May 9th, 2019 saw the Better Half and I arrive in St Petersburg. It had been a longed-for trip and a birthday treat for me. Having been weirdly obsessed since teenage years with ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and ‘War and Peace’, this was the trip of a lifetime.
Unwittingly, the fates and BA flight prices had conspired in such a way that we landed just in time for Russia’s annual Victory Day. Driving into downtown St Petersburg the highways were totally free of traffic, so we were a bit confused when our taxi driver said that he wouldn’t be able to get us right to the door of our hotel – it was just off Nevsky Prospect and a promised ‘stone’s throw’ from the Winter Palace. Our driver, a very willing soul, skilfully negotiated police roadblocks and closed streets and deposited us a few meters from our destination. Nevsky Prospect though… we could see it just a few metres away…and it was a mass of people.
Quickest hotel check-in ever, bags dumped and we were out in the midst of it all. Literally, thousands of people were parading along the wide St Petersburg avenues neither silently, nor with excessive celebration Most were dressed in today’s smart casual, a few wore the khaki of some 80 years ago, and every single person carried a black and white photo-portrait. This was Russia’s ‘Immortal Regiment’ and it was hugely impressive. Forget the trundling tanks of Soviet May Day – this was personal (those black and white pictures were photos of lost family members) and heart-felt and, I don’t think, state organised. The most moving moment was seeing an extremely old lady in a wheelchair, her chest covered in medals, having her hands kissed by people of my generation and younger… I really wish I knew her story…. A visceral reminder that the Russians were also victorious allies in 1945. I doubt that this year’s 75th Victory Day will be celebrated the same way… which has to be a real shame. Marking the end of the world’s worst conflict has to be a cause for both remembrance and celebration.
In the UK, our commemoration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day won’t be quite as expected either. The bunting is up but the parades and concerts are off. It’s tricky to see how street parties work with social distancing in place …and I’m not entirely sure that a Zoom version will work here.
Of course in Britain, we have a more nostalgic relationship with WW2 than the rest of Europe. In these months of the pandemic our national-crisis touchstones have been the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again’. It absolutely goes without saying that no one would belittle the suffering and sacrifices of the War generation – my Dad served in the Army from ’39-’46 and my Mum worked in an aircraft factory – but we do have a hankering for the style of the time. Let’s face it, we all get weepy over ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and our 1970’s sitcoms were firmly based in wartime. I recently tried to explain the premise of ‘Allo Allo’ to a young French woman and fast realised that the concept probably didn’t travel well across the Channel.
Even just the thought of the food of the time somehow makes us yearn for yellowing cake tins and a strong cup of Bovril. Having said that, I suspect few would really relish a portion of snook pie, and I know for a fact that the delights of dried egg are extremely limited. But during lockdown, we have all been brushing up on the skills of our grandmothers. We’ve been using up leftovers and making do with the ingredients we have in, rather than rushing out to buy more. For the moment at least, we have come just a tiny bit closer to the frugality of those years.
My ridiculous collection of cookbooks even has a reprint of one from 1944, ’Good Eating – Suggestions For Wartime Dishes’. With its 2 shilling, old money, cover price, it’s a charming book, Some of the recipes even sound spot on for our current flexitarian, meat-free dietary requirements. The recipe for ‘Russian Cheese’ made from a pound and a half – aka 750gm – of mashed potato, dried egg, sour milk, and a few spoonfuls of actual cheese, is probably not one I’ll be running to anytime soon. What you do have to admire is the inventiveness and willingness of home cooks to feed their families in the most imaginative and varied ways possible.
Another cookbook I picked up in Athens last year is remarkably is called ‘Famine Recipes’… not the most inspiring title you would think…. But this is an almost unique work.
A much-ignored bit of WW2 history is that, during the Nazi occupation, Greece endured the most horrendous famine. I’m not a historian but I think it’s safe to say that the famine situation in Greece at that time was without equal. With a combination of rapacious plundering of food supplies by the Nazis and strategic Allied blockades, in the three years of the Occupation, some 300,000 Greeks perished. The exact figure is unknown as families hid deaths so that they could keep the ration cards; the loss of even those pitiful allowances was disastrous. Not circumstances that evoke reminiscences and nostalgia….So that is what fascinated me with this particular book. Actually, despite the title, there are not so many ‘recipes,’ it’s more the recipe for survival.
History professor, Eleni Nikolaïdou, researched the archive of Athenian daily newspapers for three years and her findings resulted in this book, ‘Famine Recipes’. Even the Nazi censorship couldn’t stop the papers’ columnists give handy tips on how to substitute nothing for not much more, and how to eek out very little. One useful piece of advice was to gather the crumbs each time you cut bread and store them in a pot. In a few days’ time you’d have a whole load of breadcrumbs to bulk up some meagre offering.
A ‘tasty soup’ could be made from the trimmings of green beans and a handful of olives,. Any service, from that of the seamstress to the lawyer, could be traded for some hazelnuts or a bit of olive oil. Wartime staples were currants, wild greens (nettles, dandelions, etc), and retsina.
In these recent weeks when, for the first time in the lives of most, we have been confronted with some empty supermarket shelves, you can only imagine the grinding, horrifying despair of realising that there’s no food for sale.
Today obviously I salute those brave men and women who fought for our freedom all those years ago – we owe them so, so much. But I also salute those others, mainly women, who stayed at home and, against all the dreadful odds, did their very best to feed their families.
Here’s a recipe from the book.
Ersatz Taramosalata (that is without any taramas)
As an experiment, I stuck to the directions in the book. I used the driest bread I had and no more than a teaspoonful of oil. I think the ‘soup powder’ that crops up in a lot of the recipes must have been something distributed by the Red Cross and was probably like today’s bouillon powder. The result was not totally unpleasant – it had plenty of ‘umami’ and had the benefit of being totally vegan! I think it would be possible to make something tastier with the addition of maybe a bit more oil and something like Worcestershire sauce or tabasco.
Take some dry bread (probably about 150gm) and moisten it with water until soft. Put it in a mortar and pestle with a tablespoonful of grated onion.
Work this together until its a fairly smooth paste, adding a few drops of olive oil as you go.
Now add a teaspoonful of ‘soup powder’, work that into the paste and add a bit of lemon juice to taste. According to how much bread you have used, you may need to add a bit more ‘soup powder’.
To finish it off, add a tablespoonful of hot water and mix well.
Add a little pepper to add a bit of spice.
‘You will have a perfect taramosalata and nobody will even guess that it doesn’t contain a trace of taramas.’
I’m not so sure about that…
‘Famine Recipes’ by Eleni Nikolaïdou (www.kapsimi.gr)