By Jean Ann Pollard
It was glorious! – the great Dvina river so still, so broad between its red banks of gravel and sand, and the grass and birch trees on the flat plain all around so green by contrast. And then there was the pungent scent of wood smoke, and we scrambled off the riverboat to see a long, low table laid with starched linen, glass, and cutlery, surrounded by logs on which to sit. All in a meadow smelling of strawberries and flowers. With a woman bending over a black iron pot, which dangled from a tree limb held by two firm posts over a hot fire. Of course, there was Vodka waiting. Because we were in Russia! It was July.
Kotlas, on the Dvina, is a city of 85,000 people. Unknown to most of the world, it’s hidden away in a land of ancient beauty and terrible suffering some 650 miles northeast of Moscow. The great river on which it rests flows north to enter the White Sea at Archangelsk, and is navigable for all of those 300 miles.
We came, a group of us back in 1991 – in the days before glasnost – as delegates in a sister-city pairing project linking Kotlas with our own small city of Waterville, Maine. The Cold War was still hot. We were trying to cool it. This day, the third of our visit, would be memorable. We had begun early and were going to stay up late, reveling in the famous white nights of a land just three degrees below the Arctic Circle where the sun never sets in summer and midnight is like an overturned silver bowl.
While Kotlas is relatively new, we were being ferried to the ancient city of Solvitchygodsk nearby. Before the Revolution of 1917, it boasted 17 fabulous, onion-domed, Russian Orthodox churches, of which only two remained. Visiting one, now a museum, we became aware that the famous Stroganoff family had financed it. Evaporating water from deep wells of brine, they’d extracted salt, presented a small bag of it to Tzar Peter the Great, thus ensuring the life of one of the most influential merchant dynasties of all time.
Cruising upstream to Veliky Ustyug, another historic city founded in 1492 and still containing 14 Russian Orthodox churches untouched by Bolshevik fury, we were overwhelmed by domes glittering with new gold, old houses, and charming, treed streets. It was late in the afternoon. The sun was hot. All the land around was flat and vast, smelling of summer. It was difficult to leave. But we headed back for Kotlas. Before arrival, though, we beached on a sandy shore where the two rivers meet. Kotlas loomed ahead as dim, rectangular boxes on the skyline across an exposed, tan whale of sand, seeming far away and indistinct in the sunlight.
What happened next seems dreamlike. We found ourselves climbing a high, sandy bank to a flat plain, which, our geologist remarked, showed evidence of flooding during the winter. Waiting for us was a northern Russian picnic: fish soup; potatoes baked in coals; tea made with raspberry, birch leaves, and other herbs; lots of dark rye bread; white bread spread with butter and orange-colored salmon caviar; bottled mineral water; and vodka for toasting.
The soup, steaming over an open fire, contained a rare, cartilaginous Dvina species. Skin and fins were included in its clear salty broth. I watched the blue-eyed beauty opposite plucking out morsels with her fingers, savoring every mouthful, licking her lips afterward.
Potatoes, baked in their skins in the coals, well blackened by fire, were described as wearing a “uniform jacket,” pronounced ‘mundir’ in Russian. They were tasty, and I thought of how gardens of them flourished around nearly every house in Kotlas: a food as important to these people as to the Irish of famine fame, and to Peruvians who knew them first. We feasted, laughing with our hosts, drinking tea called chai.
At day’s end a thunderstorm built itself up from the southeast. A wild wind thrashed around us but brought no rain; and it was briefly cooler. Here, some of us learned to offer the traditional toasts. Said our geologist, holding his glass up, “Do you see that cloud billowing over there? No doubt some of its droplets once flowed down the great Amazon River in South America. Do you hear that lark singing high above the field? It spent last winter in Africa. Do you see these flowers in this field? Many of them are cousins to those which grace our hayfields at home in Maine. Do you see the rocks of the red bluff on which Kotlas City stands? They are so familiar to geologists like myself that I know them by name. Do you feel the warmth of the sun shining on our party? It’s the same sun which rises daily to give light and energy to all our endeavors. Did you swim in the Dvina River? Those same waters will soon find their way into the Atlantic Ocean. Some will return to Maine. So here’s to the Earth, our one and only planet, whose riches we share, and for whom we must care.”
We tossed the vodka back. He was answered with following toasts. I hardly heard what was going on because I was watching wind sweep the grass, identifying flowers identical to my own. I was looking past the great reach of the two rivers that came together just off our bank, and at the hazy white blocks of Kotlas on the farther shore, and I was thinking that all of central Russia was one vast plain with rivers rolling over it in sandy beds, treed by poplars and birches, firs and larch (like tamaracks in Maine), and I was remembering the crowds of people we had seen swimming everywhere. I was feeling blasted: too filled with scenes and ideas and the odd sensation of familiarity-yet-strangeness commingled.
I was also remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn when he said, “The work at … Kotlas Transit Prison before the war was not the least bit easier than in a regular camp. In the course of a winter day six or seven weakened prisoners were harnessed to a tractor (!) sledge and had to drag it seven miles along the Dvina River to the mouth of the Vychegda. They got stuck in snow and fell down, and the sledges got stuck. And it would seem that any work more wearing and debilitating could hardly have been thought up! But it turned out that this wasn’t the actual work, but merely the warm-up. There at the mouth of the Vychegda, they had to load thirteen cubic yards of firewood on the sledges – and the same people harnessed in the same way … had to haul the sledges back to their transit-prison home.”
Was it here? I kept asking myself. Could that episode of suffering have been here? For Kotlas, I knew, had been a Transit Prison during those awful days of holocaust, when something like sixty-six million Soviet people had been butchered by Stalin and his henchmen.
I didn’t ask, but I remember this beautiful scene with a sort of dual ache, thinking about human history, about earth history. For the river before us curled in its vast peneplain, and monks as well as prisoners had toiled along it; and it was easy to feel very small and unimportant in the roll of events. And yet, at the same time, it was oddly thrilling to see oneself as possibly a significant microcosm in the working of the whole.
What is it about human beings, I thought, that prompts us to make war on one another – and still love one another? For, having feasted with these Russian people on the banks of their ancient river with its beautiful, violent history, we had come to love them deeply and dearly – as acquaintances, as friends, as relatives.
And it was all – gloriously gourmet!
Eating in Kotlas
Northern Russians eat much the same things and in much the same way as did New England people at the turn of the 20th century. Potatoes are a staple. Beets are stored over long winters along with salted cabbage. Foods in season are prized, so that wild mushrooms, strawberries, cranberries, and greens are gathered as spring melts slowly into a short summer.
As the Mayor’s delegation from Waterville can attest, late June and early July bring strawberries, cranberries, hothouse grown tomatoes, dill, and cucumbers. And Russian cooking is fine. What follow are some of the recipes met in Kotlas, and on the railroad car heading toward the “land of white nights.”
Breakfast in Kotlas began with small china plates overflowing with careful circles of medium-sized, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers topped by chopped scallions and a sprig of dill, served with small glasses of soured cream to be spooned over. Americans, accustomed to orange juice, toast and eggs, found it exotic. But, as one said after three days, “it’s beginning to seem natural.”
More than natural, it was delicious. The tomatoes of Kotlas were particularly red and sweet, and cucumbers were never bitter. We learned that greenhouses supply fresh produce and are as integral to each dacha as such industrial complexes as boatyards, railroads and paper mills.
Kotlas Breakfast or Dinner Salad
Slice thinly 1 very ripe, medium-sized tomato. Place it in neat rings on the outside portion of a small plate.
Slice thinly 1 small, sweet cucumber. Layer just inside the tomato slices so that cucumbers fill the entire center section.
Over the cucumbers scatter at least three tablespoons finely-sliced scallions and 1 large sprig of rinsed, well-dried dill weed.
Serve with 1/2 cup soured cream
Chicken Broth Soup
At dinner, soup was de rigueur before the entrée and after salad. It was often clear, with half a hard-boiled egg floating lazily in it, and dill weed scattered on top. In our private railway car wending its way from Moscow to Kotlas, we enjoyed a Chicken Broth Soup that was salty but delicious. Stock for this soup is easy to make.
In a large pot, place all of the well-picked bones of a cooked chicken, plus its neck, and giblets with the exception of liver. Cover with water.
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
1 to 2 smashed garlic cloves
1 chopped onion with its skin
a stalk of chopped celery
2 or more fresh parsley sprigs
1 small sprig of fresh dillweed
1 bay leaf
sea salt to taste
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for an hour or more. Then pour through a sieve, or cheesecloth, and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
When making soup, into each person’s bowl ladle 1-1/2 to 2 cups well-seasoned, well-strained, very hot, chicken broth. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Into this, place
1/2 of 1 hard-boiled egg sliced lengthwise. Be sure the yellow yolk shows itself.
Sprinkle with a lot of finely chopped parsley. Serve croutons in side bowls.
Russians eat a lot of bread. Rye is thought to be healthful and muscle-building. Wheat, on the other hand, is felt to “put on weight.” The bread that we enjoyed in Russia was dense and filling. Rye, especially, was fragrant.
Russian Rye Bread
In a large bowl combine 2 Tbsp. active dry yeast and 1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F). Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Stir in 1/3 cup dark corn syrup or molasses. Set aside until the yeast forms bubbles.
Add 2-1/2 cups dark rye flour and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth.
Then add 1 tsp. sea salt and stir in well. Cover the bowl with a clean towel, set it in a warm place, and allow the “sponge” to rise for about a half hour.
Once it has risen, add by quarter-cup amounts 2 more cups of flour. Stir well after each addition. Keep adding more flour (up to 5 or 5-1/2 cups) until the dough becomes difficult to stir but not dry. Then turn it all out onto a surface floured with unbleached white flour, and knead until the dough is stiff but still slightly sticky.
(Note: Novices sometimes become confused when discovering that white flour will, indeed, produce the “satiny” dough that cookbooks describe, but that whole grains often do not. These doughs remain slightly moist and never become shiny. Greasing the hands lightly with butter facilitates kneading at this stage. The secret of good rye bread, especially, is not to add too much flour but to let it rise fully, which may take some time.)
Form the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl where it can rise until almost doubled. Turn it onto a floured surface again and form it into a loaf. Place it into a well-greased 9- by 5-inch baking pan and allow to rise again. When well risen, bake in a 350-degree F oven for about 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped with a finger.
Dark rye isn’t the only bread that Russians like. Our hosts in Kotlas spread large, shining, orange-colored pearls of salmon caviar over small, buttered disks of white bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One was always ravenous for more. Eaten immediately after toasting with Vodka, the oil of both butter and caviar, it was said, prevented drunkenness! (Note: Drunkenness is reportedly epidemic in Russia. We saw little. Hedrick Smith, former bureau chief of the New York Times in Moscow, however, tells a different story. He was, he says, invited to a splendid feast in Georgia where many toasts were made, and where he gave his share. Keeping a careful watch over his emotions, observing his body, nothing seemed to be happening. He wasn’t confused or hilarious or sad or stumbling or anything that might be attributed to drunkenness. But all of a sudden, he remembers, he became simply paralyzed. His limbs wouldn’t move, his mouth wouldn’t speak. He had to be literally carried to his home where he awoke the next morning – but without a hangover. Vodka is potent stuff. In spite of salmon caviar.)
All during our visit we were served potatoes. There are, of course, many varieties. Some are ‘waxy’ and perfect for salads where it’s necessary to retain form. Others are mealy: perfect for mashing. Still others are big and oval for baking. There are tiny fingerlings. Needless to say, with fingerlings especially, it’s useless to peel. In fact, since most of a potato’s nutrients lie just under the skin, it’s important not to peel before cooking.
Kotlas Potato Salad
Wash thoroughly 8 medium-sized ‘waxy’ potatoes. Place them in a large pot and cover with water. Add 1 tsp. sea salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, reduce to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are easily pierced by a fork. Drain and set them aside to cool for a bit.
When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, cut them into smallish chunks, and serve them warm after tossing gently with the following dressing.
Vinegar and Oil Dressing
In a capped, glass jar, shake vigorously together:
2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup sunflower seed oil
Pour the vinaigrette over the potatoes and sprinkle with chopped, fresh dill weed.
Please note that sunflower seed oil comes from the native American sunflower imported to Russia many years ago. One of the largest daisies of the family Compositae, the sunflower was collected by Spanish explorers. By 1580 it was a common garden flower in Spain; then explorers introduced it to England and France. From there it spread along the trade routes to Southern Europe, Egypt, Afghanistan, India, and China. It’s said that Tzar Peter the Great introduced it to Russia on his return from visiting the West, and that it soon became a major source of food oil. It’s also reported that the tzars fed their soldiers two pounds of sunflower seeds a day as a staple. With all the argument about what oil is truly healthful, polyunsaturated sunflower seed oil may have to take a back seat to a monounsaturate: extra-virgin olive oil can substitute.
A beet dish with which many Americans are already familiar is basic northern-Russian fare. Cooked with mushrooms, which the people of Kotlas love, and which they gather in the woods, it is unique. Here is Borsch postniy s gribami.
Borsch with Mushrooms
Into a bowl grate 6 medium-sized raw beets. Strain them into a heavy pot and set aside the juice.
Add to the beets 1 chopped scallion and l sliced parsnip.
Pour kvas, or beer diluted with half as much water, over the vegetables until they are barely covered. Bring the mixture to a boil.
salt to taste
1 handful dried mushrooms
1/2 of a small head of cabbage
3 or 4 peeled and cubed potatoes
a handful of cooked pinto or other quick-cooking beans.
1l bay leaf
4 whole cloves
1/2 tsp. marjoram
1 Tbsp. reserved beet juice
Bring again to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until vegetables are cooked and flavors intermingle.
Season with freshly grated black pepper and a thick sprinkling of fresh dill weed.
Serve with soured cream and croutons.
The fresh-water fish soup that northern Russians enjoy is called Ukha and necessitates the use of fish stock. Here is how to make Kotlas Fish Soup – or something like it.
Kotlas Fish Soup
In a large pot place:
3 quarts water
1-1/4 pounds any white fish
1-1/4 pounds perch
Cut the fillets into small morsels and set them aside.
Add to the water:
all the bones and skin remaining from the perch
2 whole chopped onions
5 to 8 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 handful finely chopped parsley
several sprigs fresh dill
1 tsp. salt
Bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until the fish has practically disintegrated. Strain the stock through a fine sieve, and adjust the taste. Return the stock to the pot. Add a few cubed potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are barely cooked. Then add the perch fillet morsels and simmer until they are just tender. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon into the soup. Serve at once, thickly sprinkled with freshly chopped dill weed, grated cheese and croutons.
Of course, one must have an authentic recipe for Beef Stroganoff.
Cut 1-1/2 pounds lean beef, preferably the fillet, into thin, half-inch slices. Pound with a wooden mallet until thin, then cut into l-inch wide strips. Sprinkle freely with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Let the beef stand for one hour. Pat dry.
Dredge the strips in white, unbleached flour. In a skillet, melt 2 Tbsp. butter. Sauté 1/4 cup finely chopped green onions in it till limp. Remove or push aside the onions, add the meat strips, and fry over very high heat until browned, turning once. Remove the meat and onions and add 2 more Tbsp. butter. Sauté 1 cup sliced button mushrooms in it lightly. Return the beef and onion mix. Then add and allow to become warm:
2 Tbsp. tomato sauce
1 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp. white wine
If more sauce is desired, add more warmed sour cream.
Serve over cooked egg noodles.
For dessert, for any time, Kotlassians treated us to freshly picked strawberries and lots of sour cream. Dinner ended with café au lait or chai – Indian tea. From a samovar.
About the author: Jean Ann Pollard and her geologist husband, Peter Garrett, have a CSA Farm in Winslow, Maine. Jean Ann is the author of The Simply Grande Gardening Cookbook, which has gardening notes by Peter.