Food and Drink

The Russian word for hospitality, khleb-sol' , translates literally as "bread-salt". This not only evokes the traditional Russian greeting for arriving guests -- a presentation of fresh bread and salt-- but also underlines the importance of these two commodities to the Russian people.

First, bread. Bread and grain products formed the basis of the Russian diet for the common people and was important even to the princely class. Common bread was usually made of rye (winter-sown) in the north; in the south, wheat bread was a bit more common. It was usually leavened. The wealthy (and the common people, on feast days) often added a second bread, made with honey and poppy seed. All parts of the various grains grown were put to good use. Oats, grown primarily for horses, was also used by humans, as were the minor crops of barley and millet. Grains could be grown to produce flour for pastries, pancakes, fritters and pies; made into frumenty; or the groats used for gruels and pottages. Flax and hemp seeds, besides being used to produce vegetable oil for frying and cooking, were also cooked with peas as a separate dish. And grain was also used in the manufacture of beer; more about which in a moment.

Salt was a major industry in Russia. It could be mined in the form of rock salt, collected from river deltas, or (the most common method) crystallized from sea water or water from underground sources. Though we do not today think of salt as a "spice", to the people of medieval Europe it was absolutely vital to preserving meat for long periods of time, and in Russia, where the winters are long, it was doubly important. All varieties of meat and fish were commonly preserved with salt. Other spices, particularly pepper, ginger, and cloves, were used for seasoning, as were onion and garlic, two particular Russian favourites. Honey was also a valuable commodity, and the keeping of bees was regulated by law.

The most familiar meats to most people in Russia were beef, mutton and pork, which if used fresh was either boiled or grilled or put into pottages. A wide variety of game animals were available as well; virtually anything that moves could be and was eaten (including bear). However, game rights were restricted mostly to wealthy landowners, and there were also religious prohibitions about eating "vermin" (most usually squirrel, which was far more valuable for its fur) or animals which were strangled or otherwise killed without letting blood; in the eleventh century, however, these would probably not have been strictly enforced. Probably the most common game animal was rabbit or hare. Most poultry also fell under the category of game. Most common were geese, chickens, duck, pigeons, and crane, but once again, literally anything was game. The wealthy could dine on such birds as pheasant and swan. Russia was also known for its fish. The Church enforced Wednesday and Friday as fish days, and the wide availability of fish made it a popular choice on all days. Most common were pike-perch, bream, whitefish, and smelts; the upper classes preferred salmon and sturgeon. A later account lists at least 35 varieties of fish available in Russia. As mentioned earlier, fish was usually salted or smoked if not eaten immediately.

Fruits and vegetables were either eaten raw, boiled, or baked into pies. Turnips were a mainstay (later replaced by potatoes). Cabbage, carrots, beetroot, radishes, and peas were widely used as well. All of these vegetables could also be pickled; cucumbers were nearly always eaten this way. As for fruits, these included apples (imported at this time), pears, cherries, and plums, as well as berries, which were gathered in woods and meadows, along with various fungi and nuts. A special treat was imported lemons preserved with salt.

Each Russian home had a stove, as archaeological evidence demonstrates. In the eleventh century, these took the form of half-spheres about 3'-4' in diameter, with a hole in the top for the smoke to escape and a hole in the side for access to the fire. Stoves were usually placed on a raised platform in Novgorod due to the wet soil. The typical stove was made of wattle and daub on a stone foundation. It was built over a frame of bent rushes, which then burnt off once the stove was fired. The hole in the top was used for boiling and frying, while the hot ashes inside the stove were used for baking and grilling.

As Vladimir is supposed to have said when rejecting Islam because of its prohibitions against alcohol, "Rus' loves to drink, we cannot be without it". Indeed, most of the beverages used by the Rus' were fermented to some degree. The two most common drinks were mead and kvas'. Mead was made from honey and sometimes flavoured with spices or fruit. Kvas', a very lightly fermented, almost non-alcoholic beer, was made from rye, barley or other grains, or even from leftover pastry or bread flour or crumbs; it could be flavoured or sweetened with sugar or honey as well. From the eleventh century on, we have clear evidence of the availability of beer, both lighter beers (braga) and stronger ones, both of which may have been hopped (hops grow wild in the area). Brewing of all drinks was often done for special occasions, such as weddings or festivals. Finally, there is wine, which was well-loved by those who could afford it, as it had to be imported. Vodka as we know it, of course, is a later beverage, as it is made from potatoes, although the method in which it is made may have been known quite early.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.