SALT & TIME, RECIPES FROM A RUSSIAN KITCHEN, ALISSA TIMOSHKINA
In all honesty, when I was approached to review this book I thought to myself ‘Really? Siberian Food? Honestly?’ I guess I was one of many, guilty of stereotyping Russian food into either matriarchs romantically eating Blinis and Caviar whilst downing shots of icy Vodka, or Soviets desperately scratching around the shelves for whatever tinned food remained.
Timoshkina sets the picture straight. She takes you on a culinary journey across her vast homeland, taking her own grasp on the various cultural influences that make Siberian Cuisine so speckled. Recipes range from Ashkenazi to Russian and Central Asian Cuisines alongside those that are authentic to Siberia alone. She gives the entire book a real personal feel, sharing stories from her family history and her heart-warming associations with some of the recipes. What I particularly enjoyed was her often colloquial tone, making you feel as if she is sitting down with a nice cuppa chatting to you.
In essence the book reveals Russian food as vibrant, nourishing and exciting. It opened my eyes to the fact that foods that appear ‘en vogue’ at the moment such as ferments and pickles are actually time tested Russian classics, developed as a means of preserving food in desperate times. Indeed, the book title itself ‘Salt & Time’ is an ode to the simplest way in which ferments are made.
The book begins by introducing various Russian staples, from Buckwheat to Smetana (a type of Russian soured cream that seems to appear in almost everything) Siberian Cuisine appears ubiquitous with Rye Bread which Timoshkina suggests you pair with most dishes (along with vodka). This is the point where I realised that this book is probably aimed at more experienced or willing cooks. The ingredients are quite specialised and most would have to be bought on line or in specific shops, they would also only be suitable for the recipes stated (unless you had a very wide imagination).
First up are ‘Starters, Salads & Sides’. To me, these were akin to many Scandinavian dishes. Recipes such as ‘Rye Crostini Three Ways’ and Cured Mackerel wouldn’t go amiss in a Scandi Cookbook. Most are fresh and very appealing. A good start.
Next, the book moves to Soups. I learned that, largely because of the climate, the Russians have a huge soup eating culture. I made the ‘Solyanka’ (Fish Soup) and it was very well received. The recipe was easy to follow and yielded good results. It did however, require the extra optional kick of Turkish Hot Peppers to elevate it from possibly being a touch bland. I was surprised to see the inclusion of an Asian mushroom broth in amongst the recipes as I had no idea the Asian influence on Russian Cuisine was so apparent.
Main dishes are varied and not the potato and starch laden stews or meat-centric recipes one might associate with food from such a cold climate. I was pleasantly surprised by dishes such as ‘Vegan Bigos with Smashed New Potatoes’ and a perfectly light Poached Trout & Potato Stew. Flavours appear quite simple but seem to deliver on taste.
Possibly my favourite section was Pickles & Ferments which was right up my street. The simplicity in which she guides the reader through the process of fermentation is how it
should be, not clouded by scientific precision. There are also some novel ideas such as ‘Pickled Tofu Skins’ which appealed.
Desserts were somewhat less appealing. For me too sweet and cakey, but that could be a result of the need for sustenance in such a severe climate. I was however, intrigued by the ‘Bird Cherry Cake’ which looks just like a Black Forest Gateau, but uses Bird Cherry Flour and Red Wine… so bizarre I might just have to test it out.
The book rounds up with a section of drinks. This is normally the point where I begin to lose interest, there’s only so many different tea infusions I can scroll through. But this is more varied, introducing drinks I had never even considered such as those made from silver birch or sea buckthorn (one of my personal favourite ingredients). Surprisingly, not all the recipes are laced with Vodka!
In essence this is a lovely, personal insight into Siberian Food. Timoshkina is obviously very passionate and this is resonated in her book. It’s definitely one for the more determined cook as you will have to buy specialist ingredients and some recipes are a bit more complex and time consuming. I enjoyed it far more than I expected and if nothing else the food photography and styling are just beautiful!