With all the posts about turkey sandwiches and New Year’s celebrations in recent weeks, this will surely be the last post of the 2014/15 cross-over. By the time you read this Russia’s Old New Year will have passed (on the 14th January) in a final vodka-driven blur. Who cares if it’s a work-night? Not me.
After last week‘s initial look at the contents of the celebratory table, I bring you: SALADS. Well, specifically one that has come to be a much regarded staple. In Russia and Eastern Europe it’s decidedly a thing across the holiday season. So much so that a Ukranian friend expressed distinct surprise at the fact that no, I don’t make a “Christmas salad” – ever! Hey, I don’t even celebrate Christmas – but enough about me.
Olivier salad – also known as Russian salad – features prominently; great lavish bowls of it all across the tables of Russia and Eastern Europe. By our standards, it’s a curious collection of ingredients drawn from a place between ‘main-dish side order’ and ‘proper salad’ as we know it. And it’s decidedly not vegetarian, even by our egg-salad standards. More like: cold meat and veg chopped up in a bowl with mayonnaise. That’s a Russian thing too: lashings of mayonnaise.
So consider an amalgam of diced boiled potatoes, dill pickles in brine, celeriac, carrots, peas, eggs, onions, olives, apples and boiled chicken (alternatively: bologna or ham). Seasoning is added in the form of salt, pepper and mustard, and the whole ensemble is drenched in in sour cream and/or the aforementioned mayo. In fact, photographs of the result often suggest that “Things in Mayonnaise” would be a better title for the dish, even though this ingredient is considered a “dressing”. Well that’s the modern version at least.
The story behind Olivier salad is worthy of note, with the original recipe created by Lucien Olivier in the 1860s. Olivier, of Belgian origin, was chef at Moscow’s Hermitage Restaurant (not to be confused with the eponymous St. Petersburg Museum). This was at a time when Russia had ‘opened up’ and the love-affair with all things European was decidedly on. The dish caught-on, massively. So much so that the exact ‘formula’ was never revealed by the secretive chef and died along with him – only to be rediscovered in 2008.
So how can we have a lost recipe that is simultaneously an established mainstay across seasonal tables throughout Russia?
The answer lies in the basest traits of human nature – forget ‘high’ society, ‘professional’ conduct, the ‘upper’ classes and the Noblesse Oblige. All nonsense. Consider instead the ubiquitous, unifying commonalities across all stations: greed, envy, theft and narcissism. A pig in a suit is still a pig after all. Culinary espionage saw a best-guess approximation of Oliver’s salad leave with Ivan Ivanov, Oliver’s sous-chef who established himself in the somewhat lesser Moskva restaurant.
He was to capitalise further on his deeds by selling the recipe for this renamed Capital Salad to various publishing houses whose dissemination spread the popularity of the dish to the general populace. Karma was to redress the situation, to some extent at least.
Following the 1905 closure of the Hermitage Restaurant and the departure of Olivier from Russia, the salad recipe could now be called ‘Olivier salad’ – shamelessly linking the dish to the prestigious chef/restaurant that it was stolen from, but at the same time thereby reinforcing its rightful origins by title. The dissemination of the recipe spread and established Olivier’s name internationally – and in one final twist: Ivanov’s variant had became known as fittingly second-rate in the eyes (and palates) of Russia’s dining elite, anyway. It was ‘missing something’. Integrity perhaps?
That’s some kind of justice at least. Ironically, this attempt at self-aggrandisement through theft ultimately publicised the victim and his culinary triumph that would have been otherwise lost. Do the aforementioned ingredients seem worthy of the term “triumph”? Well, things are not quite what they were in the prestigious Hermitage, in terms of the main components and in the creation of Olivier’s finer dressing.
An attempt to follow the recovered recipe will quickly reveal a list of ingredients such as smoked duck, veal tongue, grouse and crayfish tails. Times (and budgets) change along with regional tastes but Olivier’s salad still exists now in its various forms and titles wherever Russian and Eastern European kitchens lodge throughout the world.
That’s it, I’m full. Christmas is finally over.