I’ve been reading some fairly heavyweight books lately, so this month I took a break and decided to go for one that might only be tough on the waistline! The CCCP Cookbook by Olga and Pavel Syutkin is a lovely little treasure trove of the stories behind popular recipes from the Soviet Union.
My husband was very pleased to discover that the book includes the recipe for Aubergine Caviar, which is one of his favourite entrees. I gave the recipe a try and ended up with something that would have been better described as red pepper caviar but it was delicious all the same – although I’m certain that it’s not traditionally eaten with Mexican Nachos which is what we dipped in it (it was very nice, perhaps I’ve invented a new fusion cuisine: RusMex?).
We also simply had to try the recipe for Beef Stroganoff, which surprisingly doesn’t contain brandy or mushrooms. I have a feeling that my husband put the brandy in anyway (I can’t imagine him missing the opportunity to flambé!) and the result was very tasty and definitely something we’ll make again.
I haven’t been brave enough to make any of the gateaux recipes yet. In January, we were given a homemade Napoleon Cake which the book informs me is so-called because in 1912 enterprising chefs served it in triangular shapes to commemorate 100 years since the 1812 defeat of Napoleon. It involves layers of pastry sandwiched with a creamy custard and is absolutely delicious, but I suspect that I don’t have the skills to do it justice. I was likewise tempted to make Birds-Milk cake, not least because it was invented by chefs at the Praga hotel, which until recently was at one end of the Old Arbat. The name comes from Russian folklore – Birds Milk being something exquisitely delicious that people would go on quests to find – however, having realised that the recipe involved concocting a mousse, I simply took a quest to my local store and bought one instead!
It’s the stories, however, that really make this book special (after all, you can find a lot of the recipes online). I loved the one about how the authorities persuaded a sceptical Soviet people to try eating tinned fish. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Molotov (who was married to the People’s Commissar for Fisheries), stood up at a conference and told the gathered crowd that jewels were being smuggled inside tins of tuna – and pretty soon tins were flying off the shelves!
Possibly my favourite story is the one that the same production lines which manufactured gun cartridges during the war were allegedly used for making pasta during peacetime – a story that people believed because national standards stipulated that the diameter of pasta tubes should be 7.62mm, which is the same as the calibre of a Kalashnikov rifle!!
The writers have collected some fascinating and interesting stories. Not only are there tales about famous people including Stalin, Khruschev, Yuri Gagarin and Winston Churchill, but they give you a good feel for how the communist era involved standardisation of recipes and strict monitoring of food standards for those in the catering industry. They also give you an idea of how recipes developed to take account of the available produce, and how certain recipes from differing parts of the Soviet Union became popular across is vast expanse.
This is a lovely little book, made more so by the colour illustrations taken from Soviet-era cookbooks and the 1970s-style font. If you enjoy cooking and like things that are a bit quirky, this book will be a delicious treat!