Think you know your borsch from your blini? How about your salo from your syrniki? In the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, these exquisite Russian-style dishes are the ultimate comfort food
Standing in a charming, rustic kitchen, I am with Tatiana Ivanovna Dubrovina, the small yet spirited Russian woman who has invited us into her home for lunch. She chatters rapidly as she bustles about, moving between large steaming pots, wooden spoon in hand. Keen to show us what we’ll be eating, she lifts a cotton cloth to reveal stacks of delicate, lacy blini, before ladling more batter into a hot cast-iron frying pan.
Dubrovina lives in the remote village of Ivanovka, a Russian community in the Ismailli district of Azerbaijan, a three-hour drive west from Baku. It is tranquil – exceptionally quiet but for the whisper of tall pines in the breeze and the occasional stutter of Soviet-era vehicles. Established in the 19th century, it is home to members of the Molokan Christian sect, exiled from Russia for failing to conform to rules of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly those concerning dairy consumption during Christian fasts. “Originally, there were just 11 Russians in the village,” Dubrovina tells me, setting the table for lunch. “The population peaked at 4,500, and now there are about 3,000 of us.” Born in the village, she has lived here her entire life.
As she cooks, pausing only to wipe her hands, or pluck crisp pickles from a jar, it is clear that she enjoys the role of hostess – a chance to welcome new people. The kitchen, although covered, is outside, at the rear of her modest home, consisting of an oven, a work surface and a table. Nearby, strings of garlic hang drying in the late summer sun, a dilapidated gate leads to farmland and the snow-tipped Caucasus Mountains beyond.
We’re invited to look at the soup Dubrovina is making – a summery green borsch. She sweats onions, peppers and tomatoes, then boils chickpeas and potatoes in water she has used to simmer beef. Once mashed, they’re added to the soup as a thickener, along with sliced cabbage, “just for five minutes!” plus parsley and dill. Finally, a sprinkle of chopped garlic, added at the end of cooking to preserve pungency.
The resulting soup is fantastic, the beef stock giving it rich, savoury depth. “We have to have borsch every day,” she says, laughing, “otherwise the men will be hungry!” She sets it down with a bowl of handmade noodles, or lapsha, again simmered in beef water (“although chicken stock is better”), slippery with butter. “These are served at every event in Russia,” Dubrovina explains, “weddings, funerals, everything.” They’re fantastic – the ultimate comfort food. I tell her I could eat the whole bowl.
Next, the lightest blini, piled with thick smetana, or sour cream, honey and berry jam. “These would usually be cooked in a Russian oven,” Dubrovina says, “but it is easiest on the stove for many people.” She is certainly the expert cook, using a perfectly proportioned ladle to spoon the mixture, fizzing and spitting into the pan. The cooked blini are thin with crisp edges; we layer them up like folded net curtains and eat to the sounds of cows and cockerels, a 1950s fan whirring gently above.
I feel lucky to have visited the home of Dubrovina and experienced her warm hospitality, but of course there is Russian food to be found elsewhere, particularly in Baku. At Mari Vanna restaurant, opened 18 months ago with the help of ‘brand chef’ Vladimir Shulyak, we try two more versions of borsch, neither the same as Dubrovina’s. This is a soup that comes in seemingly endless varieties.
First, a classic beetroot preparation, thick, sweet and sour with strands of scarlet vegetable. His green borsch is predominantly made with sorrel, a lemon-flavoured leaf, added at the end of cooking to retain its fresh flavour. “It’s like a garden,” Shulyak explains. “You go into the garden and you chop, chop, chop, then you make this soup.”
Okroshka is a cold soup for a sweltering summer day. Radishes, cucumber, potato, dill, parsley, boiled egg and pork arrive diced in a bowl, and the soup is poured over, the smooth liquid flavoured with kvass, a beverage fermented from rye bread. Savoury and refreshing, the vegetables retain their crunch.
I learn that salads, too, are important in Russian cuisine. A plate of mushrooms is exquisite – a mix of white and woodland varieties, it’s the best of the forest floor. They’re cooked and lightly pickled, bathed in a dressing of homemade butter and garlic.
There is Herring Under a Fur Coat (selyodka pod shuboy), perfectly layered and served in a rainbow square. Grated carrots and beetroot are stacked with potatoes, eggs and diced, cured herring. The fish is buried under the vegetables, topped with a fluffy coating of grated hard-boiled egg (the ‘fur coat’). Olivie is another ‘must’ for the Russian table: chopped vegetables such as peas, carrots and potatoes, and sausage, bound in mayonnaise, piled high into a bowl.
We move on, through foods that have fortified people through fierce Russian winters. Salo is cured pork fat, served first in milky white curls, then whipped – perfect for spreading thickly on garlic-rubbed toast as the nights draw in.
A Russian honey cake sends me into a spin with its dreamy layers of rust-coloured cake and cream. “There are many variations,” Shulyak explains as he laughs at me taking forkful after forkful. It’s made using a traditional method of heating sugar with honey until rich, lending the cake a deep caramel flavour. The honey in Azerbaijan is exceptional, the roadsides buzzing with hives; it brings a distinct local flavour to this classic Russian dessert.
I barely have room to try a Napoleon cake, that multilayered extravaganza of pastry and cream, or the hot puffs that are syrniki – impossibly light cottage cheese pancakes served with preserved fruit or, more traditionally, raspberry jam. By the time ptichye moloko, a marshmallow cake, arrives, I’m stuffed, but find its light, airy texture easy to eat, the rich chocolate sauce too hard to resist.
There is a beautiful simplicity to Russian food. I remember the meal in Ivanovka, and Dubrovina’s kitchen where she made such humble yet excellent dishes, relying on method and quality of produce; the sour cream and butter that tasted so wonderfully of the cow, the fresh vegetables and the dark, fragrant honey – all made possible by Azerbaijan’s fertile terrain.
I think of Dubrovina explaining how the population of Ivanovka is declining since the fall of the Soviet Union; young Russians like to explore their roots, heading for Moscow. “It’s a shame,” she says with sadness. “They will miss home cooking!” Spooning another helping of that glorious smetana onto my pancake, I can’t help but agree with her.
Photography by Richard Haughton
Styling by Tom Wolfe
Words by Helen Graves
Producer Maria Webster
Special thanks to Mari Vanna restaurant, Baku and brand chef Vladimir Shulyak
The story appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Baku magazine.