Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree – In Russia

This is the fourth article in January of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on January 27, 1907, and is the final talk on keeping house in foreign lands.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.

Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree

In Russia

OWING to the distracted state of all ranks of Russian society few peace-loving nomads are inclined to settle even for a season within the Czar’s dominions. Should curiosity or expediency compel the step, one should, if possible, pitch the family tent in the capital or in some other city where the United States Consulate and a fair sprinkling of American residents make life moderately comfortable, because measurably safe.

In such a city one can rent a flat or apartment, where the task of keeping warm in winter is less formidable than in huge country houses, more like barracks or barns than human residences.

One’s menu, also, requires less thought in a city. In St. Petersburg, especially, supplies are easily obtainable, and one may fall back on French cooking when the national diet becomes too unspeakable for American palates.

In the country, where one is frozen in for months at a time, unless a housekeeper be prudent and packs away in the underground storerooms during the summer enormous supplies of fermented cabbage, beets—roots and leaves—dried or smoked fish, ham and meats in casks, barrels of flour, bushels of carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, kegs of butter and oil, cheese of every description, dried and canned fruits, and tidbits for the “zakouska”—eatables which form the staple diet of most Russians—starvation may tissue.


The servant question is likely to prove annoying, not from overindulgence, but because the Russian maid, being but a generation removed from serfdom, is hopelessly irresponsible and careless, with little regard for “meum” and “tuum.” One may hire them for a pittance, but too often they are dear at any price.

The arrangement of Russian meals does not differ materially from that in other European countries. We have the early breakfast of bread, coffee and tea, and the heavier midday meal between 11 and 2, similar to our luncheon.

At this last one has a soup, hot or cold; sour cabbage, mushrooms prepared with sour cream, some sort of cold meat or game, or possibly a creamed fish or vegetable salad, or a chopped-up meat in cutlet, with a sauce of vinegar and sour cream added to the fat in which the meat has been fried. The mixture is then boiled, with a sliced herring and sardine thrown in by way of zest.

Then there maybe curd dumplings, a remarkable compound of rennet curds, pastry, sour cream and eggs, baked in a moderate oven and eaten with melted butter or with sour cream poured over them. Or, perhaps, one tastes “Blinis” for the first time, the Russian hot bread, which enjoys as great popularity as our buckwheat cakes.

Usually there will be “kvas,” a Russian sour soft drink, to wash down the breakfast, or, perhaps, the fiery and intoxicating “vodka.”

The dinner hour in Russia varies from 6 o’clock to 8, and the meal itself is the most important function of the day.

The hostess who aims to be truly Russian will begin with “zakouska.” This is not the simple little appetizer of caviare on toast we know in America, but an elaborate “spread,” usually served in an antechamber; if in the salle a manger, at a side table. In fact, a stranger to the customs of the land may find that he has unwittingly made a full meal before he has approached the dinner table, so enticing is the array of cold dishes, dried fruits, cheeses, wines and liqueurs offered for his selection.

At the zakouska will be found, besides caviare, potted and highly spiced chicken, ham, fish, game and thin slices of aromatic smoked Russian ham, smoked sturgeon or dried salmon.

At the dinner proper one has soup and fish, a roast and curiously prepared vegetables, a salad and dessert, for all of which the preliminary appetizers have probably deprived one of appetite.

Perhaps the soup will be the national stchi, made of pounds of fermented cabbage, an equal amount of cold boiled mutton, chopped together, and boiled with two quarts of kvas, eight ounces of butter, concentrated soup stock, salt, pepper, a little barley and various herbs.

Then one may have the highly prized roast suckling pig stuffed with black buckwheat, hulled and boiled like oatmeal and browned in the oven before it is used as stuffing. Or there may be delicious half-grown chicken squabs, long known in Russia and now popular in the United States.

For an entree might be served Russian croutes, made of finely shredded smoked or spiced beef, cut into strips about an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide, and soaked for half an hour in a little French dressing. Cover the croutes, or blocks of fried bread, with a slice of hard-boiled egg, seasoned with salt and pepper. Place the strips of beef on the croutes and cover with a sauce made of whipped cream, or, better yet, sour cream, into which grated horseradish, cayenne pepper and a few drops of lemon juice are stirred.

The famous Russian salad of cold boiled peas, cauliflower, potatoes cut in strips, dice of carrots, turnips and beans comes next in order. Sliced raw tomatoes, chopped pickle and truffles are arranged in distinct layers in a salad bowl or fill a mould lined with jelly. Season each layer with mayonnaise, salt and pepper, pile the salad high in the centre, cover with mayonnaise and garnish with shredded salmon and beets, olives, capers and anchovies.

After zakouska, topped by dinner, it might be thought the Russian would survive until the next day without another meal. Not he! In winter there is always a light supper after the theatre, while in summer there are refreshments at 10 o’clock, such as berries, with cream and cake, followed by tea passed at midnight. The long twilights are conductive to late hours.


Both coffee and tea, by the way, are delicious in Russia, even when they are passed in great trays at the railroad stations. The samovar plays an important part in the social life, and it was from Russia learned to use lemon instead of cream in our tea. What the initiated palate considers a rather pleasant variation in the tea served at midnight is a spoonful of strawberry jam stirred into each cup.

Russian hospitality is sometimes overpowering. A whole family will meet a guest at the door on her arrival and shower her with attentions during her stay. Frequently at the table the host or hostess will jump up and offer some extra delicacy that has been overlooked by butler or footman.

This proved rather embarrassing to two young American friends visiting the home of a noted Russian scientist. Without a language in common, it was impossible to explain why the guests could not go on drinking indefinitely a heady wine to which they were unaccustomed. The host, thinking they disliked the brand, made an excursion to the cellar several times during the course of the dinner to bring out choice vintages in honor of his visitors, to the embarrassment of all concerned, as the guests dared not touch them.

The half-fermented cabbage of Russia is one of the food staples. It is dressed in a variety of ways, and is much used in soups. It is prepared by chopping the cabbage, pressing it down hard in casks, and adding a little salt. In a few days it will be fermented sufficiently for the casks to be sealed and stored away for winter use.

Sour cream is also to be found on every table and is considered a delicacy in any form in which it is used. It may be bought in all Russian dairies.

Mushrooms, both fresh and dried, are a national delicacy.

A curious combination of fermented cabbage, sour cream and mushrooms is made by stewing dried mushrooms in cold water, pouring the liquid over sour cabbage and boiling for fifteen minutes. Add the chopped mushrooms and salt; stew till thick. Add sour cream, and, lastly, a tablespoonful of flour, browned in butter. Stir thoroughly and cook in a covered dish until as thick as boiled cabbage.


A Russian toffee beloved by the children is made with a pound of loaf- sugar, a half-pound of butter and a half pint of cream. Stir all three over the fire till the mixture draws away from the sides of the pan. Flavor with two tablespoonfuls of currant jelly, pour into buttered pans, and when cool cut into squares.

“Kvas,” for which a recipe is given here with, is a refreshing and healthful drink, and is also used in souring soups and roasts.

“Blinis” would make a pleasing variation in our hot breads. The moulds can be bought at Russian delicatessen shops in this country.

Russian Recipes.


One pound flour.
Four eggs.
One and a half glasses milk (lukewarm).
Half-pound rice flour.
Two ounces German yeast (or one yeast cake).

Dilute the yeast with a large glass of warm milk. Pour the flour in to a bowl, make a hollow in the centre and pour in yeast. Stir in the flour gradually to a light, soft paste, and let it rise three hours. Beat the yolks of four eggs and mix with one-half glass of tepid milk. Knead into the risen paste one-half pound of rice flour; add the eggs and milk, and, when light and smooth, a glass of whipped cream and the well-beaten whites. Let the paste rise in one and one-half hours.

Ten minutes before serving, warm a dozen small blinis moulds (shaped like tartlet moulds, but larger and higher). Grease with melted butter and put into each a tablespoonful of paste. Slip a spatula under the moulds and put into a hot oven. Turn, moisten with a paste-brush dipped in melted butter, and three to five minutes later serve hot with a sauceboat of melted butter.


Four quarts of malt.
Eight pounds rye flour.
One and one-quarter pounds wheat flour.
Seven gallons cold water.
One and one-quarter quarts warm water.
Three-quarters gill of yeast.
Three ounces mint (scalded).

Mix the rye, malt and three-quarters of a pound of the wheat flour with boiling water to a dough and set it in a moderate oven for a number of hours to sour. Take out the dough, place in a large crock or tub and pour over the cold water, mixing till there are no lumps. Let it settle and pour off.

Stir together the rest of the wheat flour, yeast and warm water, then mix with the kvas or soured liquor; beat till very thin and pour into a cask, in which the scalded mint has been placed. Cover the cask and put into a warm room over night, when it should be removed to the cellar or other cold place and bottled.


Four pounds barley meal.
Two pounds honey.
One-half pound salt.
Four gallons boiling water.

Put the barley, honey and salt into a stone jar, pour on the boiling water and stir well. Place it on the back of a stove, where it should simmer but not boil for twelve hours. Strain it and let it stand five or six days to ferment slightly. Skim off the foam, strain again and bottle. This drink is non-alcoholic and refreshing.

The honey gives it a flavor not unlike that of the old English drink, metheglin.

The Housemothers’ Exchange
A Talk on the Servant Problem