Anton and I were speaking just as he was about to go to his office, which is chock full of seaweed. He would then catch the train to Sergiev Posad, a small town one hour outside Moscow by elektrichka (short-distance commuter train) where he grew up and where his mother, Valentina, still lives.
Anton was born in 1980 and remembers living in a kommunalka (communal apartment) with his mom and two other women. When the ceiling in their room turned completely black with mold, Valentina managed to get the authorities to give them an apartment of their own, and they moved when Anton was 6. Valentina still lives there.
Everyone in the five-story building had a vegetable patch of their own, which in the mid-1980s and ’90s was a huge help, as there was very little food to be found in shops. Among the produce available in the local store (unusually, you could pick the items yourself and tell the cashier what you had, and she rarely checked), Anton vividly recalls cans of morskaya kapusta, or chopped up seaweed. His mom would always get some, because there simply wasn't much else to buy.
To buy something other than morskaya kapusta, they would take a monthly trip to Moscow: Anton, Valentina, and her friend, with the friend’s daughter, Zhanna. At the age of 10 or so, Zhanna was an expert grocery shopper: she would get in line as soon as they entered the shop, "just in case." Anton hated lining up and would join Valentina and her friend in walking around the shop looking for some ketchup and salami, among other goods.
Sometimes they would leave empty-handed, which meant Zhanna had lined up for nothing, but other times they would get Anton's favorite ketchup ("Once a month I could have pasta with ketchup. I loved it!") and salami (“What’s long, green and smells of salami? An elektrichka!”) and have something other than potatoes, seaweed, mushrooms and sour cabbage to eat.
The potatoes were a huge help, as “you could eat enough to fill up,” Anton said. And they went really well with the mushrooms they would forage and marinate each fall, along with Valentina’s sour cabbage. They had two of their own potato patches, and Anton recalls thinking that the task of growing them was “hard and thankless.” Planting, watering, taking the bugs off – it all took a lot of work.
When it was time to harvest the potatoes, Valentina would bag them, and Anton would take the bag, and drape it over the seat on his bike. The sack was so large it would hang over the pedals, so he couldn’t ride it. He would then push the bike by hand for two or three kilometers to their relatives’ garage, as there was no room to store the potatoes in their home.
Another patch they received supplied them with apples, carrots, and greens (Anton still loves grated apples with carrots and sour cream, like his mom used to make for breakfast). The small balcony on their apartment would be packed with apples all winter. The rest of the food would be stored on windowsills, as there was enough of a cold draft there to preserve it, and it killed two birds with one stone: the food would remain edible and it would block cold air from entering the apartment. The rest of the windows would have cotton wool and wet paper over the holes to keep the cold out. They would also hang an avoska (a "just in case" mesh Soviet shopping bag) with food out the window in winter, as a makeshift mini-fridge.
In 2006, some 10 years after his early ’90s shopping and gardening experience, Anton founded Russia’s first online seaweed shop. He’d gone to Arkhangelsk to visit some friends, brought some seaweed back as a gift, and fallen in love with both the Frozen North and the seaweed. In the beginning, he would put all the orders in his backpack and deliver them all around Moscow. And he would bring some to his mother every time he went home. Thankfully, he was able to use the subway for his deliveries, and not his old “Salyut” bike.
He adds ground seaweed to every meal he makes, including bread, and makes fried potatoes with seaweed, which remind him of the morskaya kapusta from his childhood. And of his mom’s marinated mushrooms, which she doesn’t make any longer. These days, when Anton comes to visit, she makes calamari stewed in seaweed, carrots, and onions. And they no longer forage in the fall, or grow potatoes – or even eat salami or ketchup.
3 potatoes, diced fine
100 gr canned seaweed, or about 25gr dried seaweed
1 small onion
1-2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Fry the potatoes in oil for about 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes. If using dried seaweed, soak it until it’s thoroughly wet. Canned seaweed can be used as is. Fry the seaweed with the onions and garlic.
Mix with the potatoes and serve together.
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