Melting the ice?
Aylin Öney Tan
Melting the ice or freezing the relations? That was the dilemma when Vladimir Putin offered a cone of Russian ice cream to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow last week. Giving messages with food is an age-old practice, now rediscovered by politicians. Like many other new trends related to gastronomy, gastro-diplomacy is a widely discussed concept. It can be considered as a way of promoting the culinary culture of a country, but it may also bear certain messages that cannot be put in words or written on paper. The symbolism of that particular cone of ice cream is yet to be solved by political analysts, or by future historians, but “Plombir,” as the Russians lovingly call their favorite frozen treat, is not even Russian in origin.
Plombir ice cream is a custard-based ice cream, which has a French background. Originally recognized as Glace Plombières, it is described as a milk-based ice cream studded with candied fruit pieces soaked in kirsch, a brandy made from the double distillation of morello cherries. Rumor has it that the recipe owes its existence to be a cover-up of a kitchen failure that happened while preparing a secret dinner party for Napoleon III. The custard the chef prepared lacked the right consistency, and the chef just folded in some candied fruit macerated in kirsch and froze the whole thing into a pretty mold. The dinner occasion was held in Plombières-les-Bains in northeastern France to negotiate the Treaty of Plombières with Count of Cavour Camillo Benso, the prime minister of Sardinia. Since its creation in 1858, it has been regarded as a local specialty and recalled by the name of the place. Actually, such frozen ice creams were already common in Paris where it was made popular by the Italian confectioner Tortoni as early as 1798. So the Plombières dinner could be the crowning of the dessert for an important occasion, served in a fancy way.
Another theory is that it was a molded ice cream, and the name came from the metal containers used to freeze it: “plomb” is the word for lead in French.
Technically, it is more like a frozen cream, which omits the churning process. The cream is directly poured into molds without the hassle of mixing during the freezing process, so it is ideal to be made in big or small containers, either in royal looking spectacular ice cream molds or small individual cups, or small rectangular blocks or popsicles. In a way, it is an easy way of making ice cream if one does not have the right equipment for freezing, and it must be the reason how it was easily adapted to factory-made ice cream. How the French frozen cream created for Napoleon became the Soviet Plombir of proletarian masses is another story, but there was a strong French influence at Russian tables since the first encounters between French and Russian armies, and then legendary French chefs such as Caréme, Urban Dubois and Olivier were influential in shaping elite tables in Tsarist Russia.
In the Soviet times, ice cream was popular and very tasty. Of course, that was the era when artificial flavorings and aromas were unheard of; so were the chemicals. I had the chance to taste the original pure milk version during the years of change back in the early ’90s. The GUM passage was newly restored by a Turkish company, and I was working as a restoration architect on other projects in Moscow. I remember finding an old lady in one of the corners; she would slowly open the icebox and serve me a rectangular frozen block wrapped in foil paper. The ice cream had a pure, clean milk taste, rich with cream. It was dense; one would rather bite it than lick it. Biting shattered the teeth, but one could not do otherwise. Could that be one of the messages one wonders, when Putin told Erdoğan to bite? Was it a message again that he had to bite into the cold truth of failed politics in Syria?
There is another flavor of Plombir-style ice creams in Russia, developed in 1977 with a crème-brûlée glazing that was named after the Battle of Borodino, which the Russians claimed themselves victorious against the Napoleonic armies. I hope Borodino was not the flavor that the Russian president suggested to Erdoğan to taste; at that point, it would possess a message of a battle crowned with victory, according to the Russian side.
I’d rather not speculate on that, but I have a message of my own: The first time I tasted that Soviet ice cream, the taste instantly brought me back to my childhood, not that I’ve been in Russia before or have genes from my grandmother that were grown in Königsberg. Instead, my fond memories came from Ankara, from an ice cream we loved as Atatürk Orman Çiftliği (AOÇ) Dondurması, the ice cream of Atatürk Forestry Farm. It had the same pure concentrated milk taste. It was the first ever factory made ice cream of Turkey using the milk produced in the farm, a state-owned initiation just on the outskirts of Ankara. The historic farm was donated to the public by the Turkish republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and sat among the best-preserved green areas in the capital, but recently, the new presidential palace is to be built in part of it, against Atatürk’s will and despite a preventive court order. It is a known fact that our president is strongly allergic to certain things, so I might speculate that tasting an ice cream having a nametag of the first president of Turkey could cause severe reactions, but he could easily bite into a Plombir without hesitation. Even with the drastic changes, the Russians kept their favorite ice cream alive; we still have AOÇ ice cream, but I doubt we will have it in the near future. That could be the message: keeping some things unchanged can be good thing, even if it is an ice cream that is perishable and melts within seconds. It can bear a taste of victory, a victory of a nation that won battles and created its own self-sustained republic, just as our good old AOÇ stood for!