September 01, 2003

Pickle This!

The Russians have long favored garlic, a fact commented upon by early Western European visitors to the country. Both Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, who visited the court of Grand Prince Vasily Ivanovich in the early sixteenth century, and Adam Olearius, a mid-seventeenth-century German scholar on a trade mission to Moscow, left accounts describing Russian customs and mores, and they comment on the local etiquette  or lack thereof. The Russians, it seems, were prone to physical expressions of gustatory pleasure and satiety, including the emission of strong, sulfurous odors through belching and other bodily sounds. The Europeans especially disliked the smell of garlic and onions, which the Russians ate in great quantity.

What these early visitors to Russia failed to understand is that the Russians were on to something good. Both onion and garlic have healthful properties, and like the proverbial apple, a dose of garlic a day can keep the doctor away. Rich in minerals and Vitamins B1 and C, garlic protects against bacterial and viral infections and also has antioxidant properties. Not that the early Russians understood the science behind the strong-smelling cloves, but they did know that “Chesnok da redka, tak i na zhivot krepko” (“Garlic and radish make the stomach strong”). One popular folk remedy for a head cold calls for goodly amounts of raw garlic to be sliced and layered on black bread that has been spread liberally with honey. I personally can attest to the efficacy of this treatment, although I exuded a garlic smell for several days afterward. 

Russians are certainly aware of the bulbs’ lasting odor (“Kto chesnoku poel sam skazhetsya” (“Whoever has eaten garlic reveals himself”), but they nevertheless feel genuine affection for it, as yet another saying affirms: Serdtse s pertsem, dusha s chesnokom (“The heart is with pepper, the soul  with garlic”).

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