Food from the Old Country

“Read Gogol’s Dead Souls,” Ms. Ezersky ordered me over tea. “It’s the bible of Russian food.” I still haven’t read it yet, but know, at least, that the narrator travels the Russian countryside looking to capitalize on laws about deceased peasants; he feasts in villagers’ homes along the way.

What I did do was speak with James Beard award-winning Portland chef Vitaly Paley about his Russian pop-up dinners, early food memories of growing up in Belarus, and his Georgian Caravan tea collaboration with Smith Teamakers while researching an article about pairing tea and food this past fall. Paley suggested I also speak with his mother, Genya, a piano teacher based in New York, and sometimes advisor on Russian traditions. Ms. Paley bought him a samovar on a trip to St. Petersburg and was one of the very first to try his Georgian tea with a homemade Oregon huckleberry jam akin to the preserves used in their native Belarus.

paleybar
Energy bar and herbal infusions bestowed upon me by Genya Paley, November 2015.

“Just a few sips of that tea reminded me of home,” said Ms. Paley. “It quenched my thirst.” I had gone up to see her one very rainy morning at Lincoln Center where she teaches exceptionally talented young pianists. She rarely drinks black tea anymore. In fact, the first thing she did was give me a few of Smith’s herbal blends and an energy bar made by her son–a typical snack on her action-packed days. “I don’t like many teas on the market,” she said. “But these I like.”

We talked quite a bit about life in Belarus when her son was young; his grandmother did most of the cooking, getting first-rate ingredients from neighbors and the local market. “It was a different time and place,” she said. “People brought us warm eggs and milk from next door. We knew it was fresh, and didn’t think much about it.” They had tea all day long, but proper tea time was later in the evenings, after supper, often with farmer’s cheeses, jams and sweets. They usually had an excellent looseleaf Georgian tea on hand, and when they were lucky, Napoleon cake made by Paley’s grandmother. “My son makes a version of it for his pop-up dinners, but it’s not my mother’s,” said Ms. Paley. “The layers of dough and cream were so thin you could barely tell they were there. It was all of a piece–no separation.”

kuleyiabka
Paley’s salmon kulebyaka from his Russian pop-up dinners.

Ms. Paley snapped up some linens on her last sojourn back to the old country, shipping them out West, along with some other accoutrements for her son’s dinners. He sometimes calls her, asking how she and his grandparents made certain dishes or homemade drinks like kvas. (He had mentioned the Russian fascination with fermentation to me and how there’s nothing quite like kvas; kombucha, he said, pales in comparison.) “I’m proud of how creative my son is,” said Ms. Paley. “He finds out how we did what we did, and always adds his own twist.” Known for his love of Pacific Northwest ingredients, Paley has been finding similarities between the region’s berries, mushrooms and game, and Belarussian cuisine, as he digs further into his roots. Portland dwellers can experience his Russian pop-up dinners in the coming months with tsar-ish delicacies like salmon kulebyaka washed down with tea from a real samovar followed by a cacao and sour cream riff on his grandmother’s Napoleon. “People often don’t know how rich and varied Russian food is,” he said. “Let the tables break from abundance,” as the Russian toast goes, “and the beds break from love.”

Danet
Samovar and blini from Paley’s dinners, reprinted from PDX Monthly, July 2015.
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