From Russia with Toast

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One of the first chapters of Anna Karenina describes a meal between the lovesick landowner Constantin Levin and the colourful Stepan Oblonsky. Oblonsky first helps himself to vodka “and a little fish” and then orders a meal beginning with three dozen oysters, followed by vegetable soup, turbot with thick sauce, roast beef, a capon, three wines, cheese, and preserves for dessert. Somewhere in this preposterous meal Oblonsky drops a little fact concerning Levin’s love interest that so perturbs Levin he is almost unable to finish his oysters. This image has remained with me. What kind of man, Tolstoy seems to be saying, would be weak-kneed enough to be put off a mere three dozen oyster appetizer by mention of love? What a sap.

My own experience with Russians is limited. In fact it is confined to a long distance bus trip my wife and I took in Thailand where the Russians, despite the bus being almost empty, chose seats directly behind ours so they could drum on the top of the seat, open cans of beer with their pocket knives, sing loud songs punctuated with cries of “Ha ha! I am American cowboy!” and generally demonstrate to us how feeble our appreciation of life was. There are times when being Russian is very important, and that inspired today’s brunch composed of smoked trout, buttered toast points, caviar, egg, radishes, and parsley salad. The fresh and tangy salad is the glue that holds the meal together and the recipe is from Fergus Henderson:

Fergus Henderson’s Parsley Salad

a healthy bunch of flat-leaf parsley

2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced

1 modest handful of capers

juice of one lemon

extra virgin olive oil

a pinch of sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Chop your parsley, as Henderson puts it, “just enough to discipline it,” mix it with the shallots and capers, and at the last moment, dress the salad.

1 comment to From Russia with Toast

  • War Pig

    As Kipling noted: “Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists on being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of the most westerly of easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle.”

    You experienced some of that.

    In Russia they can be charming when they aren’t stealing or selling on the black market. Their mafia is particularly brutal. Invited into their homes, however, they have the hospitality of an Arab and will gladly share with you, the guest, the best of what they have. They drink A LOT of vodka – and black tea (which they make in heirloom samovars). They put jam in their black tea and call it chayu, play chess exceedingly well and read a lot of grim literature. They melt cheese before a fire, gather it in a wooden spoon off the cheese wheel or chunk and spread it on thick slices of black bread which is rather filling and nutritious.

    Many Russian women are breathtakingly beautiful.

    In Northern Afghanistan, I picked up a beautiful, silver samovar from an Afghan woman in dire need of cash. She asked $20 American and I gave her $100 as I could guess the approximate worth of the thing, making her rather wealthy for the area. She hid the money carefully and blessed me. It makes fantastic tea in the two-step process the Russians and Afghans both use. It also makes great coffee by the same method.

    I have seldom been able to get through a translation of a Russian novel, I have found them the best antidote to insomnia short of whiskey. ;-)