July 01, 2003

It's Berry Time


n June 2002, the Russian government ordered a massive recall of bilberries from Moscow markets. The berries had been grown in Belarus, in a region contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl fallout, and testing revealed unacceptably high levels of cesium. For Muscovites, this news was quite a blow. Like mushrooms, berries are especially close to the Russian heart, and the thought that they might be off-limits was distressing. In early autumn, Russians head to the dacha to forage for mushrooms (khodit po griby), but during the summer they like to go out into the meadows and forests to gather berries (khodit po yagody). A poignant sight in the new Russia is the women on street corners who sell buckets of freshly picked berries. In the past, these berries would have gone into jam pots and pies, but now they represent much-needed hard cash.

In this new economy, a bit of Russian culture risks being lost. Russians have traditionally considered jam-making a high art. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Princess Shcherbatskaya herself supervises the cook to make sure that the jam is properly prepared, and in Ivan Bunin’s “Sukhodol,” so many different kinds of jam are offered at a fancy tea that it is impossible for the guests to taste them all at one sitting. 

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