Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's a Wedding!

Barb Wieser, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Crimea continues to share her experiences living--and eating--  in a Crimean Tatar settlement outside Simferopol.  You can read about a pre-wedding feast here, but below, the wedding! 

In the Crimean Tatar tradition, there are two weddings—one given by the bride’s family for her family and friends and one by the groom’s family for his family and friends, and even the bride and groom’s parents don’t go to both. These aren’t wedding ceremonies, but rather lavish parties which take place one night apart. And these two parties happen even if they all live in the same neighborhood. And somewhere in there is the actual ceremony and registration, the registration taking place at a “registration house” which we might call a wedding chapel, and the religious ceremony in this case at the mosque in the Khan’s Palace in Bakchseray. And even both families don’t attend these events—at least I know Maia and Server (my neighbors, the groom’s parents) didn’t.

... I spent almost the whole day at the neighbors, helping them prepare food for the wedding celebration that night where 250 people were expected. It was to be held at a restaurant, but the restaurant was only providing the meat dishes, and we all prepared the salads, cold cuts, etc. There were at least fifteen women or more working away at Maia’s—relatives, friends, and neighbors. I was on the backyard crew as we first sliced mounds of eggplant which were then fried in a large wok type pan over an open fire.

Later they were smeared with fresh garlic and mayonnaise and rolled up with chopped tomatoes inside and a sprig of parsley sticking out (top picture).  Quite lovely and very tasty. Went on to chopping artificial crab, cucumbers, peppers, olives, cheese for salads, and slicing huge chunks of cheese and sausages, taking a few breaks for beer and coffee (not combined!), and of course, talking and laughing the whole time. I really couldn’t follow the conversations, and as least some of them were in Crimean Tatar, but I loved being with everyone anyhow, participating in the work of the wedding.

We finally finished after about five hours, and all the food was hauled over to the wedding place. So much of the wedding was like wedding receptions we know in the States—food, drinking, music, dancing—all the basics. And here is what was different, what it made it a uniquely Crimean Tatar wedding:

For one thing, the food. There was soooo much of it, not enough room on the tables, and it kept coming all night. Many different salads, plates of cheeses and sausages and some kind of traditional meal jelly, chunks of bread, platters of camca (pastries stuffed with meat), chunks of mutton with potatoes, and a sort of breaded and fried ground meat that I forgot the name of. Also, each table had bottles of vodka, wine, juice, and water.

And then there was the music. I had heard about Crimean Tatar wedding music, indeed preserving its traditions is one of the missions of the NGO I have worked with, but apart from the music drifting out of the wedding tents in Ak Mechet, I had never really listened to it or seen it performed. I think it is what we would recognize as Turkish music but with a kind of joyousness to it. And the musicians were just fabulous—a violinist, saxophonist, accordion player, drummer, trumpet player, and maybe one more. I kept thinking that to hire a band like that for a wedding in the States would be a fortune. And that is the really interesting part of it all—the musicians are paid by people dancing with members of the wedding party. First, the sister and brother of the groom—people lined up to dance with them for a few minutes and give them some cash. Later, a pair of elderly twin aunts in identical dresses, two young men, and then finally the bride and groom. In between this dancing, there was general dancing that everyone joined in. Crimean Tatars do love to dance!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Forest Forage: What Can be Found?

Jud Dolphin, another Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, has generously allowed us to share this post from his own blog about a day in the forest.   He's living and working in Konotop, in Sumy Oblast in northern Ukraine.  If you want to read the full adventure (and if you're a rail fan you will) just click here.

My day begins with a phone call from Annya. I have known her for over a year and every time she calls me something interesting is bound to happen. "My Babushka wants to know if you want to go to the forest."

Among Ukrainians, going to the forest is one of the preferred leisure activities. Ukrainians love their land and especially the forests. I've heard many a discourse bestowing the benefits of pine scented air and the healing qualities of nature's beauty. They say going to the forest can heal mind, body and soul. Who am I to disagree?

Annya continues, "My Babushka has a special place to pick ground apples. Will you join her and a couple of friends?"

I have learned to never say no to an invitation and immediately agree. I will learn about foraging for ground apples.... whatever that may be.

It's a beautiful day. The oppressive heat of a few weeks ago is gone. Blue skies mixed with delicious marshmallow clouds hover over golden fields. The sunflower crop has been harvested and the corn awaits its turn. Distant clusters of people work fields by hand. I think they are harvesting potatoes for their family's winter meals.

Much of the land is unploughed. I am told that ownership disputes have not been settled since the demise of Communism. In addition, markets and infrastructure for crops are undeveloped. Ukraine is rich in natural resources, but has yet to benefit fully.

I look out over the Ukrainian landscape. I try to imprint the images into my mind. I am aware that my time in Ukraine is running down. Already I have been here more time than remains. I want to capture the sights for my old age memories.

Summer is turning towards Fall. Fields in greens, yellows and browns flow across the horizon. Mounds of hay dot the landscape. Stork nests adorn the tops of electric poles like large baskets A horse drawn cart trots down a two rut path. Flocks of geese waddle across a pond. Babushkas sit on benches outside of village homes watching our train swoosh by.

Now into the forest, we go. Sun shadows speckles our path. A backdrop of white pines scent the air. Here and there, a cluster of birch trees stand out. I am feeling the healing qualities.

We walk and then walk some more. After about 3 kilometers, we spy our first ground apples. They are about the size of golf balls or even smaller. They grow under the white pines on ground hugging shrubs. "Pick the yellow ones and leave the green for later," my Babushka instructs.

We get busy filling bags and then pouring the contents of our bags into a big sack. Babushka and her sister have a family dispute about the best way to hitch the sack to the bike. I have been taking photos and now capture the squabble. We all begin to laugh. Sisters will be sisters.

The ground apples are terribly sour like lemons. Each one will be cored and either boiled for compote juice or ground into marmalade. It's a lot of work.

And what are those ground apples?  They're quince.   I couldn't locate a Ukrainian quince marmalade recipe, but here's an American one--from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer, published in 1918, via Bartleby.com.  Enjoy!

Quince Marmalade
Wipe quinces, remove blossom ends, cut in quarters, remove seeds; then cut in small pieces. Put into a preserving kettle, and add enough water to nearly cover. Cook slowly until soft. Rub through a hair sieve, and add three-fourths its measure of heated sugar. Cook slowly twenty minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Put in tumblers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Family Feast in Crimea

Barb Wieser is a Peace Corps volunteer at the Gasprinsky Library in Simferopol and lives outside the city in a Crimean Tatar settlement.  Crimean Tatars have a long history on the Crimea Peninsula but, in a stunning display of ethnic cleansing, Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population on a single day in 1944, sending hundreds of thousands to Uzbekistan and other distant Soviet republics, with as many as half the population dying en route and in the following months.  But the end of the Soviet Union meant the opportunity for Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, now a part of Ukraine, and the Crimean Tatar population in Crimea now numbers more than 250,000.  Despite deportation and cultural repression, the Crimean Tatars preserved many of their own traditions.  Barb was generous enough to share her experience preparing for a pre-wedding Crimean Tatar feast. 

Abdul, the oldest son of my landlords, Server and Maia, is getting married September 18th. There has been much talk and preparations for the wedding for quite some time. I am invited, of course, and I have been looking forward to attending my first time to a Crimean Tatar wedding! By all accounts, they are quite the event, and include all night eating, dancing, and toasting. Despite the fact that Crimean Tatars are Muslims, they still do a lot of drinking, kind of like the Turks. The joke is that there is nothing in the Koran about not drinking vodka.  Two weekends ago there was a large gathering at Maia and Server's house, a traditional part of the pre-wedding ritual where the two families exchange presents, and the imam comes and blesses the couple. 45 guests were expected: relatives, neighbors, friends and many of the relatives showed up the night before and spent the weekend.

Earlier in the week I had offered to help with the cooking, so I spent much of Friday next door in the kitchen with Maia and her sisters, daughter, and mother, chopping vegetables and meat, getting ready for the early morning feast preparation the next day.  One of the traditions in Muslim culture for a large ritual gathering such as this is to slaughter a goat, or in the case of the Crimean Tatars, a sheep, to provide meat for all the dishes. Maia had told me that her brother-in-law was bringing a sheep to slaughter on Friday, but somehow the reality of that hadn't sunk in until I came home from work Friday afternoon and glanced into the back yard, and there was a sheep, laying under the tree, staring at me with his woeful (or so I felt) eyes. I really didn't want to be present for the actual slaughter, so I disappeared into my house for awhile. When I came out later, the brother-in-law and nephew were hacking away at the sheep carcass. Two cooking fires had been started and large wok-looking pans were placed on them to cook the food needed for the feast. Later that evening, a delicious mutton soup was made for the neighbors and relatives who had gathered to help with food preparations.

After watching them for awhile, I went inside and started helping the sisters chop and peel vegetables--mounds of carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic--taking out time to have coffee and green tea and of course, talk.   One of my other jobs that evening was grinding of sheep meat to be used to make dolmades (stuffed peppers) the following day. As I was chopping up chunks of meat to be fed into the grinder, I thought of that living creature whose eyes I had looked into not so long ago, and whose body I now held in my hands and was making preparations to eat. Not since I was a child on my grandparents farm and watched the caged up chickens before their slaughter (one of which I let loose and got into big trouble) have I been so close to the connection between animal life and the meat I eat. Maybe it is the connection with mammal's that is so profound, as I have also frequently caught fish and killed and ate them. I just couldn't and still can't get the vision of that sheep's face from my mind. I tried to thank the sheep for giving its life so I can eat, but somehow, I don't think it is enough. But I continue to eat meat at my neighbors' homes and when I go to Crimean Tatar restaurants. Perhaps this experience will help me to remember what it is I am eating and to be consciously thankful that an animal has given its life for my food.

By the time I went next door, all the food had been prepared and the festivities were in full swing. I tried to help with serving, etc. but I was clearly to be treated as a guest and was escorted upstairs to dine with all the women. I hadn't realized that was going to happen, so I felt way underdressed for the event, but no one but me seemed to mind. Quite a feast was laid on the table. Plates of fruits, olives, cheeses, and sweets. A thick mutton soup was served and then the dolmades along with leposhka, the traditional Crimean Tatar bread. Afterwords, there were platters of cookies, cakes, and candies, and tea and coffee were served. It is the Crimean Tatar tradition to serve first Turkish coffee and then green tea. When I asked about this, someone told me it was because in Crimea before the deportation, people only drank coffee. But in Uzbekistan coffee wasn't available, so they drank green tea. So when people came back to Crimea, they began to serve both!

Finally I went back to my house, enriched by yet another Crimean Tatar experience and full of love for this wonderful culture I have found myself in.

Thanks, Barb, for sharing this.  More posts from Peace Corps Volunteers to come, and of course, all of our Pickle Project readers are invited to share their stories and memories about food traditions in Ukraine.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Marvel of Melon!

It is in these dwindling days of summer (or the very first days of autumn) that we really appreciate the luxury and succulence of the season’s produce. And, for me, the melon, bright and invigorating, is the pinnacle. When melons enter the bazaar, a sweet and distinctive aroma fills your nose, long before your eyes lay upon them. Fresh from the vine, watermelons (кавун) and muskmelons (dynya) are the delight of Ukraine’s late summer markets.

Native to tropical Africa, watermelons have crisp, red (or yellow) flesh while muskmelons, with soft orange or pale green flesh, originate in central Asia. Watermelons and muskmelons are both members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squashes, pumpkins and cucumbers. Melons, both watermelons and muskmelons, are rather fickle fruits, sensitive to frosts and cold, windy or cloudy conditions. They thrive in warm, sunny weather and humus-rich, well-drained, if slightly acidic, soils. The greater southern Dnieper valley regions of Zaporizhzhya, Mykolayiv and Kherson, as well as portions of the Crimean peninsula afford ideal conditions for these delicate beauties. And, thus, Ukrainians have developed a particular fondness for the fruits and adeptness in their cultivation. Indeed, melons have been cultivated in Ukraine for some 15 centuries. According to a USDA report, fossilized melon seeds found during excavations of sites near Sevastopol dated to the 2nd century BC! In addition, genetic research suggests that Ukraine is also significant hub of genetic melon diversity. It seems Ukrainians (and Russians) carried some of the seeds of these diverse strains with them as they immigrated to North America, notably to Central Canada, home to famous varieties such as the buttery yellow “Cream of Saskatchewan.”

As with most fruits, melons are sweetest and most delicious when ripened on the vine. As for choosing a watermelon at the perfect stage of ripeness, it can be tricky because the outer skin, often green and zebra-striped, remains so regardless of fruit readiness. At my regular market haunts, growers, sellers and fellow patrons are usually glad to provide advice for spotting, slapping, squeezing or sniffing out the ideal specimen.

If selection assistance is not a service provided by your melon merchant, as may occasionally be the case, you may choose to defer to the advice of American writer, Mark Twain, who, I gather, was something of a watermelon aficionado and, according to my treasured 17th edition of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1971), is said to opined: an unripe melon says “pink” or “pank” when rapped with the knuckles, while a ripe one replies “punk.”

Muskmelons, of course, provide an unmistakable perfume, smelling delicious when they are delicious. They also tend to soften after being picked and may give a bit under the thumb. I have been informed that they may also rattle when lightly shaken, as the seeds move about in the hollow center.

In addition to the fleeting joys of fresh melons, there is also the magic of pickled watermelon! Sometimes sweet, sometimes salty and savory, sometimes spicy and sweet, both the flesh and the rinds of the watermelon are pickled and make a wonderful appetizer or relish for warm, mid-winter meals.

The drying of muskmelons, both flesh and rinds, is a preservation technique that apparently originates in the Caucus region and is popular in some Ukrainian communities, particularly in Crimea. While I heard much about this practice third-hand, I do not know anyone that does this! If you have experience drying muskmelons, drop us a line!

For a fabulous pickled watermelon recipe and related articles, visit Saveur.

To learn more about Ukraine and genetic diversity of melons, see the USDA Agricultural Research Service 2009 study.

For information about growing watermelons, muskmelons and cantaloupe, I recommend Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, any edition.

As always, Culinaria Russia: Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, edited by Marion Trutter, published by H. Fullmann, 2006 is a great resource on the food traditions of the Post-Soviet Space.