I was invited to an event at Mari Vanna (see our review), the extraordinarily decorative Russian restaurant in Knightsbridge, to celebrate the pagan festival of Maslenitsa.It seemed like a great opportunity to eat and drink with Russians celebrating their own food culture. Translated variously as pancake or dairy week, Maslenitsa is an joyous riot of eating and drinking to mark the end of winter. The Festival also functions as a pre-Lenten splurge before the rigours of abstinence test body and soul. I’m planning to skip Lent this year-well it’s good to give something up…but Maslenitsa sounds like my kind of party.
What did I learn? That the roots of Russian peasant food are the staples of warming soups and porridge. That as with British food culture much of what we associate with Russian food has its roots elsewhere, sometimes Western Europe but also further east, in the cuisines of China, Japan and Asia. That Russian food is not as regional as you might expect-an Imperial empire demanded consistency. And that if you have some herring, beetroot, pickles, boiled potatoes and vegetables bound together with mayonnaise on the table then you are probably channelling your inner babushka correctly.
Apart from caviar Russia’s greatest gift to gastronomy is Service a la Russe. Originating in the Imperial Court it allowed for courses to be served sequentially. Before this innovation all dishes were served at once in a grand display leading to a lot of cold food. However in the ordinary Russian home the old habits persist and for a celebration such as this the table is laden with many dishes at once.
At Mari Vanna we are in the ultimate pimped up fantasy dacha so it seemed appropriate to start proceedings with a Russian take on a Bellini. Oblepiha’s Dream was a blend of Passion fruit, Russian Standard original vodka, champagne and home made oblepiha mors (sea-buckthorn juice-you mean you’ve never tried it?). Like a Bellini but sweet and sour at the same time.
To act as some ballast to the alcohol Cabbage and meat Pierogi arrived. The pastry was unexpectedly light and the filling much more delicate and less stodgy than I expected.
By this point I was drinking shots of horseradish vodka from the restaurant’s flavoured vodka menu (see the review…) which went brilliantly with the next dish-Herring and beetroot salad was again much more subtle than it might have been. I worship herring in all its manifestations and here the sharpness of the pickling was softened by the sweetness of the beetroot.
Olivier Salad is a big deal for the Russians. In this version it is a Russian Salad with pieces of Ox tongue scattered amongst the veg and mayo gloop. It was created in the 19th century by a Belgian chef who ran a Moscow restaurant called Hermitage and has somehow remained popular. I think the Russians need to move on-why not serve a blend of caviar in a vodka gelee as a salad?
However the Pickled cabbage and Carrot salad was a triumph of pickled crunch which I am renaming the O’Toole salad …
By this point I am surrounded by glamorous, intelligent women-how could things get better? Well they do as they table is filled up with the main event-plates of pancakes. I know now that blini refers to all pancakes and not just the small ones that you buy in Waitrose as a last minute canape. They were light and eggy, almost like a crepe and fillings included, meat, mushroom and cheese, smoked salmon, salmon roe with sour cream, boiled egg and onion, and finally sweet ones with fresh berries and jam. I really enjoy eating pancakes, they give me a sense of childish pleasure, so I eat quite a lot of them…
By the end of the evening old international alliances have been reestablished and new ones forged. Twitter has blazed with tales of Chekovian loos and horseradish high jinks and we all had a very good time. Happy Maslenitsa!