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Borscht, s’il vous plait

November 22, 2009

Having just learned of 18th-century French master chef Antonin Carême’s animus against the Russians’ habit of cooking with what he considered too much vinegar, it was with a sense of irony that I recently added the finishing touch of cider vinegar to the borscht I was making.

Beets are worth featuring this time of year, and the soup’s arresting color is like no other dish I can think of, except maybe red velvet cake. Well-peppered and with that touch of acidity, borscht is wonderful accompanied by a salad where equally peppery arugula mingles with mellow avocado.

But my recent reading of Ian Kelly’s Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef (2004) gave new import to that dash of vinegar.

In Cooking for Kings, Kelly details the tumultuous life of the Parisian ragamuffin who rose in the ranks of basement-toiling, charcoil-fume-inhaling cooks and patissiers to become the most courted chef in Europe. One of the big-wigs courting Carême was Tsar Alexander, and during his 1819-1820 tenure as Head Chef at the Romanov Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Carême apparently prompted certain culinary changes that endured after his return to Paris.

As Kelly would have it, Carême made his mark by “introducing cream as an alternative to vinegar in Russian sauces” (p.167) and by supposedly “successfully ridding Russian cooks of their over-reliance on pickling” (p.181). Clearly, vinegar was central to a Franco-Russian culinary drama unfolding in the great kitchens of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The cross-pollination resulted in dishes we now consider quintessentially Russian, like Beef Stroganoff with its cream sauce. But in Carême’s time, the Napoleonic invasion was a recent memory, and Franco-Russian relations uneasy.

I have great respect for Carême. In an era when cooking was emerging as an art, he was front and center, designing the now-classic chef’s hat, inventing the soufflé, that emblem of culinary refinement. He made seven-foot marvels out of spun sugar, crafted Napoleon’s wedding cake, catered the opulent Rothschild soirees, weathered political storms with his patron Talleyrand, and cooked for international figureheads. He also wrote several cookbooks, some with multiple volumes. I’m not about to question his judgment out of hand, including his judgment on vinegar.

Plus, my French background would make for a perfect natural bias. But in this case, I take his opinion with a grain of salt. In borscht, I think a certain acidity makes sense from the point of view of flavor.

Ultimately, it’s Carême’s pique itself I find interesting. According to Kelly, he was suspected by some of being a French spy during his time at the Winter Palace, and was subjected to surveillance. That could give anyone an acid disposition.

But even more interestingly, it is Carême himself who supposedly imported borscht to France. (Along with koulibiac, a savory pie filled with chicken or fish, hard-boiled eggs and rice. Clearly not a dish that made a lasting impression in the West.) He also became a champion of service a la russe as opposed to service a la francaise, so we have him to thank for the fact that food is generally plated in restaurants rather than served buffet-style. But that is a whole other story.

*   *   *

The following recipe for Russian Soup (but not borscht) is from Carême’s files:

Russian Soup

Cut in small pieces three pounds of brisket of beef, and one pound of streaky bacon. Put these in a stock-pot covered with beef stock and boil for two hours. Then add two onions sliced, and sweated in butter, a spoonful of flour, and a white cabbage cut up, washed, and drained. Boil these two hours. Add six sausages, which take up again ten minutes afterwards, skim the soup and serve. This is the soup of the Russian people (Kelly, 182).

And this one is from my own notebook:


1 T olive oil

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 leeks, washed and chopped

about 8 beets, washed, peeled and chopped

4-6 cups water or vegetable or chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

about 1 T cider vinegar

Sauté the vegetables in oil in the bottom of a stock pot until just tender. Add water or broth and simmer. Season, and then add vinegar at the last minute.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jilly permalink
    November 25, 2009 3:20 pm

    Of little import next to the great French-Russian Vinegar Wars, but creating an impressive image in my head, is the red velvet cake. Isn’t a cake that color worth an article? Speaking seriously – I love beets, vinegar, and the poetic Dr. Zhivago side of Russian winters, and recipes I can imagine doing in my simple kitchen with my simple tools. This is for me. I had always thought borscht was the most hieroglyphical of soups. Thanks.

  2. January 30, 2010 5:40 pm

    Beets are a recent culinary love of mine. I had my very first a few years ago, discovering a few bunches of these delicious roots, tufts of deep green leaves sprouting at one end and tapering to a thin string at the other, at the little community garden down the road. I had no idea what they were. I took a quartet home, washed the garden’s dirt from them, and set about on a priceless culinary adventure. Now, nothing smells more like sweet earthiness to me than the aroma that rises when you’re chopping fresh beets and staining your hands and the cutting board purple-red. I like them best in pasta, with chicken and olive oil. I’ll have to try some borscht, though.

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