Russians Labor to Preserve Summer's Bounty
Family weekends are spent at the country home, bottling jams, pickles, and mushrooms
MAKING jams and pickling mushrooms are two pillars of Russian culture. They are national rituals consecrated in Russian literature long ago by Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Nicholas Gogol: They even made it to the opera stage.
Piotr Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" starts with a typical 19th-century rural scene: Act I, Scene 1. "Evening, Mrs Larina is sitting under the tree. She is making jam. She listens to her daughter singing. Filipevna (the maid) is standing next to her, helping her make the jam. The music starts."
Without the symphony orchestra or a maid, most Russian families this summer will still be busy pitting, boiling, salting, and bottling.
Preserving food, at the family level, has been a constant need in agricultural societies around the world. In most of the developed world, the trend has receded with industrialization.
But in Russia it has not, even though almost two-thirds of the population lives in cities.
In almost every high-rise apartment of the Moscow suburbs, one is sure to find jars of homemade black-currant jam, preserved gherkins, and mushrooms in every conceivable form - dried, marinated, or salted. The jars are stocked in bedroom cupboards, under the sink, or on the balcony.
A good 19th-century household stored its supplies in a large larder. Today's city-dwellers make do as best they can, and the balcony is often favored, particularly when winter sets in.
Winter is the key word. Like their ancestors, contemporary Russians seem to spend all spring and summer preparing for the long, cold, and dark winter months.
In May, once the snow has melted and the earth has somewhat dried out, the migrations start.
The storks come back, and the dachniki (vacationers) depart. Come Friday night, like a giant caterpillar, the Zhiguli (small Russian-made cars) make their way slowly out of Moscow - or any other large city.
Don't look for fishing rods or mountain bikes on their roofs; you won't see any. But you cannot miss the young apple tree awkwardly tied to the car or the tomato plants carefully balanced on the back of the car seat. They are being taken to the dacha.
The literal translation of "country-house" does not reflect the hard work that family weekend outings often signify here; the living quarters of a dacha are second in importance to the land that surrounds it. Those who have a dacha are privileged. They can grow what they will need for winter. The others have to make do with what nature offers in its forests, such as berries and mushrooms.
In the late 20th century, when Americans eat Chilean grapes in March and Europeans don't think twice about buying Kenyan green beans in December, Russians by and large still live at the rhythm of the seasons. You eat what you can when the harvest comes, the rest you store.
For the Russian housewife, summer means even harder work than usual. "It starts in June, with the strawberries," says Lara Leonova, a Muscovite whose husband cannot conceive of a weekend without gardening.
"I make jam from those we don't eat. Then it is time for gooseberries, which I put away in the ice compartment of my fridge until it's cold enough, and I store them on the balcony. There they keep through the winter." Like most Russian housewives, Mrs. Leonova does not have a freezer.
"By July the cherries have come out; they make a delicious jam that I just eat by the spoonful," she continues. "But it is a tedious process, pitting them one by one with a pin. Then I prepare raspberry jam, always in small quantities. It is particularly good for children."
Black-currant jam, the tasty classic of Russian kitchens, has acquired its status in part thanks to Josef Stalin. The dreaded dictator imposed a tax on private orchard trees that many people could not afford. They turned to berry bushes instead, which were tax-free, and black-currant bushes in particular have thrived here.
Lara Leonova prepares her black currants in a light syrup and then seals them or sweetens them in jam. "... unlike other fruits, they keep [their nutritional value] when preserved," she explains.
Until recently, it was impossible to find fresh produce out of season. That is not the case today, but the prices still keep them out of many people's reach, and the Russian winter diet still consists mainly of endless variations on potatoes, salted cabbage, and pickled gherkins.
And year after year, Leonova's summer calendar continues to read like a recipe book: after the gherkins, pickled tomatoes, preserved cranberries, plum jam and, later, mushrooms. But that is not until autumn, when another season's work begins.