Stroganoff for Smolnikov
The European Championships have begun this week, a cause of much excitement in this house where the only thing as pleasurable as multiple games of football every day is appropriately themed dinners to go with them.
The World Cup being in Brazil allowed us to sample a variety of that country’s best culinary offerings and the same can be said for France here. Hosting the biggest ever European Championship in Europe’s food capital promises a month of some quality fine dining and has already seen the return of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cookery to give some appropriate accompaniment to the host’s opening game.
But what about England? The hosts may be as likely to dismiss our quality in the kitchen as they would that on the pitch, but how would our national dishes perform against the best that Europe had to offer? At the World Cup, I made a dish for each England game that mixed the food of that country with our own. This time, however, I wanted simply to make a popular national dish of each of England’s opponents and then we could decide, between us, whether that dish would beat an English one. Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica at the World Cup offered a challenge on the football pitch and some excellent food. Would our slightly easier draw here – Russia, Wales, Slovakia – equally prove to give some lesser food options.
Starting, then, with Saturday and England’s first opponents: Russia. We began the day with a classic slice of Englishness in order to provide a point of comparison. Whatever else people might say about English food, there’s few places that do a better breakfast. A full English fried breakfast of egg, bacon, sausage, black pudding, potato, tomatoes and baked beans set us up for the day until the evening’s appearance of the Russian contender.
It proved a little tricky, though, selecting a popular national dish to represent Russia, a country not exactly renowned for the quality of its cooking.
I do have some frame of reference for the kind of food provided in this erstwhile superpower, having enjoyed an interesting couple of weeks in Russia a few years ago. While the country’s history, arts and culture were fascinating, the food was somewhat less appealing. My abiding memory of Russian cooking is endless dishes soaked in soured cream and topped with an excessive heap of dill (never my favourite herb at the best of times). Too much pickled cabbage for my taste as well. (Also one place that had bear on the menu, but that’s a whole other issue). I did toy with making something that referenced the major experience of dining out in Russia: that the menu seems more like a guide to food they might have served at some point but that definitely wasn’t available now. When eating in a restaurant in Russia you have to have a few back-up choices because plenty of stuff is just off.
This is not to say that we didn’t have food that we enjoyed in Russia, but it was mostly (not unlike some of our English favourites) the product of countries conquered in Russia’s imperial past. We enjoyed a very appealing Uzbek dinner in Moscow, for example. (Although also a decidedly dodgy Moldovan red wine in Novgorod). The break up of the Soviet Union means that these foods could no longer compete for Russia even if they once could, much as the Russian football team lays claim to the previous Euro triumphs of the Soviet team despite the fact that many of the players were from the Ukraine and other non-Russian Soviet republics.
Ultimately, I put a few Russian national food choices to Professor Plum and she chose to go with beef stroganoff. Yes, it featured the ubiquitous soured cream, but otherwise seemed appealing to her.
Beef Stroganoff is a traditional Russian favourite that has its origins in the Czarist era. Like many foods named after once prominent society figures, its name has largely outstripped theirs in terms of global fame. The Stroganovs were the wealthiest merchants in Czarist Russia all the way back to the time of Ivan the Terrible and basically funded a lot of the Empire’s expansion. Unsurprisingly, this was a path to becoming barons and a huge baroque palace on Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s most famous thoroughfare (it’s now a museum). Exactly which one of the famous family (who fled the country after the Revolution) lent his name to the dish of sautéed beef in a soured cream sauce is unknown, although given beef stroganoff’s nineteenth-century origins Count Pavel Stroganov, a military commander, diplomat and politician during Czar Alexander I’s reforms, is a probable favourite.
The first written recipe for ‘beef a la stroganov’ appears in 1871 in an edition of Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, essentially Russia’s closest equivalent to Mrs Beeton as the most popular nineteenth century cookbook, one that went through twenty editions and hundreds of thousands of copies sold before it was condemned by the Bolsheviks as ‘bourgeois and decadent.’ That original recipe, seen here, features cubes of beef sautéed in butter and a sauce made from mustard, stock and soured cream.
Down the years since, and into the twentieth century, the principal additions that have been widely accepted as part of the standard recipe have been onions and mushrooms. As the dish has enjoyed popularity internationally, other ingredients have been added to suit local tastes. French versions, for example, are made with paprika, white wine and tomato puree. Similarly, the accompanying starch with which a stroganoff is served have varied from the traditional thin slices of potato to rice or pasta as the dish has spread across western Europe and America.
I decided to opt for the most classically Russian version and so approached it by sauteeing onions and mushrooms in butter, adding mustard and then separately frying thin strips of beef, before combining the two in a sauce of soured cream with a final addition of lemon juice and parsley. This I served with thinly sliced matchstick potatoes, all of which was preceded by the all important aperitif of a shot of Russian Standard vodka (Russia, after all, can still lay claim to being able to make a genuinely enjoyable vodka).
In the end, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. While I’m still probably not likely to consider Russia one of the world’s culinary superpowers, this was pretty decent. I’m not generally a fan of creamy sauces or mushrooms, but the beef and mustard combination is always a winner.
So, on the basis of this, who has the better food – England or Russia? Much as this was better than expected, I’m still going to go with England.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: The other dish Mustard offered up as a possibility was borscht. Not a fan of pickled things at the best of time, the idea of a whole soup of it was off putting. Meanwhile, stroganoff: beef, sour cream, mustard, potatoes… what’s not to love? I’m not a massive fan of mushrooms, but sour cream solves a lot of problems. I do love a full English, especially with black pudding, but familiarity breeds a certain contempt, so it’s the Russian dish that won the day for me.
So, a draw, rather like the game!
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