From Russia with love

Karl Wells
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Young couple celebrates the foods of their past

When Rafael Safine was a schoolboy in Moscow during the 1970s he was made to sing the following song.

Lenin is always with you

In sorrow, in health

And in happiness

When Rafael Safine was a schoolboy in Moscow during the 1970s he was made to sing the following song.

Lenin is always with you

In sorrow, in health

And in happiness

In every single week

And in every single day

Lenin in me and in you

Remembering it now he says, "Sometimes that kind of creeped me out. It was kind of scary, I guess, to a kid that Lenin was everywhere. I just wanted to be a kid and be away from any kind of ideology."

Over 10 years later Rafael could smell the winds of freedom blowing from the West. No longer singing Lenin's praises he was one of hundreds, armed with nothing more than a metal rod, who were prepared to die in defence of their freely elected leader, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian parliament building nicknamed the White House. This was after Kremlin dinosaurs had attempted a coup, which in the end failed miserably.

I heard this story over a wonderful luncheon prepared for me at the Witless Bay home of Rafael Safine and his beautiful wife, Valeria. The couple met here in St. John's. Both came to Canada and eventually to Newfoundland by their own separate paths. Valeria grew up in Kharkov, Ukraine, very close to the Russian border. Kharkov is about eight hours from Moscow by train. Their backgrounds are similar. Because of the proximity of their hometowns they essentially come from the same culture, sharing a common language and cuisine.

Russian food

My lunch with the Safines came about after I'd mentioned I was interested in learning about Russian food. Valeria graciously offered to make some dishes for me to taste. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. Together the couple arranged a table filled with family favourites - a combination of dishes from Moscow and Kharkov.

According to Rafael picking mushrooms is as popular in Russia as fishing is in Newfoundland. "I was going out picking mushrooms with my dad when I was five or six," he said. Porcini mushrooms are a favourite in Russia so we began with a porcini mushroom soup. It was made from dried mushrooms, onions, potatoes and broken spaghetti. The soup was wholesome, earthy and delicious.

Russia is famous for caviar and the Safines would love to be able to enjoy it, but the cost is prohibitive. Black or red caviar is served on special occasions with fresh bread and butter. However, when cost is an object it's quite common to see smoked salmon on bread at many Russia celebrations, in lieu of caviar. During my visit we had a feast of the most beautiful smoked salmon on fresh bread, topped with fresh dill. There seemed to be dill on every dish. Valeria explained that dill is the Russian version of Newfoundland savoury.

Speak about bread to any Russian and they suddenly get very serious. Rafael explained.

"Bread is sacred in Russia. It's a symbol of life. It helped a lot of Russians survive through tough times. It's treated with a lot of respect and love. And when you're baking it that is very, very important. My grandmother always told me that, and my mom, too. She says you're not supposed to swear when you're making your dough or else your bread won't rise. My grandmother would say that you're not allowed to say a single bad word that there should be only good energy.

"People respect it and make it with love and I guess that's the secret of why it's so good. White bread is most popular but in Ukraine there's a lot of rye bread, but the rye bread here does not taste the same. We have white and black bread we call it. The taste is different and the shapes as well. We have baguettes and bricks."

Meat dishes

In addition to salami - a staple in Russia and countries like Hungary and Germany - the Safines had prepared a couple of meat dishes. One was called, holodets, which means "cold" dish. It was meat in aspic. Turkey legs had been boiled, the meat removed from the bone and spread out in a shallow glass dish. Turkey broth was then poured over the turkey meat and it was chilled in the fridge until the liquid had set.

Valeria told me that in Ukraine pork is very popular and that Ukrainian bacon, called salo, is famous all over Russia. In Kharkov, pork was always featured at special dinners such as New Year's Eve supper. Valeria had made a pork dish where pork cutlets were pounded out, topped with onions, mayonnaise and cheese and then baked. The taste of this combination was terrific.

We had salads, too. One was a mixture of grated carrot and mushrooms, another carrot, garlic and mayonnaise. (Mayonnaise is a Russian staple.) Then there was Moscow salad. The best description of it would be potato salad with bits of roast beef mixed throughout. Vinaigrette is a French word but Russian cuisine uses the word to describe a specific salad made of beets and potato. A fifth salad was one made with English cucumber and tomatoes and dressed simply with salt, pepper and vegetable oil. There were no dressings like Ranch, Thousand Islands and Catalina in the Soviet Union when Valeria and Rafael were growing up.

I asked about beverages in Russia. I was curious to know what people drank with their meals. Rafael told me about something called kvass.

"It's a drink that's actually based on rye. It's not an alcoholic beverage. Kvass is a bit sweet and a bit tangy. It's delicious. It has a few bubbles in it. It's not strongly carbonated. It's brown in colour like dark beer. These days it's manufactured in one-litre, two-litre, all kinds of bottles - sweet, with gas, without gas - but when I was a kid a guy would come and pull in with a truck with a big cistern on it and he'd just park it. On one side of it there would be a little tap and a table and everyone would come up, line up with their five-litre metal can and you'd just open the tap, fill it and bring it home. That was the best tasting kvass I ever tried. When I go to Russia I try all different kinds but that is the best one I ever tried. Nothing can ever live up to the kvass from childhood."

Blinis and tea

We finished our Russian/Ukrainian repast with a plateful of blinis. They're very thin crepes filled with, in this case, cream cheese. A dollop or two of blueberry and cherry preserves was spooned on top. We enjoyed them with a lovely cup of tea. The Russians like Indian tea. Valeria and Rafael served me some they'd brought back from their last trip to Moscow. I had it Russian style, black with a few slices of lemon in it. It was very refreshing.

I'll conclude with a story Rafael told Valeria and I during our excellent lunch. It was an account of the time he left Newfoundland and moved to British Columbia to be with his friends. He only lasted one year in B.C. because, as he told me, "I missed Newfoundland so much." I commented that I thought he had become a true Newfoundlander.

With that he insisted the only way he could explain his love for Newfoundland to me was by reciting a poem by an obscure 17th century Governor of Harbour Grace named Robert Hayman. Rafael didn't read the poem. He actually recited it from memory as follows.

The Aire in Newfound-land is wholesome, good;

The Fire as sweet as any made of wood;

The Water's, very rich, both salt and fresh;

The Earth more rich, you know it is no lesse.

Where all are good, Fire, Water, Earth and Air,

What man made of these four would not live there?

I thanked my friends and left Witless Bay with a full belly and a warm heart.

Valeria Safine's Porcini Mushroom Soup

Ingredients:

50g of dried porcini mushrooms

2 litres of water

1 medium onion, cut in small pieces

2-3 tbsp of butter

2 medium potatoes, cut in pieces

50g of spaghetti pasta, broken in two-inch pieces.

Salt and black pepper to taste

Method:

Wash porcini mushrooms well under running water. In a medium sized pot combine water and mushrooms together. Cover and bring to a boil on a high heat. Lower the heat and boil gently for 15-20 minutes or until mushrooms are almost cooked. Remove from heat.

Drain mushrooms, reserving the water. Cut mushrooms in small pieces.

Heat butter in a frying pan on medium high heat. Add onions and fry them for about three minutes, stirring constantly. Add mushrooms to the pan and fry for another five minutes until mushrooms and onions slightly brown.

Add mushrooms and onions to reserved water. Cover and bring to a boil. Add potato and boil for five minutes. Add spaghetti and boil for another 10 minutes, or until both potato and pasta are cooked. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, while hot.

Geographic location: Russia, Moscow, Newfoundland Kharkov Ukraine Witless Bay St. John's Canada Hungary Germany Thousand Islands Soviet Union British Columbia B.C.

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