sobota 13. února 2010

Maslenitsa, pancakes and caviar

From the 8th to the 14th of February 2010 a holiday called Maslenitsa is celebrated in Russia, Ukraine and other countries. Generally Maslenitsa is celebrated 7 weeks prior to Easter and during the week prior to the start of the great Lent. Christian orthodox fasting rules are stricter than Catholic or Protestant rules, during Lent only vegetarian food may be eaten and fish is only eaten for 2 days during the long 7 week period. The use of oil is also limited. Only the seriously ill, some pregnant women and small children may ask their priest for permission to eat dairy produce, oil or fish more often. Being similar to the Mardi Gras or Carneval celebrations Maslenitsa is a time of party, fun and most importantly good food.

This painting by Boris Kustodiev, a famous Russian painter from the 19th-20th century, is called Maslenitsa. He painted a series of paintings on the theme of Maslenitsa from 1916 to 1920. This particular one depicts people hanging around outside and socializing, horse sledges snowrides, there is a queue waiting to enter a theater that looks more like a circus and a boy selling some kind of food on the foreground.

The most symbolic food eaten during Maslenitsa are pancakes, plain or with various sweet or savory fillings. Before Christianity arrived in Great Rus pagans used to celebrate spring by baking pancakes that symbolized the sun returning after months of winter. This pagan celebration was so immensly popular that the new Christian leaders decided to turn it into a religious festival. During Maslenitsa pancakes were made freshly everyday and different rituals were connected with them. A pancake used everything that was forbidden during Lent – milk, cream, sour cream, eggs, butter, yeast, oil and dairy products or fish for the fillings. Meat was already forbidden during Maslenitsa, so pancakes were eaten with fish or dairy products or with vegetable and fruit preserves. Eating elaborately and having fun meant saying goodbye to all the good food and the cold winter and getting ready for the difficult 7 weeks ahead.

Nowadays very little people follow the strict Lent rules, many restrict their fasting to not eating meat. But most families tend to cook pancakes during Maslenica. Many cities organize week long festivities with concerts, work shops and food stalls selling pancakes.

A hundred or more years ago regular caviar wasn’t really considered rich man’s food in Russia. Fish was so incredibly abundant in rivers, lakes and seas that both black and red caviar was very affordable. There are many levels of caviar quality depending on when the fish was caught, how the caviar was processed etc. In areas lining the oceans, big rivers and lakes and the Caspian sea fishermen families and peasants ate low grade caviar regularly. High quality caviar was brought to bigger cities but it still was quite cheap. But times have changed, the fish population has been reduced significantly and many legendary fish types like the sterlet or inconnu have almost vanished in free nature.

Today black caviar is an unaffordable delicacy for most people living in the former USSR but red caviar is much less expensive and therefore very popular. It can be bought in tin cans, glass jars or at supermarket counters where you can buy as much as you want as well as taste the caviar you are buying. Prices range significantly as does the quality and most people stick to their favourite brands. My favourite brand is Tunaycha.

In western restaurants caviar is often served with small, thick pancakes called blini or bliny. In traditional Russian cuisine the word bliny means a big, thin pancake, whereas small and thick pancakes are called oladji. In Russia caviar is most often eaten either on white bread with butter or wrapped into big and thins bliny with butter or sour cream. Bliny were traditionally made with yeast and buckwheat flour, but today there are also many simpler recipes available.

Ingredients for yeast pancakes:
800ml milk
2 tablespoons of sugar
1/2 generous tablespoons of dry yeast - a brand that you know and trust, many are unreliable
400 gr of flour
3 eggs
1/2 tablespoons of salt

Heat up about 200ml of milk until warm, but not too hot. Add yeast and sugar, mix well and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour. The mixture should thicken and double its size, now this substance is called leaven. Pour the leaven into a big bowl and add the eggs that you've beaten with a fork, flour, salt and the rest of the milk. Mix well and leave to stand in a warm place for about 30 minutes. You might need to add some more milk if the batter is too thick, it should be the consistence of thin kefir. Do not mix the batter anymore during of after that! A foam will form on top of the batter, it will make the pancakes porous and fluffy, if you mix the batter this foam will dissapear.
Heat up a pan and smear it with oil everytime you pour batter into it. Bake the pancakes on high heat and preferably on a cast iron pan. The thinner the pancakes the better.
Serve with butter, caviar, cured or smoked fish, sour cream, honey, cottage cheese, jam, preserved fruits etc.

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