My mother always had that thing for Russia; or rather Russian, the language. As a young student, when she was preparing her exams to become a teacher, she decided to take it on after English. This was a rare move at the time, but the curriculum offered it. She told me one day, that most of her classmates got to visit St Petersburg and Moscow, a one in a lifetime travel, and came back with fantastic tales that she cherished all her life; being from a very humble upbringing, she didn’t make the journey… She sure loved whatever came from Russia, the music, the literature, the language and to be honest, while if I have never been, I can say that there is an amazing charm to this nation. I was more interested in the rock band “Center” or “Центр” with their hit song of the 80’s called Привет тебе (Hello to you). I also liked to read a bit of Dostoyevsky and fell in love with one of François Cavanna’s autobiography called “Les Russkoffs”, friendly French slang for Russians. The guy was one of the main founders of the notorious magazine “Charlie Hebdo”. Yes indeed, she had a certain affection for this country; I remember that anecdote, when Sting released his controversial song “Russians” in 1985; the catchy tune finished each verse by saying: “[…] if the Russians love their children too”, to which my mother replied to herself and for all to hear:” Ppfff… Well of course they love their children…”.
As I was approaching my Junior Cert years, it was time for me to pick a second language. At that stage, English was the normal choice for first, and two years later, most kids would go for Spanish, Italian or German. We had a quick conversation my mother and I, in a purely democratic way of course, and it went like this… I swear!
Mother: “So, come on, I have to write your second language option on that sheet” Me: “I want to do Italian…” Mother: “Why?” Me: “I don’t know, I like the sound of it” Mother: “That is ridiculous… Ridiculous and lazy Franck!!!” Me:” why is it lazy?” Mother: “because it is like French, you just have to put an “i” or an “o” at the end of each word, and there you have it, Italian…” Mother (continuing on her aggravating rant): “I tell you what, you’ll do Russian, like I did, it’s great, you’ll see!!! You’ll love it; there, here is one of my books, you can familiarise yourself with the alphabet, an M is a T, a C is an S, a P is an R, an N is a P and if you see the letters that looks like a “61” well that is pronounced “ey”… What do you say?” Me (under my breath to avoid a slap): “I am fucked, aren’t I?”.
I was to go and study Russian for the next seven years after that; it was so popular as a second language that I ended up on my own with a Bulgarian teacher for three long years, joined by three other pupils included my sister for an extra four ( ha-ha, she got you too!). Saying all those mean things, and glancing back with a more mature look, I am glad I have done so. It gave my life a sense of self importance, especially at social gatherings where it used to be my party trick, writing my friends names in the complex Cyrillic alphabet, but it also opened a window to another culture. My Mum thought that I would make a career in exports or something, or maybe was worried that Russians might invade us one day, I don’t know. No, seriously, I am glad I did it… But since I work now in the artisan food business, I really miss the fact that I didn’t study Italian… Sorry comrades, but that is the truth.
Food wise, my knowledge of Russian dishes was a bit of an abyss. My Mum brought us one day, myself with Harvey and Gay, brothers with – let’s say – pretty left wing ideologies, my old pal Arny and my Sister tagging along, to a newly opened restaurant in town; she was besides herself with excitement, speaking Russian with the owners, a very friendly couple from Moscow; great hearty food. An evening of laughter and a sweet memory for me as I could see how happy my mother was; it was her way, I guess, to do that little journey to Russia, a journey prevented by poor but honest financial means at that time of her life. A short few years later, I had moved to Galway; I was amused to see that a lot of the food joints of “The City of Tribes” had beef stroganoff on their menu, heavy with cream and pickled gherkins. I had it a few times, remembering with candour our wonderful meal in Gulia’s. I make it from time to time; the last one was on Sunday, after my friend from Flood’s Butchers in Oldcastle gave me two t-bone steaks. “Try this” he said… “You’re a good man” he said, after I did a small favour for them… It might appear sacrilegious to some but I did it the Stroganoff way, to me the best way to go. And this is how it went:
- Two T-Bone steaks, boned and cut into strips
- A wee tray of mushrooms, washed and stalks removed ( as much as one likes mushrooms)
- Three shallots
- Three medium carrots chopped
- Two cloves of garlic roughly crushed
- A dash of balsamic vinegar ( or a glass of white wine)
- 25 cl of good beef stock
- Fresh thyme
- A tbsp of tomato purée
Once the meat has been stripped off the bone and cut into strips, sauté in a hot pan with olive oil; once it starts to go brown, add the carrots and stir. Pour a good dash of balsamic vinegar and let it reduce, then pour the beef stock and let it reduce. Add the tomato purée, stir, add salt and pepper and cover with water. Let it simmer gently until reduced by half. In another pan, sauté the shallots with the whole mushrooms; once golden, add to the main pan with the beef. Let it simmer for a bit, the whole operation should take about 30 to 40 minutes. Remember to season to taste and that it is not quite a stew!
To serve, I like a bit of cucumber, sliced and mixed with yogurt, olive oil and lime juice with fresh herbs like mint and fennel. I serve it with good quality rice, but this one is up to you. I guess it is lighter in summer. But not freaking pickled gherkins… Come on!
I tried to remain faithful to an original recipe, without cream and even paprika like one can see sometimes. It is easy, very satisfying, and other steak cuts can be used. If you get a chance, browse around what traditional Russia has to offer in terms of food, it is quite interesting and definitely inspiring!
Keep Well and Eat Happy