December 01, 2019

A Hotelier Shares the Love


A Hotelier Shares the Love

“Careful stepping over the transom, we’re fixing it,” the staffer said as she led me into a nineteenth-century wooden house, part of the Chastny Vizit (Private Visit) hotel and restaurant complex.

Elena Manienan greets me from behind a table that is covered with a beautifully ornate tablecloth. Alongside her are a sleeping cat and dog, and she is surrounded by charming details that express her recognizable style. “So many people walk through the door, we have to get that transom fixed,” she says.

Five minutes later, the table is set with a large pot of tea, three types of jam, khvorost (Uzbek fried pastry dusted with powdered sugar), and an apple pastry. And Elena has started telling me her story.

Elena's jam, pastry, and cat

“I was raised by my grandmothers, as my mama-papa childhood ended at the age of three, when they got divorced. My mom didn’t want kids, and our relationship wasn’t easy.”

We spoke for two and a half hours, interrupted by a tradesman who fixed the transom and a chef making the restaurant's signature liver, orange jam, and cognac paté. (“Needs more balsamic, and add more salt. Don’t waste your time bringing it here yourself, send a waitress.”) When I asked what the chef was making, she immediately had them prepare a platter and some toast, so that I could taste it. It was delicious, like no paté I’d ever tried.

Born in Moscow in 1958, Elena spent most of her early years with her grandparents on her father's side. Her grandmother, Klavdia, was highly-educated, and the family was "beloved by the government," which meant they had good jobs, a small apartment inside a big kommunalka (walk down the corridor, and just before the kitchen there was a door to three rooms and a bathroom), and were able to procure a few spices other than the omnipresent Soviet bay leaf. Much later, Elena found out that the building had once belonged to her grandfather. 

Klavdia taught Elena to appreciate the finer things in life: theater, music (she sang in a choir at the Bolshoi), literature, design, and table decor. For ten months of the year, that was her life. The remaining two months she spent in a tiny village in the South, in Krasnodar Region, at her other babushka's place. There, babushka Olga tried to “get all that Moscow nonsense out of her,” Elena said, and teach her some real-life skills, like feeding pigs, carrying big buckets of water over rocks while scaring snakes away, husking corn, and painting the house white with stone paint (using a pigment made from rocks boiled for two days).

Elena's hotel in Plyos, a town on the Golden Ring, 300km out of Moscow
Chastny Vizit hotel in Plyos

They would work all day every day, except Sundays, until six. Then Elena would go for a stroll with her local friends, and her grandmother would sit on a tree stump and have a chat with her neighbors. They would still be chatting when Elena came back. “Listening to those conversations was magical,” she recalls. They talked about everyday things, like weddings, deaths, and each other’s business, and they reminisced about the war, which had affected the region deeply.

They remembered how during the war the local river was red with blood for days, so they had to go to a tiny stream to get clean water. There was so little of it, there was a line of people waiting. The local pear tree (“You know those tiny little pears?”) was used to string up partisans, and Olga had been forced to lie on the floor of her house, holding down her 3 children so they wouldn’t be hit by bullets. One day there would be Germans, the next, Soviets. “And they were each as bad as the other,” Elena remembers her grandmother saying.

During Elena's childhood days outside Krasnodar, the neighbors were all different: Russian, Armenian, Moldovan, Circassian… But they all got on very well and never fought over their differences. They shared their traditional recipes, and you couldn’t go into any of their homes without being fed something, even if you dropped in for only a second.

One recipe Elena remembers fondly is toursha – marinated green beans, and now Elena serves them at her restaurant. “I dream of popularizing it across the world,” she says, noting that it’s an Armenian recipe.

Elena says that while the second babushka, Olga, her mum’s mom, wasn’t her favorite, she did learn a lot from her about having a good work ethic, and she cherishes that. It’s that work ethic, she says, that pulled her and her French husband out of bankruptcy through the baking of Russian pies and selling them at a market. Later, they turned it into a business. It’s also that work ethic, combined with her Moscow babushka Klavdia's elegance and taste, that allowed her to create high-end service and an eco-village 300 km outside Moscow.

“I wouldn’t have done it on my own. I gather people around me, although it can be hard to find creatives willing to move to the village. Are you available?” she asks keenly.

She finds young men in nearby villages and turns them into chefs at her restaurant. Later, they get high-paid jobs in Moscow.

Elena has adopted 13 children (in addition to three of her own). Her now-fixed transom has been crossed by a number of high-profile guests, including celebrities and politicians, although she says she doesn’t care about politics. “I believe in love, in food, in a tree, in a cat, in being together.” And she seems to have a lot of love (and toursha, pirozhki and paté) to share with the world.

Inside Elena's restaurant

Here’s Elena's recipe for toursha, which is my official attempt to help her make it known around the world.

Toursha

(marinated green beans)

500 gr young green beans
500 gr cauliflower
4 bell peppers, sliced thin
1 carrot, grated
1 head of garlic, sliced
2 chili peppers, cut into rings
1 liter water
50 gr salt
1 tablespoon sugar
5-8 black peppercorns
5-8 allspice berries
2-3 bay leaves

Cut off the ends of the beans, chopping the longer beans in half.  Blanch the beans by boiling them 5-7 minutes and then tossing them in a colander.

Blanch the cauliflower (separated into pieces) for 4 minutes and throw in the colander.

Gently mix the beans and cauliflower with all the other vegetables (bell peppers, carrot, garlic, and chili peppers) in a large glass bowl, adding the cauliflower in last.

Boil the water, add salt, sugar, pepper, allspice and bay leaves. Turn the water off as soon as it boils and allow it to cool to room temperature, then pour over the vegetables.

Place a plate and something heavy on top of the bowl with vegetables and marinate for three days before serving.
 

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
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.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955