While at Angletica in Syktyvkar, one of my greatest pleasures came at lunchtime, when we would habitually cross ул. Интернациональная to dine at Mario’s.
Occasionally we would go elsewhere, particularly towards the end of my stay when the classrooms moved to the other end of ул. коммунистическая, but even then we would regularly call up to have our food delivered.
There were a number of meals I enjoyed from Mario’s — essentially everything that wasn’t the boiled beef tongue. For approximately 300 roubles you could enjoy three courses and a drink, and with a menu that varied throughout the week I tried a fair few of the dishes while I was there.
But by far my favourite thing to eat, however (well, except from the eggy chicken thing they only sold on Fridays), was borsch. At first I was a little less than convinced — beetroot soup? With a dollop of mayonnaise or soured cream on top? Pass — but I was an immediate convert. When it’s -20 outside and you can’t feel your own face, there’s nothing better than a bowl of borsch to bring you back to life.
Ever since I returned from Russia at the end of last year, I have been meaning to try to make it myself. I acquired a number of recipes before I left, but having only just got around to actually giving it a go I unfortunately can no longer remember any of them. I took to the internet in the hope of finding something that looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps I could rustle something up.
The problem was, of course, that I have never ‘rustled’ anything up in my life. A kitchen to me is a fridge, a kettle and a microwave — everything else may as well be decoration. I like food, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand it. The idea that a meal isn’t simply magicked into existence but constructed from individual elements is one that confuses me immensely. Naturally, I was rubbish at Chemistry, too.
Nevertheless, I was determined to give it my best shot, so before nipping off to Tesco for ingredients I sourced a number of recipes from various websites. Unable to find one that matched my own memory of borsch, I rather impetuously decided to drop ingredients and combine recipes to better fit my own definition. Out went the carrots and kidney beans, while I took beef stock from one site and shallots from another.
One thing featured in every recipe I looked at was dill. For all I knew this could have been a vegetable, a spice or a lesser known cut of beef, yet for some reason I never bothered to search for an image on Google before setting off. I eventually found it, however, and added it to my basket with the other ingredients. Wise enough to know that it was unpickled beetroot (also known as beets, for anyone else who had never put two and two together) I was after, I opted against the vacuum-packed cooked beetroot and picked up the packet next to it.
I got home to find that I had nevertheless bought cooked beetroot anyway, but decided to go ahead with the recipe, modifying it as necessary. First I fried the shallots until “golden brown(ish)”, before adding the beetroot and vinegar, covering and cooking on a “low heat(ish)”. While that was cooking I boiled the potatoes and cabbage in another pan, before adding in the fried shallots and beetroot. I then proceeded to spray garlic everywhere and sprinkle in as little dill as I could while still counting it as an ingredient.
It certainly looked the part. The water was so purple it looked like I’d just boiled Justin Bieber, though worryingly it also smelled as though I had just boiled Justin Bieber. I ladled out a bowlful, dropped a dollop of soured cream on top and took a picture. Needless to say it was awful: I’d used the wrong kind of vinegar (apparently there are kinds…plural) and forgotten to season it, so it was almost completely tasteless, aside from the occasional crunch of undercooked cabbage.
Unperturbed, I decided to keep cooking it until everything was soft and flavoursome. Having only used one of the two hours recommended cooking time for reasons I can no longer remember, I put on an episode of The Fall (which is excellent, by the way) and left it to do some more cooking on its own. Sixty minutes of gripping, advert-free television later I returned to find a fog of beef stock and vegetable matter that had fused to the pan.
The next day — having washed the pan from the night before approximately a million times — I set out to buy raw, unpackaged beetroot in order to try again. I had been smart enough to use Google this time, and found it after only a few minutes next to the rest of the vegetables that nobody ever seems to buy. I didn’t need anything else, so I walked to the till clutching six beets tied together at the stalks, and tried my best not to look like the craziest person ever and be forever known as The Beetroot Man.
Determined not to fail a second time I decided to actually make use of the recommended preparation time. I “chopped(ish)” and “diced(ish)” the vegetables even more finely than before, rewashed the previous night’s pan again, then stored each ingredient in its own little white pot like you see on those cooking channels. Using a different recipe I boiled the shallots in stock, instead of frying them, for half an hour with substantially more dill than before. Only then did I move on to the next step.
Thirty minutes later I fried the beetroot in margarine, adding stock from the “broth(ish)” as it was needed. This went on for an hour until the recipe called for the cabbage and potatoes to be added to the shallots. Separately, I “sauteed(ish)” the garlic in yet more margarine, adding it to the pan only when the broth had finished cooking, an hour and a half after starting out. At this point the beetroot was also added, and the broth left for a final five minutes. And then another ten because the potatoes were still hard.
As you might imagine, having only added the beetroot minutes before the end, the borsch was not as purple as I remembered it being. Regardless, the results weren’t bad, if I may say so myself, and I even managed to stomach some of it. Although not up to Mario’s standards, it was sweet enough, and once the soured cream had been added it defied its relative lack of colour to look the part, too.
Sadly, that authentic oily, slightly frothy appearance means that nobody else is willing to so much as try it. I may have to prepare the beef tongue as way of encouragement.