The first of two discussions on butter in Russia, investigation of milk, traditions, culture, usage, recipes
Butter (maslyanitsa) and milk is an important part of the Russian food culture – so much so that Maslyanitsa is also the name of an annual festival celebrating the advent of summer. From Moscow to St. Petersberg summer is welcomed in this way just before lent every single year for a week. On the Monday the festival kicks off and blini (pancakes) with honey, caviar, fresh cream and loads of butter take pride of place. Superstition holds that the more butter there is, the more sun will shine on Mother Russia. In Uzbek, Bashkir, and Kirgiz Russians still drink mares’ and donkeys’ milk and which they turn into kumyss, a powerful fermented spirit, often served with huge blobs of butter floating in it. Kumyss was made in Siberia around 1253 but the only proof we have is Marco Polo’s memoirs telling only that in 1298 Genghis Khan kept a stable of ten thousand white horses for the production of kumyss – whether they actually did is not certain. I like to tell myself they did.
India consumes the most butter in the world, followed by the United States and with Russia in third place. Nowadays butter is made primarily from cream and in order to discuss butter, we need to have a look at the milk.
In Tartarstan and also the Buryat and Kalmyk Republics ewes and goats milk is chiefly used because the increase in fodder prices has seen dairy cow stocks reduce by 25% since 1991. On the positive side traditional milk processing in the smaller villages continues – where sieved milk is sealed tightly in barrels and hung in a well on the ends of ropes. Fat collects and forms the cream which, once skimmed, is churned into butter whilst the skimmed is milk drunk and then processed into blancmanges and curd cheese, the whey being fed to the calves.
Until the 16th century they made smetana from buttermilk. Sweet cream and butter were unknown in those days. However, I must say that the creamy, silky Russian buttermilk doesn’t taste anything like the buttermilk in Europe or Scandinavia. Natural smetana is devoured at breakfast as a staple, added to borscht, shchi, blini and pelmeni. In the old days of the mighty USSR housewives made their own yoghurt, kefir and cream, but since the 1990’s farmers markets and thriving dairy businesses in the cities have almost taken over. If you want to try the prostokvash and varenets you would have to go into the country, though. When they make curd cheese, Russian housewives do not dump the whey but used it to make kisel (cold soup) with berries or for jellies, kvass and so on.
Butter (maslo). The best butter in Russia comes from the Vologda area. It’s a bright sunflower yellow and with 82,5% fat, it’is much higher in fat than most European butters! Salted Russian butter is quite possibly the tastiest on the continent.
A delicious tangy drink, especially good in summer, this pasteurized milk is charged with kefir mould and depending on how long it is charged, a drink with up to 2% alcohol is formed.
Fresh, full cream milk is set aside in a flat bowl for about 15 hours to enable the fat to rise. Buttermilk is added to the skimmed cream to sour it and when the jug is full it is whipped, heated briefly and put in a clean rinsed container in a cool place – used in a variety of dishes and piled on top of very sweet cakes, it is worth traveling to Russia for this treat.
High fat milk is heated for about 10 minutes to just under boiling point to kill bacteria and then cooled so that yoghurt cultures can be added whilst stirring. Stiff competition for the Greeks whose yoghurt I have always listed as my personal ‘best of the best’.
TVOROG (soft curd cheese)
The milk is allowed to stand for at least 2 days until it is thick, then it’s heated at 30 C for 30 minutes until curds and whey are formed.
VARENETS, PROSTOKVASHA AND RYASHENKA
Milk is boiled, poured into a clay pot, left overnight, mixed with smetana and then reduced over heat. It’s super high in fat and tastes of roasted chestnuts at Christmas (to me, anyway).
TVOROZHNIKI (aka Syrniki)
400 g soft curd cheese
100 g soft butter
200 g sour cream
1 large egg
4 tablespoons flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
Butter for frying
Smetana and jam to serve
Mix all the ingredients together (with the exception of the butter which you will use for frying) very well. Roll out onto a floured board until it is about 1 ½ cm thick and cut out round cakes with a glass (or a scone cutter).
Fry in butter on both sides and serve with sour cream and jam.
SHARLOTKA S YABLOKAMI
(Stirred apple butter cake)
500 g cooking apples, peeled & very finely diced
6 large eggs
200 g caster sugar
200 g cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 lemon, zest only
4 cloves, ground
2 tablespoons of raisins soaked in a little brandy
Butter and fresh breadcrumbs to line the inside of your cake pan
Mix breadcrumbs with sufficient butter and line the bottom and the sides of the pan well.
Beat the eggs with the sugar until pale and foamy and sugar has completely dissolved. Sift in flour mixed with baking powder and mix in apples as well. Fill the lined cake pan with the cake batter, bake on 170 C for about an hour and test with a skewer.
(Should cake get brown to quickly – because of the butter – cover with foil and continue baking)
Serve with lashings of brandy butter sauce and whipped cream.
Toss the flour in the honey until it is gold, mix with the honey and then fry for 6 minutes. Spread on a piece of marble and cut into squares. If you feel like it, add 50 g of pistachio’s – delicious!
And finally, pumpkin pancakes, Ukraine style:
Nalysnky z harbusa
1 kg pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed and finely grated
200 g self raising flour
2 large eggs
Salt to taste
Butter to fry
200 g melted butter
100 g honey
50 g poppy seeds
Simply combine grated pumpkin with everything except the melted butter, the honey and the poppy seeds. The batter can be quite crumbly, image above, and if you like, add a spot of milk for smoothness
Warm honey and mix into melted butter. Stir in poppy seeds.
Fry as thin as possible, remembering these are pancakes and once completed serve with melted butter, honey and poppy sauce.
And now, even though we haven’t discussed the actual butter production yet, I had to discuss this first!