom enjoy fish caught in the northern seas. With the exception of frozen cod, salmon or, less often, halibut, Arctic fish almost never made it to the shops in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov or Kazan. Yet the cold Russian waters are rich in valuable seafood species. The local scallops, trumpetfish, sea urchins, giant tender and sweet prawns and Kamchatka crabs (introduced to the northern seas from the Far East) are highly praised both by Russian chefs and their demanding colleagues from Europe and Japan.

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Scallop spat. The Far Eastern Marine Preserve. The Peter the Great Gulf

The succulent Arkhangelsk cod icefish has been the hit of the last few restaurant seasons in central Russia. A while ago the international celebrity Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of the new Japanese cuisine, wowed gourmets with his recipe of cod icefish (marketed as Chilean sea bass), gaining excellent publicity whilst making a substantial profit. This season’s favourites also include black halibut and wolffish.

Northerners have traditionally been suspicious of shellfish, which used to be difficult to catch and preserve. So if you are really into this delicacy, the best places to indulge yourself are Moscow and St. Petersburg, where crustaceans and molluscs harvested in the Arctic seas are transported to using modern refrigeration technologies.

Fish, however, has always been a mainstay of the Northern Russian cuisine. It is eaten fried, boiled, smoked, baked with herbs and roots or used as a filling for pies. The best fish pies (rybniks) are made with halibut, cod, pike or grayling. When in the North, be sure to try hot-smoked Atlantic cod (labardan). Or the divine Pomorye fish soup which includes two types of stock from small and large fish cooked separately; the original recipe is made with sterlet and milk.

On Top of This...

Oven-baked dishes are part and parcel of the ancient cooking heritage of the Russian North. Among the vast array of time-honoured baking recipes, shangi definitely head the unofficial popularity ratings. Made of yeast-leavened dough containing generous amounts of beef fat, shangi look a bit like cheesecakes, but are usually salty rather than sweet. In the past, shangi used to be topped with mashed peas; nowadays, however, the most common fillings are potatoes, salted cottage cheese, boiled millet or a mixture of boiled buckwheat and eggs. Hot shangi are smeared with sour cream or molten butter and eaten with sour milk, soup or sweetened tea.

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Another baked delicacy popular in the Karelian, Veps and North-Russian cuisine is kalitkas – small round, egg or lancet-shaped open pies made of thin rye dough and filled with boiled barley, potatoes, rice or oatmeal. In Finland they are known as Karelian pies and recognized as a national delicacy, but are undeservedly overlooked by foodies outside Northern Russia. Maybe time has come for more diners to have their piece of the kalitka pie?

Drinks All Around!

One of the most famous drinks of the Russian North, kvass can be made with rye, honey, cloudberries, cranberries, hackberries, you name it. Nearly every village - or should we say, every household? - seems to have its own kvass recipe. Local food festivals actively promote this refreshing fermented concoction and even initiate kvass tasting competitions. However, the vast palette of ingredients used in kvass production renders any comparison difficult, if at all possible.

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Other authentically Northern Russian beverages include numberless types of mors, sbiten, kompot and mead made with fresh berries or sometimes herbs. These drinks have to be enjoyed locally as they rarely survive transportation. However, if you wish to recreate and take in the real fragrance of the Russian North, try fireweed leaves (Chamerion angustifolium). This herbaceous perennial has been used for centuries as a remedy for a host of diseases and is highly valued by modern gourmets because of its exquisite taste.

Fireweed leaves, when picked in season, dried in the Russian oven and well-fermented, can be brewed into a rich spicy dark-coloured infusion with a silky, creamy, slightly sweet flavour and refreshing sour notes. No other herb can match this delightful combination of smell and taste. Blended with various blossoms, herbs and berries, fireweed produces an incredible variety of herbal teas with a rainbow of tastes. And, best of all, fireweed leaves are now widely available in supermarkets across Russia.

Author: Alexander Sidorov