I rather think that Carl Fabergé never envisaged creating precious objets d’art using vegetables as subjects – decorative eggs, flowers, locomotives; why not a gorgeous globe artichoke? But if Fabergé and his workshop had been the Tsar’s chefs, and not jewellers, I have no doubt that one of their prized raw materials would have been the beetroot that is both pigmented and sweet-tasting – the edible parallel to the famed semi-precious gems and minerals from the Urals.
I cannot remember exactly how cold I was in this picture, it was taken during a March visit to Russia. The canteen of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg was chilly enough for me to keep my scarf around my neck. We are warming ourselves on bowls of borshch, the beetroot-based stew (the other dish on the table is Russian vinaigrette vegetable salad with kissel berry drink). We just had a memorable visit to the snow-covered Tikhvin Cemetery; a slightly unnerving experience of being surrounded by graves of so many known names in such a relatively small space, rather like the deserted luggage in an airport VIP departure lounge – ‘look who this one is’. I have pictures of many elaborate memorials –Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin – but the one I wish I had taken was which was just outside the chant-filled monastery church. It was the simple grave of Gorky’s chauffeur; an irreligious arrangement of iron wheels and chains.
These memories returned to us as we ate Prof. Edible’s borshch; always good, this was the first he had made from (left-over) mutton and its stock. Such is the well-attested power of recall invested in taste and aromas that we both recognised the authentic flavour from the Monastery canteen. Details of the St. Petersburg morning visit came back from eight years ago: the babushka behind the counter shushing the arguing customers, the young lanky orthodox monk who leaped from his booth to extract an entrance fee from our ‘pilgrimage party’ of two and the unsuccessful bribe-touting guard at the Metro station.
Russian ‘icons’ of their times – is too much gold ever enough?
Do you know the land where the quince tree blooms?
In sharp contrast to the chilly monastery, a few nights earlier we had been taken to a Georgian restaurant off the Arbat in Moscow. The food of Georgia is said to have benefited the national cuisine of Russia much as the food of the Mediterranean has that of northern European (hence my mangling of Goethe’s famous line). Fresh produce, strong flavours and substantial wines, together with a national reputation for hospitality, has made Georgian food a surrogate for the enviably warm south itself. In fact the interior of Moscow restaurant was more extravagantly decorated inside than any Chianti-bottle hung Italian restaurant that attempts to cheer the populus of a winter city. After this length of time I cannot recall the food we ate – except it was, of course, delectable – but the theatrical decor based on a Georgian vineyard still brings out a wry smile on my face. Yes, there was a beamed courtyard and assorted vinery paraphernalia. Yes, fake vines were hung with fat bunches of grapes – but a stream trickling through a meandering depression in the cobbled floor? That takes the biscotti.
That is as close to the Republic of Georgia that I been to, but a BBC News feature reminded me that last year two lots of people we know went there for different reasons. They came back with stories of remote caravanserai and churches, the old town in the capital, Tbilisi, bizarrely rebuilt and land farmed by Sikhs from the Punjab (as it had been by German immigrants, before Stalin eventually had them deported).
To send our friends off we cooked a Georgian meal as best we could from cookbooks and the internet (for our pains we got some lovely spicy jam from the home of the quince on their return).
Beetroot pkhali was a must for this meal as it included grated cooked beetroot and the uniquely Georgian ground walnut sauce. Like borshch there is a multitude of variations on the basic recipe. (Yotam Ottolenghi’s book ‘Jerusalem’ highlights the old Georgian community in that city and his reconstructed beetroot pkhali leaves the ingredients separate on the plate rather than chopped and mixed). I have given rough quantities for the ingredients that I used and if you are adventurous enough to make it you will probably have some idea of how to adjust to your taste.
3 large beetroot cooked, skinned and grated (ours was from Neil’s smallholding stall in the centre of Swansea Market)
2 handfuls of roasted walnuts
2 cloves garlic
A small onion
3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley
Teaspoonful of ground coriander seed
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Quarter teaspoon of ground fenugreek seed
White wine vinegar to taste
Salt to taste
Being a lazy cook at heart I processed all the ingredients excepting the beetroots. After some research I found that a vital part of the technique was to leave it for at least a day in the fridge, but after three days it was even better. This may be as authentic as the interior of the Georgian restaurant in Moscow, but believe me it is just as a pleasant an experience.
John Gerard on Beetroot.
Gerard’s ‘great red and beautifull Beete’ refers to the leaves although he encourages ‘the curious and cunning cooke’ to experiment with the root. It would be another century before the swollen root that we know today was available.
The great red and beautifull Beete last described may be used in winter for a sallade herbe with vinegar, oile , and salt. lt please to the taste, but also delightfull to the eie.
The greate red Beete or Romaine Beete and eaten with oile, vinegar and pepper is a most excellent and delicate sallade: but what might be made of the red and beautiful roote (which is to be preferred before the leaves, as well in beautie as in goodnesse) I referre unto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view threof, and is assured that it is both good and holsome, will make thereof many and divers dishes both faire and good.
‘The Herbal or General Historie of Plantes gathered by John Gerarde of London, Master of Chirurgerie’ (1597).