Saturday 16 January 2010

How I learned to cook

What a way to start... 
In 1990 and 1991 I lived in Moscow, on the seventh floor of a concrete block in Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad. Had our apartment been on the right side of the building, we would have looked out on a towering bronze statue of Lenin, his coat flapping in the wind as he gazed sternly towards Gorky Park. As it was, we looked out onto a car park full of faded, boxy Ladas and shiny, boxy Volvos. At night, rats performed their own ravenous ballet in the open rubbish bins.

We had a full-time maid, Katya, and a driver, Uri. This sounds grand but in those days it was mandatory for foreigners. It was how, during the last, brittle glimmers of the communist super power, the authorities kept track of what we were doing, who we were seeing.

Each morning, I asked Katya ‘How’s the weather?’. In winter, she had a special glint in her eye. ‘Oh, minus 25°C,’ or, even better, “Minus 30°C!” “That’s very cold,” I’d say, taking a quick, comforting slug of steaming coffee. “Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s just the way I like it!” she’d say, unpeeling coat, hat, scarf and gloves from her short, round body and changing her thick boots for dainty patent leather shoes. No wonder Napoleon and Hitler didn’t stand a chance against these people.

Our flat had a sitting room, two small bedrooms a kitchen and a bathroom. I could, with a little stretching, have dusted the whole place from the hallway. Not much for Katya to do. I was 24 years old, excited, a bit scared. I’d had a few Russian lessons from a long-lashed, razor-cheeked Serb called Zoran in a bedsit in Earl’s Court. I’d just about mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and learned how to say zdrah-stvooy-tee. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising a nation with such a long word for ‘hello’ had a reputation for being unfriendly.

So Katya became my Russian teacher. We drank tea and talked. Sometimes we went out and talked. Sometimes we bought ice cream, even in winter, or hot beef pastries from vendors outside the Oktyabrskaya metro station. She taught me how to use the underground and take a tram, how to pay in shops. (See something in a cabinet and ask to look at it, ask the sales person for a ticket, queue up at another counter to pay for it, go back to the first counter with your receipt and collect your purchase, which would then be carefully wrapped in brown paper. You better not be in a hurry.) And, most importantly, she took me to the markets.

I loved the huge Centralny Rynok, the Central Market, the best. In the main hall, there were flower stalls selling chrysanthemums with creamy, billowy heads the size of turnips and carnations dyed lurid shades of electric blue, stalls heaped with walnuts and raisins, strings of dried mushrooms, barrels full of pickled cabbages and cucumbers, boxes of perky lettuce, crates of potatoes and carrots, bunches of dill, coriander and parsley as big as a Cossack’s fist, little bundles of thyme and bay, baskets of lemons and oranges. Citrus fruits were brought up from the southern republics in suitcases by gold-toothed sellers who took advantage of air fares fixed by the state years ago, so selling a few lemons was enough to pay for their 2000 mile round trip between Tblisi and Moscow.

Behind the main hall, there were two long, low buildings. The one on the left sold meat, everything from rows of waxy piglets to legs of lamb, ribs of beef and enormous slabs of pork. In the white-tiled building on the right, stout women with white overalls buttoned tightly over their woollen coats sold milk, yoghurt, cream and cheese in old jam jars and brown paper bags filled with eggs.

In London, I’d bought fruit and veg from the cheerful blokes on Berwick Street Market, tiny, beautiful single-girl lamb cutlets from the butcher on Brewer Street, sardines from the fishmonger on Endell Street, garlicky slices of salami from I Camisa on Old Compton Street. When I left work late, or towards the end of the month when funds were running low, I’d pick up things for dinner at Sainsbury’s on the Finchley Road. Neat. Clean. In Moscow, I was thrown into a world of grubby vegetables and strange cuts of meat sold by men in dirty aprons. Katya taught me to hunt down the finest produce, negotiate the best prices. I enjoyed, for the first time in my life, a sense of the seasons passing. After a long winter and chilly spring, the first strawberries, tomatoes and French beans were more tempting than gold.

In a city where pensioners lived on 90 roubles a month, less than I’d pay for a leg of lamb, I learned not to waste a scrap. In my kitchen on the seventh floor, I cooked simply and entertained a lot. There were few restaurants, so we often ate in each other’s homes. I’d packed Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, I think because I imagined reading her sensual prose would see me through a bleak Russian winter. But I cooked from it, working my way through its pages, tumbling my Russian vegetables in her French dressing, turning fat little mushrooms into her champignons a la provençale and transforming those Georgian citrus into crème a l’orange. Julia Child said, ‘You learn to cook so that you don't have to be a slave to recipes.  You get what's in season and you know what to do with it.’ Well, in those dark winter months, I had time, great ingredients, a warm kitchen, an eager audience and, most importantly, Mrs David at my side, teaching me from her recipes how to cook without recipes.

So there you have it. How I really learned to cook. From Russia, with love. And a licked spoon.


Khachapuri The khachapuri is on a board I bought in Moscow and have used almost every day since.

Borsch is all well and good, but when I lived in Moscow the foods I enjoyed most were the ones I enjoyed in its handful of Georgian restaurants. Shashlyk, or shish kebab, chicken in walnut sauce, raisiny plov, or pilaf, marinated aubergines…in fact, they were a lot like the dishes I eat now, in Stoke Newington’s many Turkish cafes. The one thing I loved then and crave now is khachapuri, thin breads filled with salty cheese, eaten quickly while they were still hot from the oven. I was thrilled to find a recipe for them in Jill Norman’s delightful Winter Food: Seasonal Recipes for the Colder Months. Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and literary executor, is an elegant, masterful writer in her own right. If you want to silence that screaming internal yearning for spring, buy this book.

Serves 8

3 eggs
175ml yoghurt
200g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
½ tsp salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g cold butter, cut up into pieces, plus extra for greasing
450g cheese, a mixture of feta or havarti and crumbly white cheese such as Wensleydale or white Cheshire or Lancashire work well

Very fresh eggs Getting it all together.

Feta & Wensleydale Mixture of feta and Wensleydale.

Mix away Mixing the flour in with the yoghurt and eggs.

Flouring all the way Shaping the dough.

Putting the lid on Forming the khachapuri.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Beat 1 egg in a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt. Mix together the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda in another bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the flour mixture to the yoghurt and stir to form a dough. Add a little more flour if it is too soft. Knead into a smooth, elastic dough and leave to rest while you prepare the cheese.

Grate or crumble the cheeses coarsely. Beat the second egg and stir it into the cheeses. Set aside. In Jill Norman’s recipe, she divides the dough into eight pieces, rolls each one on a floured board to a circle of about 12-14cm diameter and puts one eighth of the cheese mixture in the centre. Then she gathers up the sides to meet in the centre and either crimps the edges together to enclose the cheese completely, or leaves them slightly open. I decided to make one large round, so I divided the dough in two, rolled out the bottom into a circle, spread the cheese out on top, brushed the edges with egg and placed the second layer on top, crimping the edges firmly. Put the bread/s onto a large, greased baking sheet. Brush with the third beaten egg and bake for 25-30 minutes until browned. The bread is best served hot or warm. Serve it as a satisfying first course or with a salad as a light meal. I served mine with tomato and lentil soup – I’ll post the recipe next week.


  1. This was such a joy to find your post and read about Moscow and London - and find a great recipe with gorgeous pictures. Wow - everything I was looking for, all in one place. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a treat of a post! Just gorgeous. I will put a link for it on my Comfort Food page because I am sure it is comfort food in words as well as the recipe!

  3. PS

  4. Dearest D

    This is a brilliant. evocative post. I so remember that amazing market, the Centralny Rynok.

    Pardon me for saying this but I think all this would make a wonderful, even an important book...


  5. This recipe looks fabulous; just the sort of thing to take me out of the cold of the Home Counties and into a nice warm kitchen. I am going to really enjoy making this one, thanks Debra

  6. What a wonderful post. Thank you for writing about a small part of your days in Russia. I'd love to read more. I really enjoy your writing style, Debora. this kind of reminds me of the Serbian burek, one of my favourite foods ever.

    And thank you for reminding me to revisit Elizabeth David. It's been awhile but I've always enjoyed her work immensely.

  7. Susan, Thank you so much for your lovely comment, and thanks for following my blog.I do hope you'll visit and comment often.
    Hello Joy, What a great idea to have a Comfort Food Page, and thank you for including me on it.
    Mummy - Thank you for your lovely comment and your characteristic lack of bias. We had fun, didn't we, when you visited? Whizzing around in gypsy cabs, walking for miles and miles, soaking everything in.
    Anon - You're welcome. Stay warm!
    Darina - You've really made my day with your lovely comment. It was so much fun to remember my time in Moscow, I'm sure I'll write about it again. Yes, the khachapuri is rather like Serbian burek, or the boreki I enjoy in the Turkish cafes in my neighbourhood. Delicious culinary cousins, I'm sure.

  8. I agree with Wendy R - this is book material! I read your account with fascination. First, it's a great subject (I learnt to cook in 1970s commune). Secondly, the evocation of Moscow is intense and more so through food. I loved the description of the market. Reminds me of the big covered food markets of Accra, Ghana.

  9. I forgot to ask: what were you doing in Moscow?

  10. Book material indeed! Fabulous post Debora - khachapuri sounds and looks delicious - Avril x

  11. Just found your blog and I love it! Except for the fact that I'm going to have to go on a mission on the number 73 bus to get my lunch!

  12. lovely post, and yes - what brought you to Moscow? Dying to know...

  13. Now do you believe me? I TOLD you you were a brilliant writer! Too bad we already sent off that parcel, isn't it? Oh, darling're the limit!

    Karen (Yankee) the Very Certain

  14. Elizabeth - Thank you so much. I loved writing about this chapter in my life and it brought back so many wonderful memories, I'll certainly write about it again soon, including how I ended up there, phrase book in one hand, spoon in another. Have you written about the markets in Accra? I'd love to read about that. A market is the whole culture in one place, I always think.
    Avril - Thank you Miss Joy - I think your lot would love this bread, if you fancied giving it a go.
    Alex - Thanks so much. A 73 tip - it's on diversion at the moment, so you get a free 'sights of north London' tour with every beep of your Oyster card. Your blog is charming - love it.
    Salty - Give me a chocolate hobnob and I'll tell you...Obviously, there was a man...
    Karen - Oh you. You're tops.

  15. What an amazing experience that must have been--thank you so muck for sharing! I've never heard of khachapuri, and it sure looks like something to try very soon!

  16. Now this is a wonderful story unfolding!
    Gorgeous adventure writing; love the lovely relationship with Katya that was of great benefit to you (both I imagine).
    The bread looks heavenly!

  17. I am wary of return comments, the you leave one, I leave one mentality, but I need to say how much I enjoyed reading this post, this is writing that deserves time and attention so I will return to read More. I have (and neglect) the Jill Norman Winter food Book but I have been using her new penguin cookery guide alot lately - I like it very much.

  18. A really lovely post and a fantastic recipe to go with it, Debora.

  19. ThatLoisLaneAgain19 January 2010 at 21:12

    Er, Mrs Licked Spoon - you seem to be ignoring the comments about a book!! Yes please!! Your writing is as delicious as your even more lovely would it be perfect bound!
    Love ya

  20. I was a Russian Major at university and spent time studying at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Your post brought back floods of memories - smells and sounds I no longer experience except in dreams and tingling stomach tightening moments of deja vu. Tea, cigarettes, herrings and absurd plates of steak tartare at the Warsaw train station topped by quivvering raw eggs. OMG I love your words.

  21. Catherine, Do try them - I think they might be a project you and Emma would enjoy.
    MyKitchenInHalfCups -Thanks so much for your lovely comment. Katya was a very special woman; when we parted, I cried big, blotchy-faced tears, I can tell you.
    Rachael - That means a lot to me, thank you. I really like the Penguin book too, so full of perfectly crafted recipes.
    Fran - Thanks, it's good to see you back.
    TLLA - Oh, you! I'm not ignoring, just musing... Love ya more than my spoons.
    Michele -What a fascinating experience that must have been. You made ME think of all of the public buildings that smelled of cigarettes so pungent they made Gauloise smell like fresh laundry. I'm so touched by your comments.

  22. What a wonderful description of your time in Russia. Thank you for sharing this with us. Your khachapuri look superb.

  23. I love your multi-cultural cooking background. I think it's a great thing too that you've learned to never waste anything. When we are fortunate to live with plenty of food, we often take it for granted. Thanks for the reminder that food is precious.

  24. This is indeed a lovely post. The khachapuri sounds really interesting. Does the yogurt help the bread to rise at all, or is it completely flat. It looks like a crisp pastry in the picture.

  25. I confess to not being a very good cook, I'm also not a very good reader of lots of text without pictures...... but this just got to me! I really enjoyed your mini book on a page. I want to know what happened to Katya? I'll be back to check if there is more. Hopefully you might draw me in to a bit more cooking too! My partner would certainly be pleased about that.
    Lovely writing. I found you, as a local, through the LARA blog, thanks to Georgina.

  26. Denise - Thank you.
    Susan - Oh I had a good early training in the form of a grandmother who lived through two world wars, ironed used wrapping paper, squished odd ends of soap into new little bars and cut open 'empty' toothpaste tubes with a razor to get the last drops out.
    Choclette - It's a flat dough which you roll out quite thin. I know they fry them sometimes rather than baking which makes them wonderfully crisp, but I figured a pound of cheese was enough fat for one little bread. Well, for now anyway.
    Helen - How nice to have a visit from a fellow Stoke Newington person. So pleased you enjoyed this story; I loved writing it.

  27. Thats a great post! I almost feel like I was there seeing things through your eyes! You have a lovely turn of phrase and I'm now all excited to try your recipe! Thanks for sharing!

  28. Dear Deborah

    There is nothing much to add to the wonderful comments you have received except to say that you seem to have really touched others with this dreamy, long-time-ago story. Of course you should write a book, you know it too. You just need the right time for this to take place. When you are good and ready and not before.
    I make a balkan dish very similar to your khachapuri. We call it pita. It contains a filling of feta style cheese, cream cheese and eggs. Thats it. Oh and all encased in a very crisp homemade pastry. I just love it.
    And I just love you too. Keep up with the great blogging. You deserve to have a large following and I wish you continued and growing success. Love from Mariana.

  29. ImplausibleYarn - Thanks so much, and do try the recipe.
    Dearest Mariana, Your wonderful comment really touched me, it really did, and brightened a rainy old day in London town in the most heartwarming way. You are a very special lady. I know you are taking a hiatus from your own lovely blog, but I do hope you'll visit me here often. I'll need a Mariana fix to keeping me going until you are back and writing about life on your beautiful farm. Much love, Dxx

  30. D-

    Listen to your mother. This is your book!!!!
    I have nothing to add to the wonderful comments above, except much love-


  31. Haha Marty, she'll like that. You know I thought of you dear when I wrote this - I remember you made a request for a few Russian stories ages ago. Your wish and all that... Perhaps I should start a special request slot? Lots of love to you lot too, Dx

  32. Ditto, ditto, ditto! I will buy the book. I will buy two! I love your descriptions. I feel like I was there with you and Katya-- so charming and touching.

  33. Kim, How lovely you are! Thanks so much.

  34. I'm so pleased I came across your blog - via your Guild mail today.

    Your post on Russia was beautifully written and wholly evocative. I must go and buy Jill Norman's book now. I met (and interviewed) her a few months back and thought her a really interesting woman. Food writing royalty - if that doesn't sound too creepy - and someone to aspire to.

    I've added you to my blogreader. My food blog is still a WIP - i'm increasingly in awe of all the fabulously written and beautifully photographed blogs i'm reading.

    Victoria Prever

  35. So lovely your story about Russia. It's funny how loneliness and alienation leads to learning new things.
    And just saw that Victoria Prever has commented. I was at her talk with Jill Norman, Judith Jones and Claudia Roden last year.

  36. Dear Victoria, Well I hope that's not creepy as it would make me creepy too! I sat next to her at a breakfast a few years ago and she was delightful. As you say, a real food writing star. I'll look out for your blog, and thanks for adding me to your blogroll. And don't be too in awe - just jump in and make it up as you go along, that's certainly what I did and what I suspect most of us do. It's a great adventure.
    MsMarmiteLover - Thanks so much. I think it's very important at least once or twice in your life to be cast adrift in entirely unfamiliar circumstances. It's the shortest cut to finding out who you really are. Oh, I remember that talk and really wanted to go but had to work. I'll check out your account.

  37. OMG this brings back memories! Remember when it was -25C and the dejournaya came in to tape up the windows after we students had opened them! Green bananas at Profsoysnaya metro station and being refused those delicious piroshki at Comsomolskaya metro station as I only had a 5 rouble note and the woman had no change! god I was starved!! (have you got a recipe??!) Bring back the 80's ..... or maybe not! just discovered your blog today! loving it!

  38. What a very lovely post. The understated way you have written about your time in Moscow has brought it alive for me!

    I visited on holiday in 1992, it was clear our short trip gave us no more than a glimpse.

    I have made khachapuri once, I like the look of this recipe better!


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