October 1, 2003｜Russia
Professor, Niigata University of International and Information Studies
A short spring and a little over two months of summer. It would not necessarily be an exaggeration to say that the lives of urban Russians cannot be described without mentioning dacha. Dacha means a “country villa” in Russian. However, what I mean here by a dacha is what might be described as a kitchen garden and a cabin, which is usually built by hand by the owner as a place to stay during the summer, located in the countryside an hour or two away from residential districts. It is also interesting that, even now that the social system has changed, the kitchen garden that can be owned not only by the privileged classes, but also by the common people, is called a “country villa”, as if to boast about the superiority of socialism.
On around 300 to 400 square meters of land, people grow different kinds of vegetable, depending on their tastes, such as potatoes, which are almost their second staple food, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages and onions. One can often find Svekla (sugar beet or beet), which is essential for borscht, the soup that occupies a place in Russian cuisine equivalent to that of miso soup in Japanese cooking. Quite a lot of people plant fruit trees and bushes with edible berries, such as blackcurrants. Incidentally, it was these same dacha that helped to save the country from a food crisis when the Soviet Union was breaking up around 1990.
When the harvest is finished at the end of the summer, the next thing to be done is to preserve such vegetables as tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbages in salt. These salted vegetables are the same as pickles: preserved foods prepared ready for the winter, when there is a shortage of fresh vegetables. Since most households fill dozens of jars as big as three liters, housewives are always very busy around this time of year. It goes without saying that good men are also roped in to help. Just like Japanese miso, which used to be made at home and whose flavor varied depending on the household, the taste of these salted vegetables varies subtly not only according to the amount of salt, but also the kinds and amounts of herbs used, so one of the pleasures of being invited for dinner was eating these salted vegetables. Recently, greenhouse cultivation has become popular and we can buy fresh vegetables in markets and grocery shops even in the middle of winter, but the taste of home-grown food is different.
Autumn arrives briskly around late August and September. Russians call it “golden autumn”, because there are surprisingly few deciduous trees in the forests whose leaves turn red; most turn yellow. People go to the forests in this season to gather mushrooms, called griby in Russian. Quite a lot of people enjoy mushroom-picking in Japan, but their enjoyment is as nothing compared with that of Russian people. Collecting wild edible plants is a major activity in the springtime in Japan, but there can be no comparison with the flurry of activity that accompanies the mushroom-gathering season. Although it is less crowded than during the dacha season, on Saturdays and Sundays buses and trains connecting towns and the countryside become airless, filled to overflowing with young and old carrying backpacks and buckets. In addition, the roads are jam-packed with cars. I myself like mushrooms more than anybody else I know and, although I cannot distinguish edible mushrooms from the poisonous variety, I have relished the delights of mushroom-gathering many times. I don’t know whether it is because the concept of the private ownership of land was lacking for nearly a century under the socialist economic system, or whether it is due to the colossal area of land that the country covers, but I have never seen a noticeboard saying, “Do not gather mushrooms in this forest!”
Of the countless types of mushroom, Russians are most fond of “belye griby”, which literally translated means “white mushroom”. Incidentally, there is something concerning mushrooms, more specifically, the matsutake (pine) mushroom, which seems quite incredible. Matsutake mushrooms grow on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast China, and these are exported to Japan; however, for some reason, these mushrooms are not found in the adjoining territory of the Russian Far East. I wonder whether matsutake mushrooms cannot be grown once one crosses the Amur River.
To return to the point, the mushrooms that have been picked are really delicious when cooked on the spot over a wood fire; alternatively, they can be preserved in salt for a long time with sliced onions and herbs – there is no better accompaniment to vodka than this snack. In addition, if you want to enjoy the aroma and sensation these mushrooms have on the tongue, then they should be dried. In particular, dried belye griby are out of this world. I know of no words that can fully express the aroma and taste of soup made with these.
By the time the mushrooms are dried thoroughly, the bitterly cold season – called moroz in Russian – is well on its way. Even though the cold is not as harsh these days because of the effects of global warming, it is still far colder than the temperatures we describe as “cold” in Japan. The Russian people continue to go about their everyday lives, even in the midst of this moroz.
[Translated by ERINA]