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The Russian summer is characterized by dacha summer houses and cold okroshka soup. What is the origin ...
2021-08-29 09:00:00

Okroshka and Dacha
Two Highlights of the Russian Summer

“Dacha”, Lev Lagorio, 1892. Lugansk Museum of Fine Arts, Ukraine (Wikimedia Commons)
Okroshka and Dacha
Okroshka and Dacha

During the summer, many Russians flock to their dachas for some hard-earned relaxation – and a cold bowl of okroshka soup.

Read in 12 minutes

On a summer day at the dacha, the overheated brain will resist the idea of cooking a hot meal, and yet the weary body demands some sort of nourishment. The food supplies line up for revision: young cucumbers threaten you in vain with the little spikes of their bodies, the hard-boiled eggs are uninviting, spring onions are so fresh they would make a barely audible screech under the knife and leave tiny drops of juice on the blade, the sausage may not make it to the evening, the kvass has miraculously not been drunk. Okroshka? Oh, yes!

Chopped, the greens and fresh vegetables and boiled potatoes and eggs and sausage mingle with each other in the big bowl; the cook wipes off the sweat and wonders: Why not just serve everything in its natural form? The voluntary slaves of tomato and squash and dill and parsley straighten themselves with an effort and walk the dusty paths to the table with the same mixed feelings: it would be so much easier to just buy the veggies at the store.

Sour cream crowns little hillocks in deep bowls; the kvass floods over the mixture, foaming slightly and whooshing indignantly, especially if the spice-loving eater has added a liberal dose of mustard. Slap! A mosquito dies; the neighbour’s radio mumbles something incomprehensible (it’s afternoon news time); the aluminium spoon reaches the mouth, and its contents drive away any worried thoughts about jobs yet to be done. Life’s good!

***

Okroshka and dacha are two phenomena that are distinctly Russian and at the same time not quite. They have equivalents elsewhere in the world. Okroshka fits in the ‘Cold Soups of the World’ menu, next to the Balkan tarator and the Spanish gazpacho. Likewise, the spectrum of the dacha would cover the Balmoral estate of the British royal family, the Kleingartens of Germany, and a lot of things in between. It is not the concepts themselves that makes them unique, but the minor aspects they acquired as they evolved.

The ‘dacha’ stems from the verb дать, ‘to give’, and the land under St. Petersburg that Peter the Great gave to his most important courtiers, specifically to build palaces, where they could spend their summers, instead of travelling all the way to their family estates in Central Russia. You could almost feel the strain in the boyars as they craved at least a temporary escape from the demanding eye of the eccentric, short-tempered monarch, and longed for their old homes – but how could they reject his generous gifts?

Spending winters in the city and summers in the country is typical for European aristocracies, but as serfdom-based agriculture decayed, more and more noblemen had to evolve into middle-class townsfolk. To continue the old lifestyle, they began to rent houses in the country not far from town for the summer, and were joined in the practice by middle-class families that rose from humbler backgrounds. Since the 1830s, the businesses of building and renting summer cottages flourished in large towns, and in Chekhov’s time the concept reached its peak.

From a sentence here, a paragraph there, anyone who’s well read on Russian literature can form a vivid image of the pre-1917 dacha: tea in the cherry orchard, women in light white dresses, men in straw hats emitting clouds of tobacco smoke and intelligent utterances about art and politics. And between the lines, satirical or dramatic alike, you feel the longing for a peaceful, ‘simple and wholesome’ life at one with Nature, and nostalgia (perhaps I shoould use the German near-equivalent, Sehnsucht, that stems from suchen, ‘to search’) for the linden alleys of the family seats, likely long sold or never owned.

***

Okroshka is even older. Some legends trace it to the barge hauling teams on the Volga (yes, the guys from Repin’s painting), and their habit of soaking the salted and dried fish (yes, the vobla, that notorious Russian accompaniment to beer) in kvass – a traditional non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rye, wheat or barley bread – to make it more palatable as an everyday food. There’s even an anecdote that okroshka was born when a careless restaurant boy accidentally dumped a pot of kvass into another pot with the base for an Olivier salad. But Russian peasants have been mixing kvass with chopped vegetables for as long as the written record of their rations survived.

Whatever the origin, okroshka started out as a simple peasant dish born of an unwillingness to spend too much time and energy cooking in the heat of field work. One of the women would instead run home, quickly chop up whatever there was – mostly cucumbers, radishes and eggs that were hard-boiled as a means of preservation – and carry the mixture into the field, along with a pot of kvass and some sour cream. The family would eat it sitting in a circle around the common bowl, minding their turn carefully under the watchful eye of the elder.

The refined nobility always saw the dish as something a bit undignified and decisively old-fashioned. It wasn’t until the 1830s, when the pre-Peter ‘original Rus’ came in vogue, that okroshka made its way into the Russian haute cuisine and literary language. Curiously, the first examples of the word in the Russian Corpus of Literary Language use it metaphorically: for something hacked into small bits (which is the literal meaning of the verb крошить that ‘okroshka’ is derived from), or a wild mix of random ingredients. This suggests that every educated person knew what okroshka was, but nobody was bold enough to admit they’d had it.

A bowl of okroshka (Wikimedia Commons)
A bowl of okroshka (Wikimedia Commons)

For Pushkin and Lermontov, okroshka did not exist, Turgenev fed it only to the characters he most despised. Even Oblomov never ate it, although it figures in his daydreams about peaceful married life in the country. It was only with the Chekhov-style dacha that okroshka evolved from guilty summer pleasure into a Come for dinner, we’re having okroshka kind of dish.

***

It is amazing how, in spite of all the struggle against private property and enterprise, the dacha did not simply survive the Bolshevik revolution – it embodied itself within the Soviet lifestyle, and became one of the most important status symbols. “They have a dacha.” “Really? Awesome! And where?” The question actually means: “What kind?” The dacha of a Bolshevik boyar that draws its heritage directly from Peter-given palaces? The Chekhov style two-story wooden cottage with a veranda, cherry orchard, tea and conversation for the mid-privileged, like the dean of a university or the manager of the vegetable supply base? Or the more proletarian six-hundredths for that factory worker who was born in the country but managed to find work in the town after his army service, and had it made, complete with a khrushchevka and a motorcycle with a sidecar?

The ‘six-hundredth’ is a direct copy of the Kleingarten, a German invention that dates to the late 19th-century industrialization spree. Copy-pasted into the USSR after World War II, the time when kolkhoz kids lied, cheated, bribed and used every available legal option to escape the neo-serfdom of collectivized agriculture and move to towns and cities, the little plots served the same purpose: to give a formerly rural population a breath of relief from the smoke and hustle of urban life. Kleingartens are still popular in Poland and Germany, and I can well remember the shock my wife and I experienced when we took a bus from Moscow to Paris, woke up somewhere around Warsaw, looked outside the window and saw the familiar ‘six-hundredths’ (the size of an individual plot in the Soviet equivalent of the Kleingarten was 0.06 hectares, thus the name). We thought they were strictly a Soviet phenomenon.

None of the three kinds of Soviet dachas were legally the property of their owners: you got one by joining a cooperative, which got the land from the cooperative’s patron enterprise, which got it from a kolkhoz or sovkhoz, which got it from a Soviet, which, in turn, was supposed to represent the people and manage their collective property. And yet the dacha was perhaps the most anti-Soviet thing in the Soviet Union. It gave the Soviet class division a visual, geographical mark, as all three kinds existed in separate settlements. It also questioned the idea of equality: a Garden and Dacha Partnership would start from a level field, divided into equal plots. Some of them would overflow with berries, fruits and veg, others not so much, and those who worked their behinds off to achieve this would not want to exchange their dacha for a same-sized plot mismanaged by a careless neighbour.

***

Nowhere in the Russian tradition can you find the stone in which it is set that the cold kvass-based soup can be prepared and consumed only on a plot of land reserved for gardening and/or used as a temporary summer residence. There is no law against eating okroshka in the winter, and no cultural taboo either; neither is the dacha necessarily a summer activity. And yet okroshka, dacha and the summer are inherently connected.

Although the dacha season never really ends for a true enthusiast, most activities take place in the summer. As for okroshka, the issue is in the availability of ingredients. Among the modern consumer paradise, it is hard to remember that even a few decades ago, fresh vegetables and herbs could be had only in season. If you wanted a fresh cucumber a bit later or earlier than they naturally grow, you’d have to pay an arm and a leg at the market or seriously get into gardening. But in season, vegetables were everywhere, from the government food stores to certain street corners where old women would peddle the stuff that they, presumably, had grown with their own hands.

So was the kvass, the alpha and omega of a proper okroshka. This is a simple drink of fermented rye, wheat or barley. It is actually quite easy to make at home: fill the jar to about one-third with leftover bread, add a little yeast (a bit of bread from the previous kvass brew can serve as yeast later), pour over with water, cover with something that allows excess air to escape, and leave for three days in a warm place.

A kvass vendor in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (Wikimedia Commons)
A kvass vendor in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (Wikimedia Commons)

These days, just like vegetables, bottled kvass is available all year round, but most producers follow the tastes of the general public and liberally season the drink with caramelized sugar or molasses; it is deep brown and almost as sweet as coke. Using this kvass for okroshka is blasphemy; the proper kvass must be light yellowish, sour, and naturally sparkling like dry champagne. To their credit, some brands heed the call of true okroshka fans: look for the words okroshechny or zhivoi (which literally means ‘alive’) in the description.

Back in the USSR, kvass (the sweet brown kind) used to be commercially available only at street selling points – peculiar yellow barrels on wheels, with a towbar at the front, and a tap and provision for washing the glasses in the rear that was covered with a lid and padlocked when not in use. They would be towed to their locations by a truck, often three or four at a time, and when you saw this funny little train for the first time in a year, you knew that summer was near.

***

We, the younger generation, could never fully understand the dacha craze, although “the elders are on the dacha” did provide interesting opportunities to be had at the city apartment, unless you were recruited to help with the work, the ‘villain-socage’, as we called it. It was still not clear why would anyone use up so much time and labour for a handful of cucumbers. Modern sociological studies suggest that it wasn’t fruit and vegetables that were the prime motivation for the dacha, but a suppressed and deeply hidden desire to own and control at least something in a communist world where you controlled little and owned even less.

I find it easy to agree with these findings, as I remember the dacha owners returning to town on autumn days on their motorcycles, the sidecar, like the Horn of Plenty, overflowing with the fruits of their labours, he operating the mechanism with exaggerated concentration, she sitting behind, her left hand embracing his waist, her right hand over the load, in a gesture half protecting and half revealing poorly suppressed pride.

It might also be related to a Sehnsucht for the land, which the country boys and girls who, across times and epochs, had to make involuntary moves to towns and cities, might have felt. Oblomov’s dream about a happy life on a bit of your own land, relaxed and undisturbed, simple and ‘natural’, like the okroshka. I’m willing to bet that no less than a constitutional majority of people with a Russian identity share this hidden feeling, and this is why okroshka always lurks somewhere along the border between the conscious and unconscious mind and springs up as soon as the triggers line up: a hot summer day, a cold bread-based drink, and apprehension of roots (meaning both radishes and your own imperceptible rural heritage).

On an early summer evening in Nordrhein-Westfalen, when the open-air restaurants were finally allowed to reopen, my wife took a sip of a non-alcoholic draft Hefeweizen. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, looking at a barge struggling against the current of the Rhein, “it tastes almost perfect for okroshka.”


Euro Okroshka

Serves four people.

Ingredients:

250g Lyonnaise sausage
2 medium boiled potatoes
4 hard-boiled eggs
½ large cucumber
4 or 5 radishes
½ bunch spring onions
½ bunch parsley
½ bunch fennel fronds
1 litre of chilled, non-alcoholic Hefeweizen beer
Sour cream (or unscented, unsweetened Greek yoghurt)
Spicy horseradish
Mustard

Chop up the greens as fine as you can. Slice the eggs and radishes into half-moons, chop the sausage, cucumber and potatoes into approximately pea-sized chunks. Mix everything together in one big bowl, but don’t add the beer yet. Serve the bowl with empty soup dishes, let everyone fill up their bowl with the desired amount of the base, then pour over the cold beer, add the sour cream (or Greek yoghurt) and add salt to taste. Add spiciness with the mustard and horseradish (1/4 teaspoon of each should do). Eat with rye or multigrain bread.

Notes:

This recipe is based on ingredients that are normally readily available in any European supermarket. Many larger ones have an International Foods department where you can find kvass (seldom the proper kind, though) and smetana (Russian-style sour cream) in the dairy section.

Remember that okroshka is a culinary improvisation; the classic list of ingredients does sound a bit like an Olivier salad with kvass instead of mayo, but in fact, anything can be removed or added according to necessity or taste. Actually, the word ‘okroshka’ is often used as a metaphor for a random mix of something, usually ideas, that are just thrown in together and do not have anything that unites them. Okroshka is chaotic, but it is the primal chaos from which all life has sprung.

One suggested replacement is cold boiled or roasted beef instead of sausage. If you prefer the sweet (with a hint of molasses) taste of the regular store Russian kvass, pick a dark non-alcoholic beer instead of Hefeweizen.

Okroshka can easily become vegan: simply dump the boiled eggs, and replace the meat part with a vegetable-based equivalent; with modern vegan sausages, you will hardly know the difference. Sour cream can be replaced with a vegetable-based unscented and unsweetened yoghurt, or a creamy sauce of your choice.

 

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Published:

Aleksei Morozov

was born in a small Soviet factory town, from the polluted blocks of which each resident sought escape, at least in the form of a weekend’s fishing trip. Having worked for a few years as a Professor of Linguistics and English as a Foreign Language, he made a shift to the dark side and now makes his living from non-fiction writing, copywriting, translation and SMM. He lives with his wife and the youngest of their two children in Düsseldorf, Germany.