March 01, 2020

Birch



Birch
Krasnoyarsk Birches. Mikhail Mordasov

Darra Goldstein, formerly food editor for Russian Life and author of our cookbook, A Taste of Russia, traveled throughout the Russian Arctic and found a rich culinary tradition, one that celebrates whole grains, fermentation, and honest flavors. Her new cookbook, Beyond the North Wind, excerpted here, is a captivating collection of Russian recipes and lore. Featuring 100 dishes and essays on this fascinating and wild part of the world, Beyond the North Wind weaves history, anthropology, and recipes into an evocative tome that offers a rarely seen portrait of Russia, its people, and its palate.  It is a perfect complement to A Taste of Russia.

Beyond the North Wind
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The Russians love their birch trees, both visually and gastronomically. They even enjoy drinking what they call birch juice – the light, sweet sap of the trees – which tastes like bottled spring. American companies are now beginning to sell birch sap commercially, branding it as something new, with names like TÅPPEƉ and Säpp that play on the allure of New Nordic cuisine. But birch trees have long been important to both the Russian pantry and medicine cabinet. Besides drinking birch juice straight, Russians turn it into lightly fermented kvas. They also make a lovely tisane, which is a little like wintergreen in flavor, by pouring boiling birch juice over fresh twigs and letting them steep. Birch buds are believed to have healing powers, especially when paired with vodka.

Even more potent is chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a shiny, charcoal-colored fungus that grows on birch trees. Reputed to be a miracle food with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, chaga has long been used in Russian folk medicine, either imbibed as an infusion or used as a tincture, and is even reputed to have cured the twelfth-century Grand Prince Vladimir of lip cancer. Though chaga’s efficacy remains unproven, a compound called betulinic acid, derived from the bark of white birch trees, is frequently used in cancer treatment today.

During times of famine, Russians resorted to eating zabolon, the inner bark of the tree, which they boiled until soft, then dried it and ground into flour. Hoping to create an interesting recipe at home, I decided to experiment with zabolon. With a sharp hunting knife, my husband cut off large shards of the inner bark. I boiled the bark for an hour, then strained it and used the liquid to simmer whole spelt berries. The resulting concoction had a slightly tannic and bitter taste, so I added some dried mushrooms that I’d reconstituted and sautéed in a little butter. Thanks to the mushrooms, the dish ended up tasty, but the recipe didn’t make the cut for this book.

Russians have been finding uses for birch trees for hundreds of years. Each spring they pulled the pliable outer bark from the tree and wove strips of it into lapti, the traditional footwear of the peasantry. They also fashioned it into storage vessels – the bark’s antiseptic properties discouraged insects and helped prevent spoilage. Burls were removed from the trees and carved into bowls, while the fresh, aromatic branches were (and still are) tied together into veniki, besoms used for slapping the skin to stimulate circulation in the Russian bath.

The birch also has deep cultural meanings. The word birch is grammatically feminine in gender, and the tree was often personified as a woman, its white bark poetically likened to a fair maiden’s skin. In a holdover from pagan times, villagers would dress birch trees in women’s clothing, then cut the trees down and leave them in newly planted fields to ensure a fertile crop. Young girls used to seal pacts of friendship by kissing under arches they’d made by bending young birch trees, or through wreaths they had coiled and hung on the tree’s branches. These rituals were followed by a symbolic round dance called the beriozka (“little birch tree”), in which they waved ribbons and branches. Springtime festivities culminated in feasts during which eggs were served to symbolize rebirth. Such practices likely inspired Igor Stravinsky’s great 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring.

In 1964 the Soviet government appropriated the beloved birch by naming the chain of state-run foreign-currency stores Beriozka, an irony not lost on the unprivileged populace. These stores offered foods and luxury goods that weren’t generally available, and ordinary Russians without access to foreign currency were unable to shop in them, even forcibly barred from entering. When possession of foreign currency was legalized in the 1990s, the stores disappeared, liberating the image of the birch from cynical Soviet branding and restoring it more fully to its fond place in the hearts of ordinary Russians.


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See Also

A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.

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