May 01, 2015

A Classic Treat



This rich, sweet dessert, which derives from Belorussian cuisine, is a classic example of cultural differences in taste. For many Americans, prunes are a tough sell, so much so that in 2000, the California Dried Plum Board got permission to label prunes as “dried plums.” They hoped to change consumer perception of prunes as something only dried-up old folks need in the form of juice every morning. Prune sales had been slipping for years, a trend that was bad for the plum growers and for California, which produces 99 percent of the US crop. The Board hoped that by renaming the fruit they would appeal to a broader swath of consumers. As their website explains: “Research conducted in the US showed that our target audience, women ages 25 to 54, responded more favorably to the name dried plums. It is also more descriptive for people who don’t know that prunes are fresh plums that have been dried.  Outside the US, the product is still called prunes.”

No such problem of either image or definition exists in Belarus, where prunes have long been appreciated for their luscious sweetness. They are especially prized in recipes that riff on the sweet and sour. But the combination of prunes and fresh cheese is not unique to Belarus—various Russian and Ukrainian recipes also combine fruit and dairy, such as in Ukraine’s famous vareniki, one version of which tops cheese-filled dumplings with sour cherry sauce.

An early record of prunes mixed with dairy can be found in Notes Upon Russia, the travelogue of the German diplomat Sigismund von Herberstein, who visited Russia in 1517 and 1526. He writes that rich, dark swan meat was often served with vinegar or a sour milk, pickles, and prunes: “When we began to eat the roast swans, they placed vinegar on the table with salt and pepper mixed in it, which they used instead of sauce or gravy. Sour milk was also placed on the table for the same purpose, with pickled cucumbers, and prunes cooked with the same object, which are not removed during dinner time.”


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