Magazine article Russian Life

How the Upper Crust Dined

Magazine article Russian Life

How the Upper Crust Dined

Article excerpt

The nineteenth-century St. Petersburg aristocrat Petr Pavlovich Durnovo regularly entertained at his mansion on the city's fashionable English Embankment. Thanks to a trove of his dinner menus from 1857-1858, we can get a good sense of the foods that the mid-century aristocracy enjoyed. * Here, for instance, is the menu for September 25, 1857:

   Soup with vermicelli
   Oysters on the half-shell
   Pozharsky cutlets with garnish
   Roast great snipe
   Meringues with ice cream

Dumovo's St. Petersburg table was far more restrained than the groaning-board style of traditional Russian hospitality associated with Moscow. After the soup, Dumovo's dinners always moved on to a cold dish (often fish), then a hot dish, then a roast, a vegetable, and dessert. Not surprisingly, St. Petersburg's cuisine was more cosmopolitan than Moscow's, with dishes prepared "French style," "English style," and "Italian style," in addition to "Russian style."

The piquant appetite-whetters known as zakuski were so well understood that they needed no description in Dumovo's menus. Most likely the zakuski in his household were served with assorted vodkas in a parlor before the guests filed into the dining room for the main meal.

This September menu begins with a ffustratingly generic description of a soup identified only by the cognate sup, which gives little indication of how it was prepared, except that it had an Italian accent thanks to the vermicelli, fashionably thin Italian noodles. Fresh oysters came next. A couple of famous literary works remind us how beloved oysters were in Russia. Chekhov's poignant short story "Oysters" revolves around these mollusks, while Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, displays his connoisseurship by inquiring about the freshness and provenance of the oysters he's offered at a restaurant.

Durnovo's guests were no doubt delighted to be served two deeply Russian dishes, Pozharsky cutlets and roast great snipe. The delectable cutlets are said to have originated in the town of Torzhok, where travelers stopped for refreshment when traveling by coach between Moscow and St. Petersburg. There an innkeeper named Pozharsky became famous for his wildfowl cutlets (Pushkin mentioned them in a letter to his friend Sergei Sobolevsky). The Russian passion for wildfowl and game is also evident in the roast course. After hunting season opened in September, hazel hen, grouse, woodcock, snipe, great snipe, pheasant, partridge, hare, and venison all made frequent appearances on Durnovo's table. …

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