In January 2002 I arrived in Moscow for what would turn out to be eight of some of the most memorable years of my life. It was an era when, believe it or not, relations between the U.S. and Russia were tip-top.
The end of that first year culminated with an unforgettable adventure that I would like to share with you because, as I discovered, you really haven’t lived until you’ve celebrated New Year Russian style. If I had only one word to describe it, I would use the word intense.
My friends arriving from Germany, and I were invited to celebrate New Year with Russian friends at their spacious dacha in the countryside, about an hour outside Moscow. Plans were in the making months in advance.
The scene we entered was exactly as one would imagine: all white, gray, taupe and bitter cold; snow piled high everywhere and lots of briskly moving people dressed in thick skins and furs.
Early on I had learned to differentiate the nuances of below freezing temperatures without looking at a thermometer. Not bad for a Californian. At -15C the smile on my face freezes. At -20C it feels like my teeth will fall out. At -25C it feels like a thousand needles are piercing any exposed skin.
Like New York, Moscow in December is flooded and animated with people from other parts of the country who come to see the big city dazzlingly lit up like a fairy land and to gawk at beautiful decorations. They eat and drink, shop, sightsee and flock in great numbers to its abundant cultural offerings. Traffic barely moves. The fast-moving Moscow metro is even more frenzied than usual. People are either flying in every direction or they’re shoved tight against each other, quietly flowing like a rapid lava river pouring out of a volcano.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Christianity came back to Russia and so the Russian festivities once again include Christmas, not on Dec. 24-25 but on the Orthodox Christmas of January 6. The orthodox new year is on January 13. So the New Year is feted twice, although the main celebration is December 31.
On January 1 life in Moscow comes to a screeching stop. Then, for the next three weeks the city is blissfully calm and devoid of traffic congestions. The air becomes cleaner too. People are either chilling out at home or more likely, they have escaped to the countryside.
After arriving at the dacha and settling in, we got all dressed up and went downstairs, where more guests were arriving, to begin our long evening.
Spread out on a grand table was a sumptuous buffet of Zakusky (Russian appetite-teasing specialties). The Russian feast table is always generous and MUST be groaning with platters of attractively arranged food. It typically includes an array of multi-coloured caviars, beet and herring salad (Shuba), potato salad (Salad Olivier), smoked sturgeon, and far too many more dishes to list here but the main attraction on this occasion was an enormous Pike fish curled up on a giant platter. It was caught personally by one of the guests and prepared in a special way. A secret, he said. In the kitchen a huge, stuffed turkey was being pushed into the oven.
The evening proceeded merrily with eating, drinking, toasting, laughing, eating, drinking, toasting, laughing until some loud banging on the door interrupted the revelers. It is Ded Moroz. He’s very tall, richly dressed and his white beard reaches to his knees. Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is the Russian version of Santa Claus or Pére Noel. He is always accompanied by Snegurotchka, the snow maiden who is always dressed in icy blue with a shimmering pointed headpiece.
Ded Moroz and Snegurotchka entertain and cajole the guests before distributing gifts, BUT they have to be earned by guessing riddles.
While a TV in a corner displays elaborate entertainment programs, the drinking and toasting continue and the excitement builds up for the magic hour when guests move outside for fireworks and welcoming the Novy God (New Year). This is when I was introduced to the traditional Russian felt boots that peasants wore for centuries. You just slip your bare feet into them, and they stay toasty warm even in the deepest freeze. The temperature must have been at least -27C because it felt like a sword had pierced my lungs.
For the next phase of our party, the guests were directed to the Banya (bath house), converted for the occasion into a disco for dancing (with clothes on of course) and where a long and elaborate dessert and tea-table was laid out for guests to continue banqueting. (The disco in the banya may seem like an odd place for this set-up, if you’re not Russian. But that is another story.)
Some time between five or seven in the morning the stuffed turkey was served to anyone who could still stand or sit up straight. All I remember is that it was delicious.
The next day or I should say, later that day — it was a very short day — we had breakfast at about three in the afternoon. By four o’clock it was dark again.
At six o’clock we jumped into cars and gathered at another guest’s home nearby for a cozy New Year evening of more eating, laughter and toasting. This time the menu featured the popular Russian specialty of roast suckling pig and more Ikra (caviar) downed with iced vodka.
I had heard much about the famous Russian New Year’s Eve that ends at dawn. It doesn’t. It goes on for days and days.
The following day, after returning to the city, we joined another group of friends for a festive dinner at one of Moscow’s iconic and atmospheric restaurants serving Armenian food called Noah’s Ark. The evening was finished off at a nightclub on the Novy Arbat, one of the main boulevards glittering with blinding lights, for a show with a big-name singer and dancing.
The next night we were dining, drinking, toasting and laughing again. This time with another family – old friends of my friends. Their apartment was not far from mine, just across a long bridge over the frozen Moscow River. Our hosts were exceptionally hospitable and part of that function is making sure that those little toasting glasses are continually topped up with vodka.
Around dawn we left our friends to walk back to my apartment. Even though we were up to our eyeballs with vodka, we managed to notice that crossing the long bridge would be challenging. The snow was deep and coming down like crazy and the whipping wind was so strong we could hardly stand up. Visibility was so poor that the end of the bridge was nowhere in sight, though I knew it was there. Somewhere. How far? Locking arms, we held on to each other as tight as we could, slowly slipping, swaying and tumbling our way across the bridge. There was not a soul in sight. We thought this was all very funny and laughed all the way home.
If all the festivities of the previous days weren’t enough, I decided I should also host a meal at my place. A Russian friend had warned me that, “Russians have big appetites and will eat everything in your house.” They did.
I will never forget this Russian New Year. S’novim Godim – Happy New Year!
You may think that my Russian New Year experience was “unique” but it is quite typical. Ask any Russian. Two years later I was invited to another Russian New Year’s Eve celebration by a different friend. It would be at her mother’s apartment a short walk from where I lived. No bridges to walk across at dawn! It would be “special,” she said. Unfortunately, I already had plans to be out of the country. Otherwise, I would have experienced yet another typical Russian New Year.
That “special” evening, it turned out, became the cover story for the authentic cuisine magazine, Saveur (#89) entitled, “Caviar, Grandfather Frost, and Fireworks” by American food writer Catherine Cheremeteff Jones who had lived in Moscow for a few years in the turbulent 1990s. Her book is dedicated to her grandmother and mother who descend from the Sheremetev-Romanov dynasty and who passed on a love of Russian traditions to her. Returning to post-Soviet Russia on a nostalgic visit, she gives westerners a peek into the home of Russian family’s New Year. Reading her story I saw that the New Year celebrations she described mirrored mine in many ways.
1. Catherine Cheremeteff Jones has since written a very appealing culinary memoire entitled ,“A Year of Russian Feasts.” In 178 pages and 40 recipes in 15 chapters she takes readers on a nostalgic journey into the private Russia of tea in little kitchens and warm hospitality. It’s a favourite of mine not just for the recipes but for when I’m feeling a little nostalgic.
2. Another of my favoured books is “Culinaria Russia-Ukraine-Georgia-Armenia-Azerbaijan” by Marion Trutter and Gregor M. Schmid. This is a large, beautifully illustrated coffee-table size, encyclopaedic tome that covers the food cultures of these five countries.
Culinary Tip: On any Russian New Year table you are sure to find one dish. In South America, where I discovered it fifty years ago, it is called Ensalada Russa. In France it is known as Salad Russe. In Russia it has a French name, Salad Olivier, named after the French chef, under Tsar Nicholas II, who created the dish. It has a few variations and each cook has his/her own style but must contain certain basic ingredients. They are:
Boiled, diced potato – Boiled, diced carrots. – Peas – Diced Dill pickle –
Hard-cooked egg – Fresh chopped herbs (dill, parsley) – Mayonnaise and vinegar
Sometimes, cooked chicken breast or ham or some chopped apple are added. A bit of cucumber and/or onion are permitted but not traditionally part of this creation. Bon appétit.
Featured Header Image: Moscow River – Courtesy of Donella Russell