What food was eaten in medieval Russia?

Did you know…

…what food was eaten in medieval Russia?

It is simple enough to deduce what foods were not part of the diet, since some staples of modern Russian cuisine are New World foods: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, green peppers.

And some standard foodstuffs are as old as the land (or almost): rye, wheat, millet, barley, oats. These grains were used predominantly to prepare sourdough bread. Buckwheat was introduced only in the XV century, but as we know, it has become one of the most common foods in Russian cuisine.

Grains were also used to prepare a variety of porridges (“kasha” refers to a porridge-like dish, not to buckwheat only). These porridges could be sweet or savory, a meal in themselves or a side dish.

Domestically produced meat included beef, pork and mutton, in order of importance. Chickens (and eggs), geese, ducks, and even cranes (!) made up domestic fowl. Game and venison comprised just about every kind of available animal, from hares and squirrels, to deer and wild boar.

Only bear meat was off limits: some scholars suggest that is was because of an ancient bear-cult, but there is no strong evidence to support their theory.

Horse meat was not eaten, except in times of famine. In fact, the eating of horse meat was often used, in the Chronicles, to illustrate the severity of the famine, or the cruelty of a siege.

From cow milk, Russians obtained butter, cheese (both hard and soft, the latter of the cottage cheese kind, probably), and probably some kind of buttermilk. A dish still known today, and possible only because of the type of oven used by the Russians, is “baked milk” — milk placed in a warm oven and left all day until it acquires a brown crust. I have no idea how that tastes: I have never had a Russian oven!

Fish was a major staple, both because of its abundance and because of the numerous fast days in the Eastern Orthodox calendar in which all animal products were proscribed, including butter, milk, cheese. Fish is not an animal, and Russians found a variety of ways of serving it. Close to twenty species of fish, mostly freshwater, have been identified as part of the medieval Russian diet.

The list of vegetables is not as long, and includes the inevitable cabbage, onions, garlic, and turnips. It also comprises cucumbers, carrots, string beans. Pumpkins and beans are mentioned in XIV century sources. Walnuts were imported from Greece, as the political situation allowed, and so were almonds, and olives and olive oil. The forest provided hazelnuts, mushrooms, and berries (wood strawberries, bilberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries…). Fruits were grown in orchards: sweet and tart cherries, apples, currant, plums, pears.

Spices and seasonings, used in Russian cooking many imported from Byzantium and the East, included vinegar, cinnamon, mint, anise, pepper, linseed oil, salt, dill, poppy seed. The principal sweetener was honey. Honey was also used to prepare mead, both sweet and dry, and also some kind of unfermented mead. Beer was brewed, as well as kvas, a bread-based beverage with a very low alcohol level: to this day, it is considered non-alcoholic by Russians. Wine was imported from Byzantium, Flanders, Hungary, and wherever merchants might have roamed.

Food preparation was determined by the peculiarities of the Russian oven: it had to be baked, simmered, stewed, boiled, in other words, it must have consisted of stews, casseroles, pies, soups, but not (or very little) of poached, fried, sautéed foods — those that require an open flame. However, recipes are almost non-existent, and if you could put together all the instructions on food preparation from period texts, you still would not have enough to prepare a feast. But at least, we know most ingredients!

(taken from Masha Holl's 'Medieval Russia' project)

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