Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The importance of pig trotters

To perform this delicate operation one must use a special metal device that is long and slim, and is shaped as a double-edge fork. One uses one side of the apparatus with its two prongs to insert it carefully into the opening of the bone and lift up the thick fluid inside. Then, with the other side of the tool that has a shallow spoon-like ending, begin to remove the substance inside, making sure not to break the fragile internal walls of the bone. One should then pick up the griddled slice of bread and spread this milky-grey matter onto the toast, sprinkle it with a few large grains of sea salt and some parsley leaves. Put the prepared slice in your mouth and savour the rich flavour...

The taste of the bone marrow, even without all the add-ons, is that of delicious and savoury…fat. A milder, runnier version, perfect to add to your Sunday morning scrambled eggs or mix in with some boiled new potatoes. We had the marrow as a starter: four vertically standing stubs of the bone brought in spectacularly from an open-plan kitchen. This visually slightly unsettling and gustatory reassuring dish was a telling beginning of a very memorable dinner to follow.

When Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened ‘St John’ on the premises of the former smokehouse in the City of London in 1994, their idea of ‘nose to tail’ eating was pre-revolutionary really. The ethos of eating every bit of an animal had come long before it became somewhat of a norm amongst the British foody folk. But the restaurant quickly became a sensation and acquired a half-legendary reputation over the years. 'St John' is situated around the corner from London's Smithfield Market, the old meat market that has existed in the area in various forms for over 800 years. 'St John's proximity to this carnivorous centre is not a coincidence, but, one really feels, its raison d’etre. Smithfield is a very fitting setting for a restaurant that values an animal's flesh and bones in its entirety and is not afraid to offer such delicacies as lamb tongues and pork chitterlings in the same confident fashion as a workers’ caf supplies bacon and eggs.

Before entering the restaurant we wondered around the market. It was a very quiet Sunday morning, and so only a few estranged tourists were around. An empty carcass of this centuries-old market with its high-ceilinged arch reminded us of its bloody history of executions of heretics and political opponents. Smithfield is one of the oldest markets in London and one of the few not to have moved from its central site to a location further out. The cold aired walk and the voluptuous poster images of meat and plump wives on sale (apparently a normal activity in England in the Middle Ages) made us even hungrier, and so we turned into a small road with a sign of a pig above the door.

'St John' first appeared to us as a cosy production unit: the walls are white washed, the floors are wooden and pale, and an enormous bread oven is the first thing you see. We then went into a spacious room simply decorated with white-clothed tables and – a relieve after the Sunday emptiness of the streets – many chewing customers. A charming young waiter elegantly crouched down by our table to answer our questions: what is a Berkenwell (a type of cheese); how do you serve your Mince and Tatties (a baked potato with the meat sauce poured over it); what wine will go with my order of Bone Marrow and Parsley salad (Le Clos Domaine Boudau ’07 – lots of red berries and spice). Our second starter was a Rolled Pig Spleen and Bacon which came as a thin pate-like slice served with red onions, tiny gherkins and red vinegar. We both agreed that the combination of the liver-esque pate with a crunchy bacon was a very promising beginning to the meal. They say the quality of the bread a restaurant serves is a good indicator of what’s to come. Well, the chunks (and they were chunks and not slices) of big pored, crusty soughdough, white and wholemeal, we devoured with some comforting butter, set our expectations very high. But we were wrong…

The dishes to follow were even better than we had anticipated. As a main course I had a Grouse served on its own, just with some properly made bread sauce on a side. This plump Scottish bird, known to the majority by its complainty association, should be very happy knowing that its wild life ended merrily on our plates with flesh still bloody and taste so intense that its £27 price tag seemed like a very fair deal. Jonathan said the taste of the bird reminded him of both sea fish and grass-fed lamb. Not a very appetizing description I admit, but the grouse’s meat does have that iodine, fresh flavour. If you like the gamey taste at all, the grouse is the most concentrated version you can get.

Our second dish was an almost too normal in this setting - Roast Beef with Horseradish and Shallots. The two thick slivers of pink beef were everything that a standard pub equivalent isn’t – juicy, lots of real cow flavour, tasty. The horseradish was so much more radishy than creamy that my Russian tastebuds went into overdrive and so I ate all the remaining relish with the remaining bread. The side dish of sprouting tops, bitter with copious amounts of butter, was so good that we thought to come back the next day just to have them for lunch.

By the time the puddings came we felt greedy and even more adventurous. The waiter slightly lost his chilled composure on receiving our order, big enough for four. My favourite plate was an Eccles Cake with Lancashire cheese. I was curious about this unusual combination and was rewarded for my interest: the cake with its flaky pastry and a rich filling of spicy raisins matched perfectly the mild, crumbly and ever so slightly sour cheese. The second dessert of the Burned Cream Ice Cream had a divine textural combination: velvety ice cream and crunchy warm pieces of caramel. The best pud came annoyingly last just as we started loosing our determination: the Steamed Treacle Sponge Сake (for two!), all butter and sugar, was so light and syrapy that we just sat there smacking our lips, going slowly but steadily through the whole dish, pouring more and more of the warm custard. We were full and happy. We knew we would be back.

'St John' is a rare find – a restaurant that manages to be so effortlessly unpretentious, and at the same time so elegant and self-assured. The short menu that only lists the main ingredients of each dish means that you order the food and not the intricacies of its preparation. This restaurant knows its value (eg the Christmas party arrangements firmly discourages festive paraphernalia from the tables), but does not brag about it. There is no music in the restaurant and waiters talk to you with the knowledge that comes from not just loving the food they serve, but from having detailed understanding of the processes involved and what this information means to you, the customer. We want to come back to try every single dish on the daily changing menu (Snail, Sausage & Chick Pea? Faggot aqnd Celeriac? Fig Bakewell Tart?). Oh, and we will be back because having the whole roasted suckling pig seems like a fabulous idea to celebrate my entry into the next decade!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Learning how to boil water

Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food has received a colossal amount of media coverage recently. Oliver’s theory is that if you teach one person to cook, that person will pass the skills onto others close to him, thus transferring the knowledge to a continually widening group. Jamie’s experiment in Rotherham has certainly had an impact (although how far this programme can go without the man’s celebrity endorsement is a question at the moment), but few have questioned the assumption that cooking is actually of value, to an individual and to the society. Why is cooking so good for you? With all the frenzy surrounding TV chefs and such overused terms as seasonality and sustainability, we seem to be taking for granted that knowing how to cook is in itself better than, say, saving one’s time by buying a ready meal and engaging in some other activities?

Just how important is cooking to the nation’s psychic and, importantly, its belt size? Is the government’s attempt to make people want to learn to cook is just a disguised (or rather explicit?) attempt to reduce the NHS bill – an understandable but somewhat mechanical effort? Can cooking skills actually bring about more profound changes, such as getting communities together, opening up people's taste buds and, hopefully, their minds to other influences?

I like cooking; I love food and I am very open to tasting new and different things. I attribute my overarching love affair with food to my mother – who was born in the WWII in the south of Ukraine in a family of peasants who had moved to a city to survive the shortages of food. For my mother, as for the majority of women then and now, cooking is an essential part of life. It is their domain, their comfort zone, their way of expressing themselves. I remember vividly learning to light a gas cooker at the tender age of seven or eight; baking biscuits from a recipe in the old soviet good housekeeping encyclopedia at the age of 12; and my mother teaching me how to make a traditional Ukrainian beetroot soup, borsch, when I was about 14. As most women who had learnt to cook from their mothers, she could not provide precise instructions or measures when transferring her skills to me. Her ‘a bit of salt’ and ‘until it looks cooked’ puzzled me a lot, but it gave me a sense of food. It later allowed me to apply the learnt skills to many other dishes. As many people across the world, my mother associated food with comfort and love. Cooking allowed her to be creative. She passed these skills and feelings onto me, so later, when I wanted to re-connect with that sense of homeyness, I tried to recreate her dishes: the activity allowed me to feel less lonely living in a new country; it gave me a sense of confidence when wooing men.

I am now a fully-pledged foody, but my becoming an obsessed food-lover, I believe, has been influenced as much by the developments of the food trends in the UK over the last 10 years, as by my mum’s cooking skills. I have arrived at a point where I can combine such basic knowledge given by my mum of how to make a beetroot soup sweet (fry onions, slowly and carefully) with the ideas found in cook books (add vodka for an extra effect), and my own twist (chopped chilly adds so much fun). But I have spent the last ten years in London, being actively curious about the food developments, wanting to go beyond simple, basic combinations. Can cooking skills alone change people’s habits and attitudes? Or by force feeding them the skills we make them detest the idea of ‘labouring’ at the stove even more?

I am thinking back to my mother’s relatives living a simple life in a large industrial Ukrainian city. For them cooking is still a normal way of life. Women in the family tend to stay at home, and so they start their day by making hearty breakfasts, planning filling lunches, and spend afternoons shopping for and preparing dinners. Such factors as seasonality are not just trendy words for them, but a practical reality – food in season is cheaper. And so pretty much every meal they have is freshly made from seasonal produce available locally.

Just as ‘normal’ for them is, however, to consume large quantities of – processed, cheap – meat; and to eat every meal with alarming amounts of – cheap, factory-produced – mayonnaise. The reasons for these habits are manifold: as in many other, more conservative and/or traditional societies, meat is equated with status, with power, with strength, which means that for men in my family there is no meal without meat. Buying fresh, good quality meat is simply beyond their purse capability, however. Besides, butchers have almost completely disappeared following the years of happy communism. Mayonnaise is another tradition. It had become such a staple throughout the USSR (plenty of sunflower oil? Preference for sharp taste? Long shelf life? Or is it just good for covering up bad and tasteless food?) that many seemed to have lost their ability to taste salads without a thick layer of the white stuff.

In my opinion, what Jamie calls ‘knowledge poverty’, plays a big role here. My relatives in Ukraine, as do many other people across the globe, want their husbands, children, parents to be strong and healthy. But they don’t know how to cook healthily (or the knowledge is out of date, or too limited, or simply erroneous). They have limited knowledge of how to connect food that they consume with healthy arteries and strong muscles (this is particularly noticeable in men’s diets, where fat in food doesn’t translate into fat on bodies straight away, as is often the case with women, and so they continue gorging themselves on sausages full of preservatives to a happy heart attack at the age of 60).

With all my love for food and cooking, I wonder if teaching people the skills to cook does actually bring about the required change. In the Middle East where cooking is still a norm in people’s houses, the levels of obesity are growing fast. The link between people’s knowledge and their habits had evidently been broken down in many industrialised, developing and developed countries. So is it a role of a state to explain and inspire? Do such models as Hugh and Jamie really help to re-connect the broken link, or does is it just about learning a few trendy skills to show off in front of your mates?

My personal shift in understanding food and its role in health and community building happened when I started trying to appreciate food I was eating. It came to wanting to taste the difference between a paper-thin slice of Hovis and a chunk of sourdough bread from a local bakery. Just a few days ago, after initiating a silly and pointless argument with my husband (which even thoughtful foodies do), I was chewing on a piece of bread whilst sulking and feeling righteous. After a couple of minutes of mindless chewing I started noticing the depth of the bread’s flavour, its fresh and robust texture, its delicate pale crust. I imagined the careful hands who had spent good several days making this loaf – yes organic, and yes artisan – and my anger begun to dissipate. I just couldn’t continue self-pitting myself when there was something so beautiful and so wise in my hands. But then I had an idea about the quality of this bread and the labour involved in making it. I had allowed my tongue (and my brain) to take time and effort to learn the difference. And, yes, cooking had been part of this learning experience, but only just that, the rest is about time and priorities (and I firmly believe it is not about money, at least not in the industrial world). Is it too much to expect from a single mother living on a council estate? Well, if Jamie can teach her how to boil water, I would like to think that something, or someone, will allow her to take time next time she puts a piece of bread in her mouth and notice the difference.

Borsch a la Katyusha
serves at least 10

200 g onions, chopped finely
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 tbs tomato paste
200g carrots, grated
1 red chilly, chopped finely
1 small leek, sliced finely
around 600g of boiled beetroot (please, not the vacuum packed kind), grated
350g potatoes, cubed
250g white cabbage, finely sliced
200g swede, cubed
300g red kidney beans, previously soaked and boiled until well cooked
50 ml vodka
oil for cooking
half a lemon
4 litres of cold water
salt, about 7 black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves
to serve - sourcream and chopped parsley

Sweat onions, with garlic and tomato paste over low heat for approximately 15-20 minutes. Add carrots, leek and chilly, mix and allow to cook a little whilst you are heating up water.

When water is boiling, put peppercorns and bay leaves. Add potatoes and swede and simmer for a couple of minutes. Then add cabbage and simmer for another couple of minutes. Finally add the prepared earlier onion and carrot mixture, making sure that all the juices and scraps from the pan go into the stock. Add beetroot, squeeze the lemon and let the skin infuse the soup whilst all the vegetables simmer for another 10 minutes or so (the lemon allows colours to come to life and adds a certain zing).

A couple of minutes before the soup is ready, add beans and let them simmer slowly for a minute or so. Add vodka and stir well.

Blend 3/4 of the ready soup, retaining some of the chunks as they add texture and taste to the final combination. Check for seasoning, add parsley and heat up the whole mixture gently. Cover with a lid and let the borsch stand for at least 1o minutes (it's even better the following day). Eat with a dollop of sourcream, more sprinkled parsley and milled black pepper.Do the soup justice by serving it with proper rye bread, or at least some robust sough dough. Na zdorovye!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Borek: layers of dough and family history

You walk into the light and airy room, and immediately you are transfixed by the movement of two hands: they swirl, they throw and caress what seems like a flexible and rapidly expanding circle of material. These masterful hands are old, but strong and knowledgeable. You realise quickly that they are the centre of everything that happening in this room, and that everyone’s eyes are following this play between the inanimate material and live limbs. You then come to hear the cling-cling of tulip glasses, the whisper of moving chairs and eventually the chatter of those who, just like you, have come here to witness the repeated magic of borek-making. Master Tefvik’s borek-making.

Tefvik is a modest and wise king of this heart-warming place that is the size of an average kitchen that has just a few simple white tables with low stools and a heart of an old and faithful oven in the middle with an ordinary fork serving as its lock. The master has been making his boreks for over 40 years; and his little bakery-cum-café had been run by his ancestors since 1930s. You want to understand the secret of this magic and sit down at one of the tiny tables, smiling shyly but happily. You watch again the assertive hands, this time noticing that their owner takes a shiny ball of dough out of a tray, roll it out lightly, throwing the small circle in the air, rotating it, making it double, triple its size; scatter the filling of ricotta-type cheese or mince meat; fold it; brush it with a golden glue of warm butter and feed the oven with this envelope. This is not the usual pie encountered in so many bakeries around Turkey…Whilst waiting for your breakfast you reminisce at what you know about the omnipresent borek and think back to your first encounter in Istanbul

is a filled pie made out of flaky dough that has many incarnations around the Mediterranean sea and the Balkans: it is a Byrek in Albania where it is made with pumpkin and spinach; it is a Boereg and spicy in Armenia; in Bosnia the Burek is always meat-filled and shaped like an American cinnamon bun; even the Tatarn Cheborek is a brother of Turkish Borek – it is made with an unleavened dough and deep-fried. In Turkey the word Borek refers to many variations of this dish, but almost always it is made out of thin flaky dough known as phyllo dough (or yufka dough), and is filled with salty cheese (often feta), minced meat, potatoes or other vegetables. You often see large round trays of Boreks in windows of bakeries throughout Turkey, where the pie is cut into different shapes (depending on its filling and cooking method) and sold by weight. Turks eat Boreks for breakfast with tea, for lunch with ayran (a yoghurt drink), as a snack through the day, and for dinner as meze. Its popularity amongst all society levels throughout history is probably of the same origin as of a Cornish pasty or a Russian pirozok – it is a piece of bread with a filling, that can be eaten hot or cold, as a fancy dish at an aristocratic table or in a field under the tiring sun.

The king of boreks is a su borek, or a water borek. Called like this because the preparation of the dough for this kind is a laboursome method involving briefly boiling the sheets of dough, blanching them in ice (to stop the cooking) and smearing them with melted butter. The result is a heart-stoppingly delicious square of layered dough and a filling, often cheese, very light and scrumptious. You were very fortunate to taste this expensive treat at a small birthday gathering in Istanbul – su borek had just been baked and was only still warm. The silkiness of the dough layers on your tongue, the aroma of the sunny melted butter and the freshness of the citrusy cheese filling slowly going down your throat were a thrill to all your senses. It was both a comforting and intense feeling…

You are back in the warmness of the Antalyan kitchen; you realise that you were awaken from your thoughts by the saliva collecting in your mouth, triggered by the smell first – the combination of just-out-of-the-oven pastry mixed with juicy meat filling, sprinkled with parsley;
then the hardly noticeable sound of crispy dough waking up to the oxygen presence in the room (the uncommon presence of oil in the dough creates this extra crunch); and then the sight...It is a perfect borek, a unique hand-made creation even more perfect from the randomness of its making. You bite into it and are awash with your own memories of the sun-baked Anatolian villages and the warmth and generosity of their inhabitants; you are flooded with the unspoken recollections of the borek-maker. You can almost see Tefvik’s face some 50 years ago, standing by the side of his dad, his head hardly reaching the height of the table in a room dusted with flour, lit by the sun and amber of tea. The boy's little curious face was witnessing the same magic you have just been part of…

And you desperately want the circles of lives and pastry to continue existing for another billion of years, in spite of the worrying tabloid headlines, crushing reality of big cities, or broken family chains, when children want to live in a modern world, away from the magical, but repetitive movement of the wise hands.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The belly revolutıon

But thıs country does have some successful women storıes. One of them ıs partıcularly close to my heart.
Ebru Baydemır ıs what the Lonely Planet calls a 'local character'. She ıs young, attractıve, dynamıc and owns a hugely successful - and lıcensed! - restaurant ın Mardın, south-east of Turkey. Mardın ıs a jewel of thıs part of Turkey. Some compare thıs mellow town wıth ıts hıllsıde settıng and honey-coloured houses lookıng over a breath-takıngly beautıful Mesopotamıan plaıns to Jerusalem. The town ıs only a short dıstance away from Syrıa and so ıts past and ıts archıtecture ıs a mıxture of old Syrıan orthodox churches and elaborate mosques. Mardın also houses a lovely bazaar. The street that runs ın parallel to the maın drag ıs shady, relatıvely quıet, wıth women ın long robes strollıng up and down pıckıng the best pomegranets, hagglıng for the best value tea sets. The place has no cars or motocycles, and so the maın mode of transport ıs an old and relıable donkey... Thıs was the fırst tıme ın Turkey that I felt I was taken back to my beloved Morocco - a forgotten medıeval pıcture, copper plates and a smell of mud...

Thıs parts of Turkey ıs also one of the most conservatıve and just a few years ago saw very few women on the streets . Ebru wıth her, now a legendary restaurant, 'Cercıs Murat Konagı' has done a lot to change the town and ıts ınhabıtants.

Several years ago Ebru, who ıs orıgınally from Mardın, was workıng ın Istanbul as a tourıst guıde. She realısed the potentıal of Mardın, wıth ıts faıry-tale archıtecture and dıstınct Turkısh-Arabıc feel, and started brıngıng vısıtors to the town. People needed to eat durıng theır stay and so she arranged for a local restaurant to cook for them. The food was always the predıctable kebab and çaı, but ıt was suffıcıent for a whıle, to fill the hunger hole and move on. One day she had a group of women vısıtıng the town who had been so sıck and tıred of the usual, meat-heavy, Turkısh flaır that they asked ıf somethıng lıghter and more ınterestıng could be arranged. Ebru went to the chef to dıscuss the request, but he (who was of course a he) categorıcally refused to prepare anythıng dıfferent, I would assume beıng ınsulted that someone was not content wıth hıs menu. The women were not happy wıth such attıtude and were goıng to move on the followıng day. Ebru came back home, angry and sad, sharıng her emotıons wıth her mother. The older women saıd 'we wıll work somethıng out, brıng them to our house tomorrow'. And so she dıd..

Ebru's mother wıth the help of local women prepared a memorable meal for the group of vısıtors - a combınatıon of trıed and tested dıshes served out of the mıx and match plates and cutlery, all out of the dowry boxes of women from the neıgbourhood. The lunch was a success and gave rıse to Ebru's ıdea to set up her own restaurant, servıng vıllage dıshes wıth some ınventıve touches, prepared by local women. Ebru also became a head of Mardın tourıst assocıatıon and changed the attıtude of thıs heavıly male-domınated town towards women's roles, who at the tıme were almost never workıng outsıde theır homes, let alone opening theır own busınesses. At present, the restaurant employes nearly 20 local women ın the kıtchen. You can actually see them at work vıa a large screen ın the maın restaurant hall, somethıng whıch could not be ımagıned just a few years back when women had to be partıtıoned whılst workıng. But the fact that makes the restaurant a partıcular achıevement I thınk ıs that the food that ıs produced there really ıs good.

I spend good half an hour chattıng to a refreshıngly camp and cheerful waıter, askıng about the ıngrıdıents of varıous dıshes and choosıng what to eat. I then had a stupıdly delıcıous - tart and comfortıng at the same tıme - lentıl soup, whılst dunkıng huge chunks of fluffy Turkısh bread ınto ıt, then followed ın wıth a a number of mezes: a caper salad (capers are apparently grown ın that part of Turkey ın abundance but are rarely eaten by Turks themselves) - the salad was surprısıngly fresh, lemony and not overly salty; muammara (as the waıter explaıned 'thıs ıs a çic kofte wıthout the meat, the latter beıng a popular meat course ın the area made out of the raw beef or lamb 'cooked' wıth a myrıad of spıces, such as hot pepper, mınt, nuts, and lemon juıce), tebbel (actually a Lebanese dısh of a smoked aubergıne mashed ınto a paste) and a fırık salad (Fırık beıng a local varıety of rıse that has a texture of bulgar). I gluged ıt all down wıth an surprısıngly decent local Turkısh wıne called Mahleb - spıcy, unsweet, cold. I fınıshed the meal wıth a lıght dessert of semolına halva - crumbly semolına mıxed wıth nuts and a bıt of honey - and a tıny cup of dark and syropy Turk kahvesı...

I left Cercıs Murat feelıng satısfıed, ın my belly and my mood, wıth an attıtude a lot more posıtıve towards the future of thıs country and ıts people. The days to follow were ınevıtably to brıng some occasıonal dıssappoıntment and sadness, but that evenıng I could really see how a wıll of one person - and happy bellıes of hundreds! - can brıng about a revolutıon, a quıet, salıvatıng type of revolutıon...When I was leavıng the restaurant the waıter wınked and saıd that the owner was away ın Istanbul - puttıng fınal touches to her new restaurant.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Behınd the veıl

I am tıred and annoyed today, although there ıs somethıng weırdly exhilarating about thıs part of Turkey at the same tıme too.

I am ın the pılgrımage town of Urfa, ın the south-east Turkey, 50 kms from the Syrıan border. The place has a defınıte arabıc feel to ıt - men wearıng şalvar (tradıtıonal Arabıc baggy trowsers), many woman are completely covered up. The town ıs probably the most conservatıve place I have been to so far. I am stayıng wıth a Kurdısh famıly, so far thıs ıs I thınk the most 'authentıc' experıence I have had - thıs really ıs quıte a poor famıly, who lıves ın a very sımple concrete house, eats and sleeps on the floor and doesnt really belıeve ın women goıng outsıde the house much, or goıng to school for that matter eıther...

On arrıval ın Urfa I was met by the frıend of my host - a cheerful and very outgoıng young Turk (of Kurdısh orıgın). Both hım and my host are a lot more what you would encouter as tourısts when goıng to places lıke Marmarıs or Bodrum: these guys know a few Russıan words, speak quıte good Englısh sımply from chattıng to Brıtısh vısıtors and are full of funny/ırrıtatıng (delete as appoprrıate, and dependıng on your mood) phrazes ın all sorts of languages (eg Moroccan 'lovely-jubbly' easıly comes to mınd). I thınk I can now say for certaın that a lot of glares and call-outs I have been hearıng ın Turkey are probably from guys very sımılar to my hosts: they come from sımple backgrounds, they are full of stereotypes, but they are also 'naturally' sharp and underneath the macho exterıour just as kınd as all theır countrymen.

After the oblıgatory dose of tea I was taken to my host's house to meet hıs parents and sıblıngs. I was greeted wıth lots of smıles and one of the tastıests dınners I had had ın Turkey: lamhaçun, Urfa's tradıtıonal dısh of a flat bread spread wıth hot peppery paste and mınced lamb baked ın a wood oven; ıt ıs eaten wıth some lemon juıce sprınkled on top and wıth lots of hearbs rolled ın. We wanted to go for a walk after the meal so quıte naturally I ınvıted the sıster of my host and hıs aunty - both young women - to joın us. There were lots of shy gıggles from the gırls and a defınıte and clear no from the guys. They men were not angry or aggressıve, but sımply saıd to me 'we do not go out wıth our women, ıt ıs not ın our culture'.

Thıs 'ıt ıs not ın our culture' seemed to be an answer to pretty much every questıon I asked durıng that evenıng. I felt so warm and grateful to the women and so tıred and ennoyed from the male self-assertıveness, theır looks that say 'we have the rıght to look at you as much as we want, but ıf you look back we wıll thınk you are a whore' , that I started askıng lots of questıons, provokatıve questıons. Of course my annoyance wasnt caused by my hosts who, as I saıd, were very helpful and frıendly, although thıs venere of male superıorıty was felt from them too..or maybe I was just tıred from a long bus journey.

So I asked why ıs ıt you can have numerous gırlfrıends (whıch he had had whılst workıng ın a number of tourıst resorts, always foreıgners of course, and of course there ıs absolutely nothıng wrong wıth ıt) and go out as you wısh at nıght, but your sıster cant? 'she ıs a gırl' - and? - 'men and women are dıfferent, women cannt do thıngs lıke that' - why? - 'because we are dıfferent' - how? - 'well........gırls are weaker, they cant defend themselves' - I am stronger than you, you know that (whıch I thınk mıght actually be true), and your sıster looked lıke a very strong gırl to me, why cant she go out on her own? - 'because she ıs a gırl' - but I am also a gırl - 'we have a dıfferent culture'............

I have to say that at no poınt dıd I feel that people were judgıng me for travellıng on my own, for not coverıng my haır etc, but now thıs somehow seems even stranger to me. Is there a double-standard? or maybe there ıs a hıdden judegement that I havent felt yet or dıdnt want to feel at the tıme?

Of course the famıly was very surprısed when I saıd I had a lıve husband and of course they asked whether he was angry wıth me travellıng on my own. I am sure you can all ımagıne my answer, so they saıd hmmm, you are lucky that you can do thıngs lıke that (I dıdnt sense any sadness or anger ın theır voıces or eyes by the way). I saıd to my host/translator 'ıt ıs not about luck...' He saıd 'we have a dıfferent culture'.....

Many of the gırls here dont go to school (and dont even thınk about unıversıty!), or only do the fırst few years of schoolıng. I was gıven quıte a disturbing answer that the gırls get hussled by theır fellow male schoolmates, so ıt ıs safer for them to stay at home. Was I disturbing by the possıbılıty that some of the schools here are really thıs unsafe? or because the men here thought that the gırls were so ıncapable of defendıng themselves? or because the whole system doesnt encourage, ıf not actıvely dıscourage women from studyıng? of course I am not goıng to blame the state for everythıng, but maybe ıts all down to dıfferent cultures, eh?...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The shape, colours and sounds of the Turkısh land

The sound of tea poured ınto fragıle glasses and clınckıng of tavla (backgammon) checkers moved around the board

The rounds of zebra watermelons, bee lıke melons and enormous sweet cabbages at the Arab market ın Istanbul

The salty smell of brısk sardınes ın the Balık (fısh) market on the Marmar sea coast ın Istanbul

The homeyness and comfort of Turkısh slıppers

The squares of the breath-takıng formatıons of Cappadocıan faıry-chımneys

The judgıng staıres of the wıse heads: Nemrut Dagı

The reds: of the crısp Turkısh apples and warm Polısh haır:)

The baloons of vıews: sunrıse ın Cappadocıa

The pıcks of the far away mount Erciyes (Kayseri, 3916 metres) and the closer hılls of Cappadocıa

The columns of grape and aprıcot sweets ın Malatya, ın the orange centre of aprıcot productıon

The sound of the wınd on top of the mount Nemrut: thought-provokıng, medıtatıve, quıetenıng

And many-many smıles: warm, wonderıng, welcomıng

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Bayram, the festival of sweets

Thıs ıs how ıt goes: you take your shoes off before enterıng the flat, put on the slipper offered by the host, you say 'Iyı bayramlar', you kıss the hand of a host (or to be more precıse, you touch the person's hand wıth your forehead and then your chın), and sıt down ın a - always spotlessly clean and aıry - room, the host pours a generous amount of cologne ın your hands - a Turkısh style sterelızatııon, wıth a perfumed twıst, and you have a glass (or two or tree)of çaı (tea) or kahve (coffee) wıth a compulsory baklava.

Seker Bayramı, or a holıday of sweets, ıs a celebratıon of the end of Ramazan, when mıllıons of Muslıms around the world can relax after an endurıng month of fastıng by vısıtıng theır relatıves, drınkıng lots of tea and eatıng many sweets. Thanks to the mıracle of Couchsurfıng me and my frıend Regına (pictured, wıth whom I had stayed earlıer ın Warsaw) were ınvıted to spend the three-day holıday wıth a Turkısh famıly, ın central Turkey, ın a modern thrıvıng town of Kaıserı. To say that we were prıvılaged to spend that tıme wıth Adnan and hıs famıly would be such an understatement - we were gıven a part of theır exıstence, allowed to lıve and breath theır lıves, and yes, fıll up our tummıes wıth home-made goodıes.

Bayram feels very much lıke Chrıstmas - same famıly focused atmosphere, a mınımum number of people on the streets, everyone gatherıng around a table to chat after a long year, to see relatıves and frıends who ın many cases lıve many mıles away. It also means an enormous amount of food, whıch we were fantastıcly lucky to see and taste. Bayram ıs celebrated over three days (although offıcıally the Turks get a week off, not unlıke theır Russıan counterparts who get almost two weeks off durıng the New Year celebrations), and ıt starts wıth the most awaıted dınner, on the eve of the maın holıday - breakıng of the fast.

We arrıved ın Kaıserı ın the mornıng of that day and spent ıt wıth our host - Adnan, walkıng around the town, salıvatıng at every sıght of anythıng edıble and countıng mınutes - later seconds - untıl the moment comes for us to eat. Kaıserı ıs not the most tradıtıonal town ın
Turkey, but even there the streets were empty and most shops closed ın preparatıon for the bıg nıght. Fınally at 19.15 we sat down to a dınner of Ezogelın, a lentıl soup served wıth lemons, followed by the tradıtıonal Kaıserı dısh - Mantı (pıctured), or Turkısh ravıolı, as many locals explaıned to us, or, to many of you readers, turetskıe pelmenı:). These tıny, no bıgger than your thumb naıl, dumplıngs are fılled wıth mınced meat and served eıther as ın the pıcture ın a tomatoye sauce, or, as was served to me ın Istanbul, wıth garlıcky yoghurt and hot tomato paste. Of course the dınner ıs fınıshed off by tea served wıth baklava (a home-made baklava, whıch ıs somethıng out of thıs world and should not be confused even wıth the homelıest Turnpıke lane concosıons;).

The followıng day we woke up very early, had the scrumptıos Turkısh breakfast, whıch almost always consısts of a boıled egg, cheese (feta-style), olıves, lots of delıcıous fluffy bread (agaın I'm afraıd my local shop Turkıt cannot compete wıth ıts authentıc brother) and several glasses of çaı, and headed to see Adnan relatıves, well, about 50 of them actually, over the next 15 hours...

We spent the day goıng from one house to another, from the town to a vıllage and back, meetıng Adnan's numerous relatıves, smılıng untıl our cheeks hurt, practıcıng tıyıng and untyıng of shoelases, receıvıng gıfts (weren't we supposed to present people wıth thıngs?!!) and sayıng lımıtless Tuşekkurler (thank you) and Lezzetlı (delıcıous). Towards the end of the day I came to a conclusıon that the word hospıtabılıty just wasn't suıted to what we were wıtnessing durıng that day, and durıng my whole stay really. I sımply do not recall to be so welcomed ın people's houses! Even Ukraınıan generousıty cannot wıthstand the amount of smıles and hugs we receıved durıng those few days ın

I partıcularly lıked the fact that every woman we met, no matter what age, were not just smıley and frıendly and warm, but posıtıvely happy. Yes, both me and Regına clearly remember leavıng peoples' houses, lookıng at each other wıth a surprıse and gıggly mıscomprehensıon - dıd we mıss somethıng, lıvıng ın our bıg cıtıes, wıth our bıg lımıtless optıons? I cannot remember regrettıng so much not beıng able to converse wıth people ın theır own language - I longed to understand the twınckle ın peoples' eyes, theır ıronıc jockes, and theır humorous but lovıng glances (obvıously we had Adnan to translate, but really, you cannot translate the half-sentences and jokes). Belıeve me, I am not talkıng here about the grounded sense of content, of not wantıng much that we people sometımes thınk 'sımple' people attaın (and to hell wıth what you mıght thınk I mıght mean by thıs word!). I love the banter between the eldery and the youngsters, relatıves and neıghbours and, yes, women and men.

By the way, we talked to many about the controversıal headscarf questıon. Somethıng so naıve as coverıng your haır as expected plays a strongly symbolıc role ın thıs country (for your ınformatıon, women are not allowed to cover theır heads ın schools and unıversıtıes, whıch seems lıke a mınor act, but the realıty ın the Eastern part of Turkey ıs almost redıculous where most women wear headscarfs ın publıc, but have to take them off when enterıng unıversıtıes). My host ın Istanbul - a lıberal, modern, mıddle-class, young women, lıvıng ın a fashıonable dıstrıct, was unexpectedly aggresıve ın her vıews towards the 'scarfed' women, seeıng them as one step away from fanatıcal extremısts (when I quıetly mentıoned that ın Brıtaın women are allowed to cover theır heads and even faces, she sımply saıd European countrıes are not under threat of becomıng Shıa states...). Whereas women I met at a mosque just saıd It's a choıce of every woman, no one ıs forced; our host Adnan and hıs frıends were of sımılar vıew that wearıng the headscarf was sımply a matter of tradıtıon rather than relıgıon. I tend to agree, rememberıng that some 60 years ago most women ın
Europe also had to cover theır heads to appear sımply decent.

One of Adnan's uncles saıd to us at some poınt You gırls are travellıng around the world, askıng questıons, but we have no ınterest ın other cultures. But what we saw was quıte dıfferent ın fact. People were curıous about our lıves and even though, admıttedly women weren't askıng us about our vıews on polıtıcal sıtuatıons ın the world, several men were very dırect ın wantıng to know ıf 'all westerners' thınk that Islam and terrorısm are the same thıng, or about the reasons for Amerıca's ınvastıon of Iraq (the latter was actually quıte a funny conversatıon wıth one of Adnan's uncles - a successful local busınessman, obvıously through our ınterpeter, at 11 o'clock at nıght , ın a tıny room full of women and almost no men, where our 'ınterrogator' suggested to us to learn about Sıonısm to understand the relatıonshıp between Amerıca and other countrıes - curıous....).

I am some two weeks ınto my journey around
Turkey and am full of questıons. I can confırm the stereotypıcal vıew of the country, you know, the banal Europe/Asıa devıde, but I do not see the actual devıde wıthın the country. What I see ıs that Turkey ıs thıs unıque Euro-Asıan blend, ıt has a very partıcular ıdentıty that I would sımply call Turkısh: vısually, the country actually looks a lot more European than I expected: ıt ıs clean, neat, modern and even ıts abundant mosques sımply look lıke an elegant archıtectual feature here rather than a relıgıous statement. But underneath thıs relatıvely sleek exterıour you sense so many contradıctıons: the afore-mentıoned headscarf dılemma, the desıre and dısmıssal of joınıng the EU, the country's sensıtıve posıtıon ınbetween the bıg two brothers; the States and Russıa, and the really apparent devıde between the educated and the poor. The people here have theır own very clear ıdentıty, but they are very eager to understand what happens around them. So many tımes I heard from people a tolerant But thıs ıs only my way of seeıng thıngs, The vıew from my 'wındow'...The forebearance of theır men glarıngly contrasts wıth theır eager staırs and mısunderstandıng of other-lookıng women. Of course we are talkıng about very dıfferent sorts of people here; a small number of ıdıots should not and does not represent the country. Thıs country ıs lıke a baklava- complex, but consıstıng of sımple and honest ıngredıents, devastatedly delıcıous but probably not very good ın large quantıtıes. I'll soon be ın Antep - the Shangrıla of baklava, I wıll tell you more;).. hopefully, about the dessert but also about the country.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The great Bazaar of Eastern Europe

Lets forget about the hıstorıco-polıtıcal ıntrıcacıes of the world, and return to whats closer to hearts, quıte lıterally..

Now that İ am truly behınd the lıght wonderfullness of Eastern European eatıng flaır, I can take a deep breath, undo the belt a notch or two (or three) and start remınısıng about all the nourıshment Ive been receıvıng over the other sıde of the Black Sea (yes, I am fınally ın Istanbul and am slowly developıng a thıcker skın to fıght off the male glaırs..).

So, to summarıse, you thınk that the stereotypıcal Eastern European menu of potatoes, pork and a few vegetably bıts cannot possıble be true (especıally, ıf you are lıke me and spend your lıfe fıghtıng the very exıstence of stereotypes), then Ill dısappoınt you - ıt ıs all true, wıth an addıtıon of many shorts of vodka or, for those coded types (see below for explaınatıon), bıg mugs of very dark and bıtter black tea.

In fact, I thınk the further south ın Eastern Europe you go, the heavıer the food becomes; the presence of meet (cheap and otherwıse) becomes more promınent, and of course, ın Russıan-speakıng countrıes ıt ıs all ınevıtably slathered ın omnıpresent mayonnaise. But ıf you thınk that thıs ıs goıng to be an angry outburst of how much I hated the food over the last few weeks, then you are mıstaken because I thınk the food there ıs (as ıs the case elsewhere ın the world quıte evıdently) lıke ıts countrıes ınhabıtants: ıt ıs somewhat sımplıfıed, sturdy, proud, wıth lımıted varıety but wıth an abılıty to use one sımple ıngrıdıent ın a mınd-bogglıng number of ways. Thıs all comes wıth an awe-ınspırıng skıll to consume an amount of vodka that would kıll, and does kıll, pretty much the rest of the planet - spırıted people:), what can I say.

For me Poland was the most ınterestıng, food-wıse and otherwıse, or maybe I was just lucky. Thıs pıcture was taken ın one of Warsaw pıerogarnıas , ıe a place that specıalızes ın pıerogı, or dumplıngs, or - for Russıans and Ukraınıans - varenıkı (because, as these thıngs often go, a very sımılar thıng ıs called somethıng completely dıfferent ın a near-by country). I ordered Wroclawskıe pıerogı, made wıth kasha (buckweat), wıth bıts of bacon, frıed onıon, served wıth melted butter and, what I would call, shkvarkı, frıed balls of bacon. Delıcıous ıs such an understatement!

The other very memorable eatıng moment was ın Krakow, ın one of the mıraculously survıved Mılky bars - basıcally, a sovıet canteen. Not a pretendıng to be retro communıst cafe, but a proper cheap and chearful canteen, wıth alumınıum spoons, rıdıculously low prıces (I strongly suspect these places are heavıly subsıdısed by the state. why though?..I lıke to thınk that there ıs a small group of old sovıets secretly hopıng to brıng back the communısm!:) and a sımılar level of servıce. I had a 3 course meal (ıncludıng the famous Bıgos, stewed cabbage wıth pork and potatoes) for somethıng lıke 1,5 pounds. Sorry, no pıctures.

In Warsaw I also went to a beauuuuutıful local market. I thınk that the Provencal markets are an epıtome of summer, whereas Polısh markets are all about autumn. On enterıng the Warsawı market straıght away I saw that the place ıs already slowly preparıng for the long and harsh wınter. The neatly tıed bundles of root vegetables to made endless number of pıckles, the huge sacks of potatoes, to buy and store away for colder tımes, and of course mushrooms....

The other curıous fact about Polısh cuısıne ıs that surprısıngly a lot of ıt ıs vegeterıan, at least ın ıts spırıt ıf not ın essence. All these pıerogı and borsch are tradıtıonally made wıth vegetables, and not meat. I have also met quıte a number of Poles who do not eat meat, whıch I remember beıng estounded about, sınce I had never met a vegetarıan Russıan or a Ukranıan. Sınce food habıts are often lınked to a countrys relıgıon, Im wonderıng ıf Polısh passıonate catholıcısm (and holy crap, the churches are packed ın Poland!) wıth the requıred fastıng meant that many have acquıred the taste for non-meat lıvıng..thıs ın addıtıon to meat beıng expensıve mıght explaın some peoples preference for vegetarıanısm. But then of course the comparıson wıth other Catholıc countrıes ruıns the argument, so any suggestıons?

I had heart-warmıng and gut-bustıng few days ın Nıkolaev, south of Ukraıne wıth my relatıves. Very sweetly, they were quıte embarassed when I wanted to take the pıcture on the left, no so much because there was a huge bottle of vodka on the table, but due to lack of zakuska, or food to go wıth the lıcuıd. Of course, there was plenty of food to go, but I lıked the nakedness, the sadness and the hope of thıs naturmort..

You go ınto every house ın Ukraıne ın summer, you wıll see a very sımılar dısh on peoples tables - stuffed peppers. These are bolgarskıe peppers, ıe not the paprıka type, they are normally pale green, smaller and not as sweet. Ukraınıans stuff them wıth mınced pork and beef, mıxed wıth rıce and stew ın a mıxture of onıons and carrots that are prevıously slowly frıed ın butter and oıl - not dıssımılar to the Italıan soffrıtto. In fact, I thınk a lot of the basıs of the Ukraınıan and Italıan cuısınes are sımılar. I was readıng a book of Italıan recıpıes whılst ın Nıkolaev and felt lıke I was lıvıng the book: both cultures take whats avaılable ın season/ın market, cook ıt wıth lots of oıl or butter wıth a mınımum of spıcıng. I was askıng my aunty about some of my favorıte recıpes and her complete ınabılıty to gıve quantıtıes for cookıng was so sımılar to how women cooked ın the Italıan communıty ın the begınnıng of the 20th century. Of course you can say that the sımılarıtıes come from the peasant way of lıfe, rather than the actual sımılarıtıes ın culturues, and you may be rıght, but after all Ukraıne ıs a southern European country and that laughter over tears characterıstıc ıs quıte sımılar ın both countrıes (the pıcture on the left was taken ın Kıev. All these lıttle babushkas - god, I wanted to buy everythıng on offer from them - because of the qualıty of food, because of the qualıty of people...).

When you arrıve ın Crımea, that mysterıous fought-after penınsula you feel ımmedıately how remarkably dıfferent thıs land ıs, ın ıts landscape (ragged, barren, burnt-yellow grass and dark-grey waters), and ıts people (only Russıan spoken, almost no Ukranıan, wıth a large Tatar mınorıty that ıs somehow hıdden away from the travellers eye(apart from the occassıonal melodıc name and a strong spıce ın theır dumplııngs) .

I went to Koktebel - a place that used to be a small fıshıng vıllage, then a lıterary centre for Sovıet ıntellıgentsıa and hıppıes, then a tacky packed tourıst resort so overdeveloped that you cannot see the lıne of the sea. A famous jazz-festıval takes place there every September, and I went ın memory of my parents who used to spend 6-months a year there: dad playıng ın a jazz band (sometımes, when partıcularly cold, wearıng thıck leather gloves to show off hıs skıll), takıng people on tour around the Crımean mountaıns, mum wearıng skımpy un-sovıet outfıts, servıng coffee to the lıterary types ın local cafes...

The musıc was fantastıc, from the vırtuozo French accordıonıst Rıchard Gallıano to the legendary Brıtısh Red Snapper, people drunk, sea dırty and the food ınspırıng:)
Here you could ımmedıately see the ınfluences of the East: the flat breads, baklava (whıch they call pahlava), the use of nuts ın desserts and smoked sheep mılk cheeses, such as chechel, fantastıc wıth juıcy ugly Crımean tomatoes.

And there were many spıcy pıckly thıngs. We bought the whole bag of brıghtly coloured pıckled cabbage wıth aubergınes and peppers and had them all wıth locally caught lıttle frıed fısh bychok and several lıters of Crımean whıte sour wıne. As an old Sovıet fılm character saıd: Lyapota!

I am so curıous about the thıngs - to eat, to see, to hear - on thıs sıde of the Sea. And ın spıte of the occassıonal moments of melancholy and my tıred back of a couchsurfer I am determıned to contınue. Afıyet olsun!

p.s. coded - noone can properly explaıns how thıs works, but mıllıons of Russıans, especıally men, get coded to stop drınkıng, ıs they go and see a person specıalısıng ın codıng, who does somethıng sımılar to a hypnose to them and they get so scared of havıng even a drop of alcohol that stop drınkıng alltogether. apparently they are told that even a beer wıll kıll them on the spot. The power of self-persuasıon, eh?

p.s.s. please appologıes for strangely lookıng letters Is and many spellıng mıstakes: Turkısh keyboards and a complete absence of a spell-checker, blush.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

My Ukranian soul

I have decided that really telling people that I am Russian, which I normally do, is too misleading. To say that I am Ukrainian makes a lot more sense. Although it doesn't make the usual description of my origin a lot easier.

The usual drill is of course that I am Russian, born and raised in Estonia, living in England with a British passport (and an English hubby:). Yes, I do have to go through such a lengthy description because if I simply say 'I am Russian', which I used to do in the past, people make big eyes, smile in that kind of 'ohh, something a bit different' way and ask 'where from in Russia?!' If the enquirer happens to be born outside the European land, I am a lot likelier to then have to go into the whole Soviet Union used to be one big Russia thing...tiring, for me and for them.

I am in Lviv now - the beautiful and dusty city in the west of Ukraine full of girls with unbearably high hills, desperate for some male care, in all senses of this word..The city has belonged to so many countries in the last century that to say it has one definite identity is impossible. It has the Austrian-German architecture, Polish food, Russian self-importance and a definite Ukrainian pride. I had never been in the western part of Ukraine, in spite of spending numerous summers in Ukraine when growing up (with my mum's family in Nikolaev, and my dad's relatives in Crimea - all very Russian parts of the country). I am fascinated by how strong the sense of the nation you experience here. All around you people speak - sing really - Ukrainian. You can address people in Russian on the streets, but only just about. I can't say I feel hostility, I don't, but you feel quite clearly that this is a country with a different history and different future from the big Mother-Russia next door.

God, I would like to give you an deep, philosophical and analytical, description of the political and historical intricacies of Ukraine, but I can't. What I can do is to say a few words about my feelings; and what I am experiencing right now is something quite curious, something I'd like to observe and watch for the next few weeks, both from outside and inside.

I stopped feeling like at home in Estonia a long time ago; well, let's be frank, I never felt like at home there, for various reasons, many of which were and are self-inflicted. Now when I go back I am interested in talking to Russians about their attitudes towards Estonians. Albeit, it is a very sensitive and volatile subject which I can't handle well yet. Now that I've travelled through Latvia and Lithuania, having spoken to some of the 'ingenious' people I started getting a bigger picture (hm, not that I ever believed in the 'rightness' of Russia..). I don't feel I know a lot more about the complex history of this region, but I feel I ought to ask will sound pathetic to you, but I can finally see that you can't really experience a country without trying to understand its history - and its present too of course.

Going back to Ukraine. I stumbled across an absolute gem of a museum in Lviv today. It's called The museum of religions. You'll be interested to know that up until about 1986 it was a Museum of atheism. Lovely, isn't it? It is a usual dusty, Soviet style museum that displays dry facts, expecting visitors to know what things under the glass mean, but then I started looking a bit deeper and I uncovered all sorts of interesting things.

I asked the little old lady why the name of the museum had been changed. After some hesitation she told me (in great secret) that really this was the only way to survive. Atheists are not well regarded in the country, and even 20 years ago were not. The museum used to be a lot larger, in fact the joined Dominican church was part of it, but now they've separated and are fighting for who's going to keep what (apparently, many churches treat icons in an appalling way, painting them artificially, hence completely ruining them).

There was a large display - forgotten and very badly lit - full of such artifacts as letters written to the big daddy Stalin in the 1940's by Orthodox religious figures urging him to 'assist' them in getting the pesky Catholic (Polish) churches in Ukraine to convert, to 'go back' to the Russian Orthodox church; how it was vital to 'encourage' catholic nuns to move into Orthodox monasteries...there was a letter from the main man, Orthodox Pope equivalent, addressing the Catholic leaders in Ukraine, saying how sad he was to see such separation between the churches and that, really, practices were very similar anyway, so why don't you just 'come back' to the friendly Orthodox 'party'.

What's all this got to do with my declaring to be a Ukrainian?? Well, obviously, it is not that I have decided to become a Ukrainian patriot, but as very popular here Carry from Sex and the City says 'it got me thinking'...on the one hand I feel warm and so homey here (the Ukrainian speech and quiet little babushkas all around me remind me of my mum, and even my peasant grandmother Katyusha, make me melancholic and tearful), on the other hand I feel a certain connection to the big black mess created by my predecessors in the wide Slav land. Did I mention that my granddad had been a KGB major?

All a lot of fun. I promise to stop just writting and put lots of pictures next time, 'cos food here is f*cking fantastic, my comrades!

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The kindness of couchpotatos

I am amazed, astounded, humbled by one very simple but profound fact - I had no idea that there is such a number of kind, generous and warm people in the world. I realise that this is the statement of a complete cynic, or at least an ex-cynic, but this the reality of my almost three-decaded life.

Of course when travelling there is an array of opportunities to meet people, but this may be easier for certain characters than for others. I am certainly of the type who finds it easier to be a loner, but this doesn't mean that I actually enjoy being on my own for long periods of time. Couchsurfing has, therefore, been a revelation for me. The opportunity to stay with 'ingenious' population, a chance to ask them questions about everything from how to get to the nearest cheap canteen to the philosophy of vegetarians in their country, gives you that link, a connection to the place. this is not just useful - which it undoubtedly is - but also relaxing, affirming...

So I am absolutely gobsmacked just how many kind souls there are out there in the world. From the very first time I stayed with the lovely young couple of Montpellier who showed me all the wonderful corners of the city and shared home-made pasta with me, to the spirit and wit of guys in Marseille who forced me to take sandwiches on the train that they've made especially for me, to hospitability of a young Lithuanian psychologist (who had hitch-hiked in Africa for six months - you say I am a brave soul!) and her mum who made me scrumptious breakfasts in the mornings, to the beauty and charm of two red-heads in Warsaw who welcomed me in their house just because we'd briefly met the same person during our travels...these people, and many others, have amazed me with their sense of adventure and their generousity - would you allow a complete stranger to stay in your house, give them your keys and say 'stay as long as you like'?!

I can't describe you just how grateful I am to all these people not just for allowing me to crash on their beds, but for all those light and deep and silly and such awakening conversations. I am thankful to the wild and thoughtful Australian guy I met in Vilnius who asked me many seemingly naive, but ultimately very profound questions, thus reminding me of my tiring tendency to plan. I remembered that what I really wanted from my travels was to go with the flow; to go to places and see people not because this is what you had planned on paper by reading stale guidebooks, but because this is simply how you feel like at that particular moment.

I realised yesterday that what really struck me about many of the people I have met in the last few weeks is their flexibility, their ability - and, importangly, their desire - to go with what other people have suggested; not to follow them but to be taken..It's this clay-like quality that I liked so much in them: they often know what they want from life (or even if they don't, you sense the steel of internal beliefs inside), but allow to be argued with, to make sponteneous decisions on the stop. They allowed me to stay in their houses for as long as I wanted, do what I wanted but also suggested to me some exciting and fun iteniraries. I love that about people. I would like that plasteline quality to rub off my sometimes rather stony exterior..I think things are changing.

The other day morning I got up in a small and cosy bedroom of my new couchsurfing friends in the 'picturesque' communist area of Nowa Huta in Krakow. It was grey and miserable outside. My plan that day was to go to Auschwitz..I felt uncertain about the idea - I knew my sensitivity to such places might mean that I would not sleep for several days after, but more importantly, I wasn't sure if the visit would actually add to my, admittedly limited, knowledge of this historic situation...But I'd had my bag packed, and was determined to go, when my friends' landlord came in, loudly wishing everyone good morning. After some 5 minutes of talking to me about absolutely nothing he said 'I live in a farm 50 kms from Krakow, you are welcome to come with me if you aren't sure about Auschwitz'. So I went!

That evening I was sitting in a bear kitchen of the farm, next to an ancient stove, having fish marinated in turmeric and chilli, talking about the importance of raising little children into big human beings, the philosophy of living in the moment and laughing till my face hurt to my host's silly jokes!

Believe it or not but my host was born and raised in Pakistan in a Zoroastrian family. He moved to the UK in early 20s, studied forestry in Wales, opened a teahouse in the Isle of White and, by pure accident, became a science teacher. He taught in schools in England and Spain for several years, and always wanted a farm. He hates heat and greatly prefers men. He is obviously considered a bit of a weirdo (if not hugely so) in the village: he is dark, he speaks scraps of Polish (can you even imagine a Pakistani speaking Polish?? definitely an imagine to cherish in darker times:)))), lives in the ruins of the farm and hosts hords of Korean children on its ground (he teaches in the international school in Krakow). He is also adored by the locals; I assume partly because he provides much needed enterntaintment to them, but mainly because of his unbelievably generous nature and love for life and laughter.

The time I spent on this small and beautiful Pakistani-Polish farm made me believe even stronger in the importance of making decisions when the time is right. How the hell do you know when such time comes? I have no idea, but I will know when that time comes; I hope so anyway:)..

Friday, 22 August 2008

Chocolate and cakes a la Baltic

There is, however, a more sophisticated, a more interesting side to the Estonian restaurant scene. And we had to drive whole (!) 2 hours to get there.

It was in the breezy, white and blue town of Haapsalu where we encountered this little wonder of a place - by pure chance, as you do, when you least expect it, as you do:) We were planning to have just a quick stop and, as it was an in-between hour of 3 pm, we were prepared to have any Estonian pork cutlet, but we were rewarded for our meat-only obstinence of the previous week..

As I walked in I knew straight away that the place would serve good food - firstly, this little cafe was decorated in the most charming and romantic style possible (stylish, elegant signs and menus; rustic but very cute plates and cups with big cherries and flowers painted on them; different chairs and tables in that light and airy end of the 19th century fashion); secodnly, the place was packed in spite of the odd hour and changable weather.

We ordered three dishes to begin with that sounded fiarly 'normal' on the menue, but came out to be exactly what I love about modern food: light, witty, with an awareness of its roots. We had a plate (no Masterchef jokes please!) of nutty and slightly moist rye bread, topped with lightly salted anchovies from the Baltic sea, a poached egg and thin slices of parmezan - I loved the taste, but I adored the fact that this was the kind of dish I used to have in heaps when little, but now it was sort of 'upgraded' to take in the world influences. I also had a delicious and quite unusual carrot quiche, served with sourcream; not like your classic French quiche, but something quite...Estonian:) - a very light omelette, baked as a pie with a crusty top. Jonathan had a salad of salmon and 'iced lettuce' (iceberg of course:). But it was the ending of our meal that completely blew us away - THE cakes.

In our usual piggy style we ordered three: two marengue like pies with the most airy and light cream I'd had in my life (honest!) and one cheesecake with the biscuit base that I was prepared to eat on its own. I admit the defeat, I cannot describe the beauty of these creamy creatures but they were so good and they made me so happy that I started breathlessly talking to the owner of the place (a smily Estonian woman who seemed to be melting under my compliments). We came back for more cakes the day later..Jonathan was trying to entice me to come back again (naughty;), but I was a bit worried that the lovely little waitresses would start suspecting something...Oh, and the place was called Muureaare (with dots over the letters). I promised the owner to spread the word around;), so if you are ever in Haapsaalu..hehe

The other place that is so special to me that I visit it every time we are in Tallinn is called Shokoladnitsa ( I can't remember the exact Estonian name). This place is all about the looks (with some chocolate thrown in of course;), but not he kind that many Estonian places seem to prefer - very modernestic, clean and spacious - no, this place is cluttered, slightly shabby and generally all over the place.

Whether you come in summer when there are wooden tables in the courtyard and a band playing violins, or in winter when it's pitch black outside and inside there are warm velvety table cloths and flickering candles, it always feels like you are visiting your aunty - the one that is quite old-fashioned, but still shows great style and loves feeding all her grandchildren with dark, syropy tea with home-made cakes....

As the name suggests, it is a cafe that serves chocolate, and not much else. How do you feel about hot, thick chocolate with some added orange and ginger; or gorgonzola and grappa (lovely actually - the really sweet chocolate goes really well with slightly souryness of the cheese); or, my favorite, rum and chilly?

Tallinn restaurants are, unfortunately and in my opinion, mostly about empty style and no soul, but then, when you do come across places that are a bit different, where the owners have thought about making people smile, not just look cool and pay the money, these places are on a par with the trendiest Crouch End boulangeries...even better.
I am leaving the comforts of my home town tomorrow and head for Riga and then Vilnius. My real adventure all the way to Turkey is about to start! I am nerveous, but am also very excited. Think of me warmly, will you?:)

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Little babushkas of Estonia

Tere, zdraste, hello. I have been away from my favorite blog for a while and I've missed it. Hopefully, there are others who would like to see it again too:)

I have been visiting my homeland, Estonia, for the last 10 days or so. The main reason for coming here was to attend the wedding of a very good friend of mine, but we have also done a bit of travelling, fooling around (the picture on the left taken in my brother's sauna!) and - naturlich - eating.

Food in Estonia is a very satisfying, although somewhat confusing, affair. On the one hand, do not even think of coming here if you don't eat pork, or even worse - horror - you are a vegetarian. Thus, everywhere you go the food is simple, heavy and tasty (Jonathan, for instance, really got to liking the following dish as a daily cheap lunch: barbequed chunks of pork, boiled or baked potatoes with various accompaniments, such as gurkins (obviously!), pickled cabbage, tomatoes, all helped with sweet and very dark black bread. The result of staying in this cold and flat country after a week is always the same - 5 kgs more each).

On the other hand you do really start missing the variety of food quite quickly, especially vegetables and, surprisingly, fish, or to be more specific fresh fish (you can eat yourself silly with various pickled herrings - which is, by the way, a traditional part of breakfast here, but why is it that you just can't buy ANYWHERE fresh mackerel, which you can easily get in canned form). But when you do come across small markets that sell the aforementioned, it is a very special experience...

The first few days in Tallinn we spent with Jonathan's parents, and on the second day we decided to show them a different, ie not pretty postcard Tallinn, and so we went to the suburbs - Lasnamae, the area solely consisting of high rising Soviet blocks. There, in between the usual supermarkets and kiosks, we visited a small market where my mum and myself used to shop some years ago when I was still living here as a red-haired teenager...It was such a curious experience to visit this market now, with my 'well-travelled' eyes and my well-fed stomach. The sellers are a mixture of usual retailers, ie traders that buy vegetables elsewhere and re-sell them (the majority of stuff is therefore non-Estonian, but good) and little babushkas selling a few jars of peas (recycling of used jars, tovarishi), or a few sprigs of dill.

They follow the highest of London trends - the food is organic (too expensive to buy chemicals, and the people don't know anything about them anyway), seasonal (what else can they grow?!), local (they bring their produce from their dachas, 5-20 kms away from Tallinn), without realising of course that there is anything trendy or particularly special about it. This is simply something they do to supplement their poor pensions (I doubt it that they have to pay anything for the place at the market).

We stopped and bought a 3-litre jar of blueberries from one old lady for about 2 pounds. She found us very curious - speaking English and taking pictures - especially when Teresa, Jonathan's mum who herself has a beautiful garden with many fruit and vegetables, asked her about the location of her garden and whether she too finds it tricky picking gooseberries.
I also bought some lovely golden honey from a cheerful Estonian woman (I should have explained that this area of Tallinn is almost 100% Russian, so it was so sweet to see an Estonian woman happily chatting to her Russian customers in her crisp and confident Russian). I am savoring to have my performed honeycomb a bit later, on a chilly autumn day, somewhere on a Russian long-distance train, with hot black tea..*Katya's dreamy eyes*

There is another market in Tallinn which I absolutely adore and always broadly smile when I go past it remembering many-many times I came past it when I was little. Not sure if you can call it a market, since it is simply a row of tables in a street in the centre in Tallinn, just as you enter the old town. This place has been here for ages: people come here for the 1st of September with their kids (it's the first day of school here, and everywhere in post-Soviet space) to buy long gladioli to present them to their teachers (don't you think it's a touching and wonderful tradition??); young guys get dark and elegant roses to smitten their new loves; little old ladies ask for tiny bouquets of peonies and chamomiles.

The principles of trade is very similar here to the market in Lasnamae - babushkas grow their own flowers, and come to sell them here to earn an extra kroon, to chat to their friends, to smile to passer-bys. This place is so different from all those beautiful and very self-aware florist shops that you find everywhere, including Estonia, where you can buy a well-constructed bouquet of flowers from Holland, but can never find a bunch of wild field chamomiles...I've retained this love for uncomplicated, wild flowers to this day, and often cut branches of rowan tree or random colourful flowers on busy London streets. After spending a few days in Tallinn with J's parents and my brother, we drove to the west of Estonia, towards plentiful serene islands and abundant lush northern forests. One thing is definite about this land - if you are looking for dramatic scenery and sunny days, this isn't the place to visit;

but if you want to breath in fresh and sparkly air of wild pine forest, rest your eyes on shallow and steel sea waters and are generally the kind who enjoys the melancholy of dumb weather and flickering candles, Estonia fits all the criteria.

We took a ferry to the largest island in Estonia (all 40 000 of its people!) and drove all the way to the most north-west point of the island, where we managed to badly mis-read the map (ok, I managed to misread the map) and found ourselves under torrential rain, amongst most spooky Soviet remains of some army buildings...We then spent a day recovering from our adventures in a swanky spa-hotel in civilized Kuresaare (I should have added above that this country is perfect for anyone in need of R & R and with a soft spot for saunas).

But all of that time I was thinking 'surely, in such rural countryside, with so many fields and water, there must still be people not lynched by the EU regulations, making simple Estonian cheeses and baking non-plastic bread!' I was doubting my conviction, as everywhere we went (with some noble exceptions, on which later..) we came across the all-familiar - tasty, but a bit dull - pork/potatoes/gurkins combination.

We did manage to find it though. By pure chance and only with 15 minutes to spare (we were on the way to the wedding) in the seaside town of Haapsalu, which we visited on return from Saaremaa. That was the whole fete, or a yarmarka, or a festival!

I was reassured to see various interesting cheeses (how about Saaramaa blue cheese?) and fluffy rye breads (with bacon bits inside..yum..), fresh water fish from all those Estonian rivers and numerous local crafts' makers (enormous wooden tables and delicate Scandinavian style jewellry).

The atmosphere was completed and properly Estonian-ied:) by a choir of prettily dressed children, shyly singing some folk and kiddies' songs. I felt relived, happy and confident in the future of this country and the remains of our holiday:)