Will the real Borstch please stand up?
By Franz Scheurer
Always on the lookout for old cookbooks I found ‘The Russian Cook Book’ compiled and translated by Princess Alexandre Gagarine and published in London in 1924. It’s a wonderful book giving you an insight into the Russian psyche and some terrific recipes to boot. I was particularly enchanted to learn all about Borstch, the famous beetroot soup from Southern Russia.
Real Russian Borstch’s most important ingredients are beetroot, kvass and sourovetz. Every rural household in Russia (and many suburban ones) will have kvass and sourovetz happily fermenting away in their cellars. If we want to make authentic Borstch then it will take a bit of work, but it is no doubt worth it.
Here is Princess Alexandre’s recipe (and I quote from the book):
Clean wash and scrape beetroot. Cut into pieces. Fill wooden tub or barrel with alternate layers of cut and whole beetroots, well washed. Pour in cold water so that no empty place remains. Seal tub and keep in the cellar. The kvass will be ready for use in two weeks. It can be kept the whole winter if the quantity of water is kept constant and any mildew that appears wiped or skimmed off. The proportion is 5 large beetroots to 4 litres of water. This kvass is used only for cooking.
(There is a recipe for ‘drinking kvass’ in the book as well)
3 kg dry buckwheat bread
2 lt water
Put the buckwheat bread into a wooden tub or barrel, pour over boiling water, and when water has cooled add 2lt cold water and ½ cake of brewers yeast, previously softened with ½ cup lukewarm water. Keep tub in kitchen or warm pantry until the liquid begins to ferment; then remove to a cool cellar. Always add as much cold water to the tub as is taken out. It will keep for several months.
3 cups beetroot kvass
1 cup sourovetz
1 kg beef
500g ribs of mutton
4 large beetroots
3 stalks of celery
Parsley and fennel leaves
4 large potatoes
250g salted pork
1 tbs flour
1 egg yolk
1 large white onion
½ cup cream
Take 3 cups of beetroot kvass, 1 cup sourovetz and mix with 3 litres plain water, adding 4 teaspoons of salt. Put into saucepan 1kg beef, 1 trussed fowl, and place on fire. When it begins to boil remove scum and continue boiling until fowl is quite tender. Eke out, leaving beef in saucepan. Add 1 whole beetroot, 3 large chopped beetroots, 3 chopped carrots, 3 stalks celery and 3 sprigs parsley. When well cooked add 500g ribs of mutton. One hour before using add a small young cabbage, cut into 6 or 8 part, and 4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces. Cut 250g of salt pork into small pieces, put into a wooden mortar add 1 tbs flour, 1 onion and about a tablespoon fennel and parsley leave chopped fine. Pound with a wooden pestle until it is a smooth green paste. Put into saucepan with the cooking borstch and boil until everything is well mixed. When the cabbage and potatoes are tender add 2 fresh tomatoes, drained, seeded and cut into pieces. Put in soup tureen 1 egg yolk and ½ cup sour cream. Add the Borstch gradually, stirring constantly. Cut fowl and mutton into pieces and put into soup tureen. The beef should not get left in tureen (it usually goes for the servants’ dinner).
All kinds of things are eaten with Borstch: hard-boiled eggs, rusks made of buckwheat or sour cream.
So you see all you need is a couple of barrels, a cellar, some cold weather and understanding neighbours. If you have ever made your own sauerkraut then you might be able to imagine the smell of fermenting sourovetz.
The above is just the ‘basic’ recipe. There are many variations adding fish, nettles, sausages and a particularly refined version with beetroot quenelles.
Let me know what it’s like when you have tried the recipe…