What is it
It took me as many as thirteen years to write the fifty-six sketches that make up this book. Obviously, I have not spent all that time working on them without respite. It just so happened that I first wrote something in this peculiar genre in 2004 and the latest of these texts came along in 2017.
I have always felt that gastronomy was a very important and in a sense fundamental branch of human knowledge. And not just because the gastronomic experiences, as someone aptly phrased it (Google has failed me here, so maybe it was me who came up with this adage a long time ago), are a unique conglomerate of sensations supplied by all five human senses – taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch – and in this regard only sex can fully compete with them.
Another source of its importance is that gastronomy quite naturally turns out to be a literally undrainable source of incredibly fascinating snippets from people’s lives.
Whenever men and women get around to talking about what happened to them or someone they consider interesting and care about, sooner or later they just have to mention what and how was eaten as the events unfolded.
Have you not noticed that before?
Weird. This is always the case for me and it happens in no other way. Moreover, food is often the culminating point of the entire intrigue and sometimes it becomes a legitimate, long-awaited and meaningful climax, a finale that brings relief and concludes the story for all intents and purposes.
After that, there is only one logical step left: if you are telling what has been eaten, then do not keep your audience waiting and tell them how to cook it. And what ingredients to use, by the way. And better yet – where to get the ingredients and how to tell high-quality from rotten, true from fake, authentic from feigned.
It always happened in my case that stories were not told to teach someone to cook a certain dish, a simple or a sophisticated one. They were told to recount something worthy, explain something crucial, describe something bright, and recall something that must never be forgotten. The gastronomical component, without which the event one has lived through would be left unresolved and the feeling that one has experienced would not be fully conveyed, was always there to find.
The workings of all five senses leave five distinct imprints in your memory. Coming together and superimposing, they are the only thing capable of creating a truly vivid, three-dimensional picture of a minute that flew by once upon a time and maybe even of a full day that was once lived.
It turns out that I am not writing gastronomical sketches; rather I am infinitely adapting and readapting the story about the evanescence of all that exists, the story that unfolds again and again, in different circumstances and various shapes.
It was when writing the fifth or maybe sixth text that I saw: some of the sketches gradually line up into a chronology of human life. They form the chain of the most vivid experiences that fell to a person’s lot – not events, not adventures, but experiences.
And the person who all these experiences belong to is me.
I was far from writing the sketches one by one, in a straightforward chronological order. Besides, experiences worthy of joining my collection of treasures kept happening to me, as I was writing. But in the end, all stories were easy to arrange in the correct order along the axis of my life.
Oddly enough, every such experience turned out to be firmly tied not only to a specific year, a point on the time axis, but also to another point – on the geographical map.
I know it may sound absurd, flippant, even grotesque, but hear me out. A thing meant to be put on a plate and eventually end up in a stomach, a collection of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, a limited amount of non-uniform chemical structure with a set of clear organoleptic properties – i.e. recognizable taste, fragrance, temperature, and texture – turns out to be a universal fabric tying together time and space.
What was lived in this particular place and in this particular moment becomes an experience and leaves a forever-remembered taste behind. All in all, each of these sketches tells the story of a particular taste that stayed with me.
All stories “tied” to specific spatial and temporal coordinates make up the first section and I assign them all to the genre of Gastronomic Geography.
But there are several others as well – the ones with no clear address and no certain date. These stories exist as if suspended in the midst of a life – in emptiness that fills in the gaps between events. Essentially, those are not situations, but ideas in pure form. Or embryos of situations, free elements, floating forces that are capable of turning into a specific plot one day, but have not yet fulfilled their destiny. Or maybe it is the opposite: they have played out and unfolded so many times and in so many different situations that it makes no sense to assign them to a specific point or a specific moment. Or maybe they are pure feelings, sensations as such, in their untied shape.
They happen both nowhere and everywhere at once, never, but also all the time without a pause.
However, needless to say, the path to understanding each of them and to living them one after another lies, yet again, through the taste that forever lingers on the roof of one’s mouth.
Stories of this second type made up the series of sketches entitled Gastronomic Philosophy. One can keep collecting them, as events unfold and experiences happen, or as one keeps living that is.
But I decided to stop here and now.
One day it is worth stepping aside and seeing what comes out of this.
Having seen, you should hold your breath, brace yourself and finally answer the key question: what is it?
And it is life.
In the Footsteps of a Lone Escapee
Mussels in White Beer
Around the Grote Markt square, Brussels, Belgium
Whose memories are these? Well, what difference does it make? Do you remember – vividly, ardently, vibrantly – only the things that happened to you?
Our memory works in a complex and bizarre way.
For instance, I remember very well how in the late fall (it was November I think) of 1972 he came to Brussels, the capital of Belgium, as part of the Soviet delegation of some sort of journalists and writers, whose visit was arranged via the Union of Friendship Societies.
On the second night of this business trip, on Thursday, around 6 o’clock he left Le Chanteclaire hotel, conveniently located at Rue de la Grande Ile close to the old town. Consulting the map kindly provided by the hotel receptionist, he headed towards the main Brussels landmark – the Grote Markt square and the Town Hall.
Fellow delegates boarded the embassy van all together and went to “the other side of the railway station, where the sales are.” There one could buy good and quite affordable shoes, and winter clothes for the kids, and wool. He said that he was not joining them and was going to wait for the embassy co-op sale, where things would be even cheaper. This meant that he had two and a half hours to take care of things, until other delegates returned, and this was going to be more than enough.
He rather quickly reached the northwestern corner of Grote Markt, from Guldenhoofdstraat, crossed the square, maneuvering among the photo-taking tourists, and confidently delved into the small lanes of the old town’s eastern quarter.
At the corner of Greepstraat he stopped in front of the richly decorated gift shop window and entered after a momentary hesitation. Here, he exchanged a few words with the Chinese salesman, had a quick look at the goods laid out on the counter, and picked an American .45 caliber Smith & Wesson army revolver with a beautiful faux leather holster and two large carton boxes of ammunition.
He moved on holding the light purchase under his arm and soon, after making a quick stop at the newspaper and tobacco stand to buy a pack of Gauloise Caporale cigarettes, reached the famous Rue des Bouchers, the Street of Butchers, or the Myasnitskaya street of Brussels, as that lad from the embassy van called it jokingly.
Paradoxically, the Street of Butchers, just as he had been told, consisted mostly of a motley collection of seafood restaurants and turned out to be densely filled with people idly strolling around. All sorts of marine creatures huddled in the broad window displays and on the stalls with crushed ice set out across the sidewalk.
Not pausing to think, he pushed the door of the largest local establishment – the renowned Chez Leon. Inside he had to wait for just a couple of minutes, while a table at the wall in the back was freshly set up. The table was perfect. From there one could observe the entire room and see part of the street in front of the window, and at the same time, nearby, just two meters away, began a narrow corridor leading to the restrooms. Should anything happen, should someone show up all of a sudden, he would be able to instantaneously disappear in a split second.
He opened his Gauloise pack, lit up, spent ten minutes or so browsing the menu, peering into the names of dishes, comparing the prices and portion sizes indicated in grams, and finally turned decisively to the waiter. Faster, it seems, than it took him to take a puff and set his cigarette against the side of the tin ashtray with a cherry Kriek logo, the waiter brought an enormous – big enough to hold with two hands – ribbed glass of beer. Then a metal bowl of fries emerged on the table, as well as an entire basket of little bottles with various ketchups, mayonnaises and mustards to go with fries, and – the most important thing of all – a gigantic smoke-darkened pot of steaming mussels cooked in a trademark way, with parsley, celery and leeks.
It felt like he had been eating them for an entire hour, and there was no end in sight. Twice the empty bowl was taken away and brought back full of fries again. He dropped the shells into the overturned bowl lid as people at the neighboring tables did. Closer to the end, he found the juice on the bottom, sort of a soup, with leeks and celery. So he asked for a spoon, started crumbling a fresh baguette into the pot, and kept eating until the pot was dry, and then also used the crust to wipe the bottom clean.
Then he paid – and did not even have to pay much.
After the meal, he returned to Le Chanteclaire, and his fellow delegates showed up just half an hour later. Dinner at the hotel restaurant was prepaid, so everyone went, but he stayed in the room and soon feel asleep.
My father remembered those mussels throughout his entire life. I heard this story at least a hundred times – the story of his escape across the city to Chez Leon, with all the details of his route, and comprehensive description of window displays and fish stalls in the Street of Butchers. I remember that menu almost by heart – with prices and maybe even with grams. I can show now how big that glass of beer was. I can clearly see the smoke-darkened sides of that pot and know on which side of him the tin ashtray stood with a smothering Gauloise cigarette balancing on its side.
I was eight years old and I fired all of the revolver caps within the first three days. My shiny Smith & Wesson, famous around the block, soon had to be bandaged with a blue duct tape, because the handle broke off, and that did not help for long. But the mussels stayed with me.
Overall, my father was a successful and a perfectly accomplished man. He achieved a lot, by that time’s standards, and everyone around knew how many exciting things he had seen and done. People looked at him with admiration. He was the life of the party, a brilliant, cheerful and handsome fellow. But this week in Brussels, this restaurant and those blasted mussels may have been one the brightest experiences of his life. And it certainly was one of his brightest gastronomic experiences.
It is for these mussels that I ardently, with all my heart, hate the Soviet regime. I will never forgive that vile regime for them.
I came to Brussels twenty-five years later and, of course, I went to Chez Leon on the very first night. As I suspected, it turned out to be an unashamedly low-budget type of place, a huge tourist trap with nondescript assembly line sort of food.
And their mussels were nothing out of the ordinary. I, for one, cook them, way better.
Very finely chop a big onion and fry it, stirring, in olive oil in a deep thick-walled pan or flat-bottomed little cauldron until transparent, then add three finely chopped shallots and at once pour in half a liter of some very pale beer (for instance, Hoegaarden will suit well or some other type of white Belgian beer). Quickly bring to a boil and let it cook for five minutes, for alcohol to evaporate completely. Then add the thin ‘coins’ of garlic, the thyme twigs, a couple of bay leaves, and three-four cloves. Add salt generously and season with pepper using a mill.
Finally, put mussels into the saucepan, thoroughly having cleaned them, if necessary, from sand, algae and small shells. Put the lid on and boil for no more than five-seven minutes, shaking the pan occasionally.
Remove from the stove and, before serving, season with a handful of finely chopped parsley and add a little of cold butter cut into small cubes, cover with a lid for another half minute, letting the butter melt and drip down to enrich the marvelous broth at the bottom.
I so wish you could also taste this, my dear Dad.
Flemish-style mussels in white beer (for four persons)
■ At least 1 kg of fresh mussels per person
■ 1 large onion
■ 3 medium shallots
■ 4–5 garlic cloves
■ 2 half-liter bottles of white Belgian beer
■ ¼ glass of olive oil
■ 100 g of cold butter
■ 1 bunch of parsley
■ 1 small bunch of fresh thyme (or one teaspoon of dry thyme)
■ Black pepper, bay, clove, large sea salt
Deployment over the Ocean
Scones with Dried Currants
Coffee place at Pike Place Market, Seattle, United States
A gloomy, unshaven, and sleepy-looking man of uncertain age pointed to a free spot on a wooden bench near the wall. He was wearing a coat of nondescript beige color with all buttons done up and had a bizarre hump, on his chest rather than on the back. I cast a sidelong look at the huge plywood boxes scattered all over the floor of this spacious airplane hold.
The man smirked, “Ever heard of the “nuclear suitcase”? Well, this is it. The equipment, and us, and the entire special aircraft. We gonna all fly on top of this suitcase.”
This was a military airplane, a fat and heavy one, and those boxes must have weighed a lot, so the flight was long. Not the six hours that a normal passenger flight from New York City to Seattle takes, all the way across the United States, from one ocean to the other, but all of the eight hours I suppose. There was a strong buzzing sound and occasional small jolting. The benches turned out to be narrow and hard, and there was no single normal seat around.
One could pour bitter tea into a plastic cup from a scratched Chinese thermos with a chrysanthemum pattern.
When climbed over someone’s feet and some parcels to reach the cockpit and ask where the toilet was, one of the pilots waved vaguely behind his shoulder, “There’s a bucket in the back.”
Indeed, I found the bucket at the tail of the plane, next to the loading ramp, but it was full to the brim, so I had to hold it until the landing.
This was the forward deployment team of the Russian President’s special space communications and it was moving to the new deployment location, as head of the state proceeded with his official visit to the United States. This happened long ago, so now I can hardly undermine the defense capability of my country, if I reveal the secret that the President had at least two such teams and, as he moved, they took turns providing communications support, flying to the next stop of his trip beforehand and installing their super strategic equipment there.
Anyways, Yeltsin and his entourage flew from New York City to Washington, D.C., where the deployed communications team number 2 was expecting him. And the first team, having done work in NYC, was now flying to Seattle, the next stop of the presidential tour. Several newspaper reporters accompanying the delegation were offered an opportunity to also “get deployed” to the west coast in advance. But no one warned us of how special that “special flight” was going to be.
As soon as the plane left the tarmac, the “nuclear suitcase” personnel followed the command of the guy in the beige coat, quickly and efficiently rolling out the sleeping bags right on the mysterious cargo boxes and instantly falling asleep. One could sense that over the years they got accustomed to traveling like this. Other passengers languished on the benches or aimlessly wandered in the narrow passageways, occasionally bumping into those strange goods placed here and there.
In the meantime, I came across a high, tall as a man, stack of new automobile tyres, a king-sized bed with a white leather headboard placed upright, a two-door polished aluminum fridge that was big as an old wardrobe, as well as an eight-cylinder engine in factory packaging with a Mercedes logo.
“The embassy people keep sneaking their smuggled goods in,” grumbled one of the pilots, “they keep hauling and hauling, shoving and shoving, shipping everything to Moscow, always to Moscow.”
We landed at some military base in Seattle. There was no loo there either. But the trained personnel of the flying “suitcase” were not deterred by that. As soon as they got out on the tarmac, they habitually formed a circle around the airplane’s nose gear, yawning and exchanging quips.
The coat-wearing man – the boss judging by his manners – was overseeing the unloading of boxes in the same habitual manner. Then he unbuttoned his coat and brought out his chest hump, which turned out to be a usual square telephone device with a rotary dial, but with some flat box attached to the bottom with a blue duct tape. There were no cables connecting this phone to anything.
Pressing the device to his stomach, the man picked the receiver, dialed a two-digit number and told someone without greeting, “On site. Working. As scheduled.”
Then he tucked the phone back under his coat and climbed into the bus that had just arrived. We followed him. The President was scheduled to arrive only in the morning, so we had a completely free evening and a whole night ahead of us. I heard that Seattle is an incredibly beautiful city. It may be, but I do not remember it at all, because I saw absolutely nothing. Hour after hour, we wandered, looking down, after the coat-wearing man, who introduced himself as Ivan Gennadyevich, and listened to his stories about the strange life of his team that spends all the time up in the air. He told us about their shifts, where they alternate every six hours, four times during every twenty-four hours, throughout the year, sometimes for months without a day off, and then they take turns taking a week off to catch up on sleep. He spoke about all sorts of junk that big shots from local embassies shove into the plane in every country: “No customs would dare poke their nose in here, so they keep shoving those fridges in, and no one fucking knows what’s inside, might as well be a bag of hashish or something.”
He described what it was like working with Soviet secretary-generals and what it is like working with a president. Talked about how sometimes communications crashed and that man in naval officer's uniform, who follows the Russian president and indeed carries a small suitcase, was left with a useless, disconnected dummy in his hands. Recounted the story of how the team had been gradually brought together from around the country, the team that can not only work with this equipment, but when needed can also rebuild it manually, using nothing but a soldering tool, and can also make suggestions to designers and technicians from time to time. Spoke about wages and about flight pay that had not been paid in a while…
Very late at night we reached the bright neon light of the 24/7 fish market not far from the port, at Pike Place, and, for no apparent reason, wandered a little in-between the rows of tuna, halibut and crabs buried in ice, while carrying on with our conversation.
Then we took our seats at a random coffee place around the corner. It gave off a rather non-American smell of good coffee, and the shelves were filled with different Arabica packages, as well as pyramids of cute mugs and coffee pots bearing a funny green logo with a fat-bottomed green mermaid who for some reason was lifting not one, but two tails at once.
We were drinking cappuccino with a thick head of milk foam from giant glasses and eating cute little biscuits, somewhat similar to the good old cookies from a Soviet school cafeteria that cost 11 kopecks, only these ones had slightly sour currants inside.
It was later that I found out that this coffee place was a unique historical location, a memorial of sorts – the first Starbucks in the world. None of them existed outside the United States yet, and even in America the chain was only starting to take off. And the cookies turned out to be an old British sweet treat, originally from Scotland, bearing the name of scone. I have no idea whether one should pronounce that name as /skɒn/ rhyming with gone or /skoʊn/ rhyming with cone, but making them is a piece of cake. Look, I baked another batch, while writing this.
First, measure out a full cup of small black raisins or some dried berries (black currants are best of all, but cranberries, or small cherries, or blueberries would also work), then pour a shot of vodka or rum on them and leave for half an hour to soak.
In the meantime, put half a kilo of ordinary wheat flour (i.e. not baker’s grade flour) in a wide handy bowl and mix with a small handful of corn flour, three table spoons of fine sugar powder, a teaspoon of salt and two packages of powdered dough loosener. Cut half a pack of very cold, preferably slightly frozen, butter into small cubes, put into this dry mix and quickly grind between your palms to produce small uniform grit similar to bread crumbs. Add the soaked berries together with leftover liquid and mix up.
Now it is time to switch on the oven — let it heat up to 200 degrees C beforehand – and prepare the baking pan. Lay the baking parchment on the bottom and slightly grease it with butter.
Now pour one and a half glasses of milk – the colder, the better – into the bowl with your flour mix and quickly and energetically knead the dough. I suggest using two forks to do it, because the warmth of your palms might turn the dough into gruel that will stick to everything.
As soon as the dough forms a neat smooth lump and gets unstuck from the bowl walls, drop it onto the board slightly dusted with flour, flatten into a three-centimeter ‘pancake’ and use a glass or a special metal cutter of the right size to produce thick patties. Naturally, you should quickly lump the cuttings together and repeat the procedure.
Place the dough patties on the baking pan with enough space in-between, keeping in mind that during baking they will fatten up and rise. Rub the patties with whipped egg and put into the oven for 15-20 minutes, until they become brown on top and until a match you stick into the thickest one of them comes out dry.
Help yourself to the scones – whether you rhyme them with gone or cone – almost immediately, while they are still warm. I insist that you put some cold butter on the edge before each bite, spread some fragrant jam on the top – raspberry, or orange, or, let’s say, apricot – and tuck in, before the butter melts.
Ivan Gennadyevich, I have changed your name for the sake of secrecy after all. But if you are reading this and know that this is about you, come forward, will you? I will treat you to those biscuits. Do you remember the biscuits?
A basket of scones for a big company (around fifteen pieces)
■ 500 g of wheat flour and another handful of corn flour
■ 2 packages (10 g each) of powdered dough loosener
■ 3 tablespoons of sugar
■ 120 g of cold butter and another piece to grease the baking pan
■ 1 full cup of small black raisins or some small dried berries
■ 1 shot of vodka or rum
■ 300 ml of cold milk
■ 1 egg