From Russia with a loaf of love

From Russia with a loaf of love

Aylin Öney TAN -
From Russia with a loaf of love It must all be about the road.

I realize this, more correctly, I remember this, as soon as I step into the Novosibirsk train station. It’s a hot humid July night. As I try to drag my many pieces of luggage in sweat, I try to imagine the place in the icy cold snowy winter. I’m about to start a voyage covering a relatively short bit of the grand Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Mongolia. I’m spending the last bits of my hard-earned money on this journey, and I’m not even in the mood. My trip coincided with personal mishaps leaving me distressed and unenthusiastic. Fears for the future linger in my mind with the stress of all the work I have left behind, as well as the sticky thought of “Was it worth it?”

Train trips supposedly contain thrill and excitement, but this one seems set to be grim. The train platform is dark and gloomy, the compartments shabby. There is a noticeable feeling of despair in the group as we try to sort out how to make our beds and to fit in our many pieces of luggage. I hear the whistle; as the train pulls away from the station the rhythmic sound of the rails instantly bring back distant memories.

I fondly remember my childhood train voyages with my mother and father starting at Ankara Train Station to my dream destination, Istanbul. It was always a joy leaving Ankara; I never had the same exhilaration on the way back. Arriving in Istanbul was a total thrill. The moment we stepped out at Haydarpaşa train station, it was only the sea that stretched beyond us, and the sudden sight that the European side was out there to explore. Stepping down from the stairs of the station, I somehow always felt a sense of liberation as I light-heartedly imagined myself like the seagulls flying alongside the ferry.

The Trans-Siberia Railway was supposed to be an exploration of the foodways across eastern Russia through Siberia and the Mongolian steppes. However, memories of family strangely keep rolling through my mind... Like watching an aquarium, I carelessly keep gazing out the window... Our train stops at a station and we rush out to grab some food and take photos. The loaves of dark Borodinsky bread are just the way grandma liked them. My German grandmother from Königsberg in Russia must have survived on it. She always picked crumbles with her finger tips, never wasting a single one. I remember her glassy light blue eyes staring into an endless twilight zone as she silently savored her dark bread spread with butter. Rye bread was a rare find in Ankara; she must have missed it when she settled in the city in the early Republican years of Turkey. Whenever she found a loaf, she enjoyed the bread in an almost religious silence... Did she remember the soldiers during World War I marching their way back to Germany, passing by their doorstep in deep snow in Königsberg? I’ll never know. But I know that she loved the bread.

There is a congregation of food vendors silently displaying their goods on the platform. Fresh wild strawberries, a few neon-green pickles, dark bread, unidentified fried objects, cabbage salad, drinks, sausages... I take pictures of various dumplings and pelmeni, and have some to taste. Another reason I decided to take this journey was because of a paper I did for the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery. Having made research on dumplings all the way from Asia to Anatolia, I’m quite fixated about discovering everything related to dumplings. I cheer up considerably when I find many dumplings on sale. The food on the platform continues to bring back memories. My paternal grandmother, an almost translucently white Caucasian lady, must have known these, but she never cooked one. But God she liked every wheat product on earth! Shockingly green fresh dill pickles make me think of my mother. The cucumbers are crunchy and the brine slightly sweet, just as mom likes. My mother is incredible; at 80 she has the charm, the naïveté and the drive of a teenager. She is as enthusiastic about life as ever, never complaining, but always carrying on. I remember her joy when she found German-style pickles in Turkey just a week ago.

Food in the dining carriage is far from exciting. However, there is fresh salad, good bread and cold Baltika beer. I skip the food and enjoy the rest, but soon discover about the consequences of Baltika boozing. The toilets are not ideal for frequent visiting. I shrug and take another sip... I realize that this voyage is about my mother and grandmother, to be like those strong ladies, never to give up, never to lose hope and never complain, even if life is harsh on you... This train trip turns out to be a voyage to the future, through my own past, remembering and thinking about life through a loaf of bread, a loaf of love for grandmother, mother and me!

Borodinsky bread liberates my thoughts. I buy a loaf for my daughter.

I skip Baltika and switch to vodka, bread, butter, and pickles...

This is the essence of a train voyage: to go away, to start anew!

Read of the Week: My companion book on this Trans-Siberia trip was by the admirable Sharon Hudgins: “The other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far-East” by Texas A&M University Press. Her parallel paper on “Russian pelmeni” to my “Asian-Turkish dumplings” at Oxford Symposium was just as enlightening as her book on this part of the world.

Recipe of the Week: This recipe is for a three liter jar. Modify the amount according to your needs. Wash and pat dry two kilos of pickling cucumbers. Pack them vertically into a sterilized jar wrapped in a blanket. Put a leaf of horse-radish, a few strands of dill, a few cloves of garlic, a handful of whole peppers and a couple of black currant leaves in the jar. Pour hot boiling water in the jar and wait for it to cool for 15 minutes. Transfer the water into a saucepan, add two tablespoons of vinegar, two tablespoons of sugar, 100 grams of salt and bring to a boil. Pour the hot liquid back into the jar. Seal and turn the jar upside down until its cool. Keep in a cool, dark place.

Bite of the week

Cork of the week: From Russia with vodka. This should have been the title for the famed Bond movie! My standard is Green Mark Rye Vodka, which goes perfectly with rye bread and pickles.

Fork of the week: Only if we could get Borodinsky bread all over the word! I have written several times about it, dreamt about it, carried loads of it from Russia whenever I went there. Along the Trans-Siberia Railway, I realize that it must be in my blood. My closest match in Turkey is made by Ali K. Erol in Bozcaada who bakes the perfect loaves of love! Just email to him, if you’re lucky to be on his waiting list, he’ll send you a couple of loaves.;