Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Years in Russia

I was so good at posting lots in December - now its already five days into the new year and I'm forcing myself to write about how I celebrated New Year's Eve...hmm, maybe I should add another resolution to the list...

I had heard a lot about Russian New Years, and how its the BIGGEST holiday of the year here. I debated about going into Moscow to celebrate it, but even though the metro runs later than usual on NYE (until 2am), the buses, trains, and marshrutkas do not so I would have either had to usher in the New Year while sitting alone in public transit (uh, no thanks) or I would have been stranded in Moscow until 5am (again, not my idea of fun when its this cold out!). So when Natasha, one of the Russian teachers at the school, called to invite me to celebrate New Years with her family, I eagerly and gratefully accepted. I really wanted to experience a "real" Russian New Years, and spending it with a Russian family seemed perfect!

I headed over to her flat around 9pm, and we got right down to business: preparing a traditional Russian New Year's meal.

These are the ingredients for "Salad Olivier" (салат Оливье), the most popular dish on a Russian New Year table. Some background history: it was invented by Lucien Olivier, the celebrated chef of a fancy Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. His recipe was jealously guarded until it was stolen by his sous-chef, Ivan Ivanov (yes, there are actually names like that here in Russia...there was one student at our school named Sergei Sergeivich Sergiev, no lie), and gradually the fancy-pants French recipe became so popular and widespread that although it only faintly resembles Olivier's original salad, it is the quintessential New Year's food for Russians.

What exactly is in it? Well, like the majority of Russian salads, mostly meat and mayonnaise, and not a lot of vegetables. The ingredient list is as follows:

- hard-boiled eggs
- boiled potatoes
- boiled carrots
- canned corn
- canned peas
- lots of fresh dill
- pickled cucumbers
- pickled garlic
- mayo, mayo, and more mayo
- some kind of generic "meat" product: no joke, the Wikipedia entry for Olivier calls for Doktorskaya-type sausage, a type of meat product that "resembles a large, uncooked hot dog". Yep, that sounds about right.

I tried REALLY hard to like this salad, but I just couldn't. I'm not a huge mayo girl, and I haven't eaten pork or red meat in forever. I really didn't want to be rude though, and part of the whole "living in a foreign country" means eating food that you might not necessarily WANT to eat. It's part of the experience, right? So I ate it. But I think its safe to say I will not be recreating it for my loved ones back in Canada...

Another salad we made was a crab one, which was much better, although still heavy on the mayo. Natasha's husband Igor made a delicious smoked salmon, and we also had tons of "Moroccan oranges" (clementines), slices of fresh cheese and kielbasa sausage, and bread. In one moment of horror, Natasha turned to me and asked if I would like some "salo." Politely, I inquired what salo was.

"Uncooked, salted pork fat!" was the chipper answer.

My worst nightmare!! I really hate pork, and that just sounded so nasty. (Bacon is really popular here, but its never cooked. One of my friends told me that its because when bacon was first brought over here, no one realized it had to be cooked so they just ate it the way it was. Then, when someone pointed out that you generally fry bacon, no one could be bothered.)

Graciously, I declined, but served myself up another heaping plate of crab salad!

Anyways, to accompany all this food was the alcohol. Obviously. Hmmm, let's just say that the Russians know how to drink. Back in the 10th century, when Russia was trying to figure out what religion to choose, a group of delegates was sent to inquire about the religion of Islam. When they found out that Muslims couldn't drink alcohol, the Russians hastily backed away. "Drink is the joy of the Russians," they explained in a VERY fitting (but perhaps apocryphal) quote.

We had some (actually, all) of Natasha's homemade vodka, flavoured with berries from her dacha and steeped for several months, chased with vermouth. Then came the Soviet champagne, which is slightly sweeter than normal. Then more vodka. Then a fresh bottle of champagne to take with us out on the street. All I can say is...the next day when Skyping with my family, they could tell right away I was NOT feeling my best. :)

My incredible hosts: Natasha and Igor, and their 14 year old
daughter, Katya (who is one of my students!)

We ate in their living room while watching this New Year's performance on television featuring famous Russian celebrities. Oddly, Sting was also there, singing "An Englishman in New York." Then, right before midnight, President Medvedev appeared in front of the Kremlin on tv to give his annual New Year's speech. He talked about how, even though Russia has centuries of illustrious history, the Russian Federation is still a young country and is only turning 20 years old this year. "Our children are coming of age with this new country," he said, "the first generation not to have been raised in the Soviet Union."

Then the clock at the Kremlin started chiming midnight. We didn't do a countdown per se; not like in Canada where everyone chants, "5, 4, 3..." Instead, as the clock tolled twelve times, we set on fire pieces of paper where we had written our wish for 2011. Then we dropped the flaming papers into our glasses of champagne. At midnight everyone drank it, ashes and all, while concentrating on our wishes. It was very solemn and quiet, so unlike previous New Years. Then the tv burst into the National Anthem and we stood standing in silence while it played. It was a really cool, surreal moment.

After that, Natasha insisted on playing some Doors music, because she saw on my facebook page that The Doors is my favourite band. So we all chilled out to Jim Morrison, ate more food, and talked until around 1:30. That's when we started hearing the fireworks. Quickly we all bundled up and headed outside for the square in Mytishi. EVERYONE in the city seemed to be congregating there, dancing tipsily, waving bottles of champagne and vodka around, lighting off firecrackers in the street, and hugging random strangers while slurring, "S novim godom! Happy New Year!" It. was. amazing.

Awkward dancing in the square
I've never heard so many fireworks; they were going off non-stop from 1:30 till 5am. Little kids were running around with sparklers at 2 in the morning, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever. We met up with Rhea, Polly, and Oleg, and shared some more champagne.

Finally, I made it back to my flat around 4am. Briefly, I thought it was almost midnight in Canada and I got really excited, but then I realized the vodka had gotten to me and it was, in fact, only 8pm. So I stumbled off to bed and slept until 12:30 the next day.

It was, all in all, an awesome start to the New Year!!

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