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Yesterday, I got back from an amazing trip to Saratov, Russia, where I was one of 41 men recording sacred music for a men’s choir CD. One of the more surprising aspects of the trip was the food. It was actually good. And this despite it being a fasting period.
A little while ago, some friends of mine got into a discussion about Russian cuisine. The usual opinions were expressed—Russian food is terrible, boring, tasteless, fatty. But then someone made an important point. All the bad things people hear about Russian food are more properly referred to as Soviet problems.
Interested, I looked for some properly patriotic articles on the internet, and found a good one. Here is it: five myths about Russian cuisine busted!
For some, it’s too fatty. For others, it’s simply tasteless. A third might think it too simple, a fourth, too old-fashioned. Turns out, they’re all wrong.
Post-Soviet Myth: Russian food is fatty and uninspired
Seventy years of Soviet life have created this myth. Or rather, this is definitely true of Soviet cuisine, but not Russian cuisine in a more general sense. Soviet cuisine loves lots of mayonnaise, oils, fatty sausages, sardines, margarine—everything that would maximize a Soviet citizen’s caloric intake from the minimum amount of food eaten.
But in 1913, which historians generally consider the year of Russia’s peak of cultural development, the cuisine was completely different. There were many competing restaurants and eateries, with Moscow at the center of a bustling culinary culture. The highest aristocrats from Petersburg came to Moscow for special culinary tours, including such stops as the public houses of Testov, Gurin, Egorov, and the Saratov Restaurant.
The variety of dishes in these places was staggering. Here’s a typical menu from the restaurant of the merchant Guliarovskii: “piglet wrapped in dough, lobster soup with small pies, cream of wheat made with heavy cream (Gurievskaia), botvinia (a cold, fermented soup) with sturgeon, white cured fish fillet, baidak pie (a huge savory pie with a twelve-layer filling, everything from eel livers to beef brains) in a brown butter sauce.
Peasant Myth: Russian cuisine is too simplistic
There’s a Russian proverb: “Cabbage soup and porridge—that’s all we need to eat”. This ironic maxim is everywhere used literally to characterize the actual state of ancient Russian cooking. It’s true that perhaps a peasant from Tambov could live mostly on turnips and porridge, but in many regions even peasants ate well. This was especially true of the areas around the capital and in Siberia. As proof, we have the writings of foreign travelers.
Take, for example, the travel journal of Marco Foscarino (1537): “Two chickens or ducks are sold for some tiny silver coin. The peasants also have all varieties of meat. In the winter, meat can survive for an entire month. They have wonderful fowl, which they catch with nets or with falcons (they have very good breeds here). Near the Volga, huge and delicious fish are served, especially sturgeon. The white lakes give a great variety of large and small fish of varying quality.
The Myth from Nature: Russian cuisine uses few fruits because of the long winter
Simply not true. Even Pierre Bezuhov (in War and Peace) cultivated pineapples in his hothouses. Everyone used greenhouses and hothouses. The common people had a million ways of preserving berries and fruits for the entirety of winter in ways that preserved their vitamin content. These included baking, preserving in honey, freezing, or drying. Even the Domostroi (a document more famous for its questionable advice of husband-wife relations) included recipes for preservation of fruits:
“Take a watermelon, cut it into pieces, cut out the seeds, leaving behind two finger’s width of the skin. Put them into alcohol and hold them until it is time to change the alcohol. Repeat the procedure. Then, having taken the molasses, boil them on a low fire and take off the foam from the top.
The Myth of Fasting: Russian cuisine is tasteless
This may be partially true of some fasting dishes, as many people who search old recipes find out. However, this is not characteristic of Russian cuisine in general. In many regions, dishes were seasoned extensively. Coastal cuisine, for example, added volozhi to all dishes. These were sauces in which food was cooked, baked, or garnished. There was a huge variety to these volozhi. Some were based on sour cream or butter, some were based on berries. The rich even had spiced lemon sauces.
The Myth from Folklore: Russian cuisine is archaic
Yes, traditionally speaking, Russian cuisine had been rather one-sided. This is because of the universal prevalence of the Russian oven, which led to the majority of dishes being baked (whether fish, fowl, or meat). However, in the city culture of the 19th century, this one-sidedness was decidedly overcome.
There were many French chefs working in Russian restaurants, which does not mean that they imported French food. Rather, they effectively experimented with traditional Russian styles. Russian officers also brought back with them (after wars) various tastes that now are considered typically Russian.
This kind of “fusion” cuisine includes such delicacies as pastries, charlotte pies, veal Orloff, crepes with oysters, as well as the now world-famous salad created by Lucien Olivier in the famous Hermitage Restaurant.
Source: Nicholas Kotar
The truth about Ireland’s monster €240bn debt: it wasn’t the banks
There’s a perception that Ireland’s monster debt – it will be €240 billion by the end of the year, on a per capita basis the third highest in the world, was put there by band of rogue bankers. And that we as a people have been victims of a terrible wrong.
The truth of course is more sticky, more unpalatable than the bar stool narratives we tell ourselves.
Most of the debt – more than €100 billion – arose from a sequence of budget deficits run up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and linked to then government’s mismanagement of the public finances, a government that we voted into office three times in succession.
The former Fianna Fáil-led administration had spent lavishly in 2000s while using windfall taxes from the property sector to plug the holes in its accounts.
When these taxes dried up, the deficit ballooned. At the height of the crisis in 2009 the deficit was €23 billion. That meant the State was spending €23 billion more than it was taking in by way of taxes and other income.
This necessitated borrowing on a grand scale, which went on – to a varying extent – for a decade until the State ran a budget surplus in 2018.
The original cost of bailing out the banks was €64 billion but this has been clawed back to around €40 billion by way of levies, dividends and share selloffs arising out of the State’s ownership of the banks.
It’s a big number, but less than half the bill foisted upon us from budgetary mismanagement, none of which can be clawed back.
On a per capita basis, the State’s debt figure equates to €46,000 for every man, woman and child in the State and €103,300 for every worker.
And the cost of servicing it has cost us €60 billion over the past decade: equivalent to three years of health spending. Make no mistake the State is paying for its boom time folly.
So it behoves us to sit up and listen when the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (Ifac) sounds a note of caution about the Government’s budgetary strategy, particularly when it claims we’re sailing close to unsustainable debt trajectory.
And not to dismiss the council’s critique, as some do, as an act of fiscal pedantry, far removed from the realpolitik of government.
While the €4.2 billion spending hike earmarked for Budget 2022 is broadly welcomed, the council takes issue with the Government’s medium-term budgetary strategy, which envisages a series of much bigger budget deficits out to 2025 and nearly €19 billion in additional borrowing.
This will leave the State with a bigger and less manageable debt up the line and therefore more exposed to the next crisis. There was now a one in four chance of the national debt moving on to an unsustainable trajectory in the years ahead, it said.
The council also warned that borrowing and ramping up spending during a strong recovery could “backfire” triggering an acceleration in prices if capacity constraints, most notably in the construction sector, bite.
You would think that as a country with a big debt, the chief threat here is rising interest rates, something that is likely to arise if the current pick-up in inflation proves longer than expected.
Ifac has stress-tested the Irish economy against possible interest rate hikes and growth shocks, finding the latter poses a greater problem.
While a big 2 percentage point shock to the Government’s borrowing costs would add just 0.4 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years it would barely raise annual funding costs. This is largely because the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) bond issuance is long-dated and, in the main, fixed rate.
In contrast a typical growth shock of 3.6 per cent for two years could add over 20 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years. “With high debt ratios to begin with, this could snowball and make it difficult to pull down debt ratios in later years,” it said.
Two years ago, NTMA chief Conor O’Kelly was asked what the chief financial risks facing the agency were and if it had a Brexit contingency plan.
He said the agency operated on “permanent contingency” basis . As a small, highly-indebted economy, which relies on international investors for 90 per cent of its borrowings, he said Ireland and the NTMA needed to be in a permanent state of crisis readiness.
The reality is that the next shock, the next thing that will hit our funding market, will probably be something that we have not yet thought of and is not on the front page of every newspaper in the world, O’Kelly said. Nine months later, the Covid crisis hit and the global economy fell off a cliff and the NTMA’s borrowing plans were out the window.
This goes to the heart of Ifac’s commentary: it’s not a case of wondering if there will be another recession or if there will be another financial shock, that’s a given, they’re coming on average every 10 years.
Downturns are part of the natural cycle, financial shocks are part of the global economy. The question is, will you be in a position to borrow and spend your way out of it.
Berlin house seizure referendum approaches decision day
In her apartment in suburban Berlin, Regina Lehmann despairs at the letter from her landlord, a big real estate group: the rent is going up.
Effective November 1, the increase of 12.34 euros ($14.54) on her monthly rent of 623.44 euros will be “difficult” to finance with her only income a disability pension, Lehmann tells AFP.
Almost 700 of her neighbours in the popular Berlin neighbourhood of Spandau will suffer the same fate, boosting their rent by up to eight percent.
Increases like these are at the root of a popular initiative to “expropriate” real estate companies such as Adler, which owns Lehmann’s flat,
that will culminate in a local referendum on September 26, the same day as national and municipal elections.
Residents in the capital have become increasingly frustrated with rising housing costs, as the city’s attractiveness to outsiders has grown in recent years.
And beyond Berlin, the cost of housing has become a hot topic on the campaign trail in the contest to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
Back in Lehmann’s living room, surrounded by pictures of her family, Lehmann says she simply “won’t pay” the rise.
“I think, if we pay, after a while they’ll just increase the rent again,” she says.
Rent campaigners secured the referendum in Berlin after collecting 346,000 signatures in support of their proposition — well above the number needed.
They are pushing to “expropriate” homes from real estate companies with more than 3,000 properties.
The result of the poll will not be binding, but advocates hope to force city government to respond to soaring rents, with the cost of housing going up by 85 percent between 2007 and 2019.
The rise has been painful for residents in the capital where 80 percent of people are renters, and 19.3 percent of people live under the country’s poverty line, compared to 15.9 percent in the country as a whole.
Campaigners lay the blame at the door of major real estate groups, such as Adler, which owns 20,000 properties in Berlin.
In Lehmann’s Spandau district, activists argue Adler’s attempt to hike rents is illegal, exceeding a legal reference index linked to the average rent in each area.
The property group, in response, describes an “improved environment” around the lodgings that gives it grounds to charge more.
Supporters of expropriation have upped the tempo of their campaign in recent weeks to win over undecided voters, hanging posters and organising demonstrations across the city.
Many Berliners experienced rent increases after the German constitutional court struck down a rent cap which had been introduced by the city earlier this year, and a poll by the Tagesspiegel daily showed 47 percent of residents supported the radical proposal put forward in the referendum.
“We have to fight for our rights,” says Catia Santos, 41, who recently attended a rent protest with her partner.
“Recently my rent has gone up by 100 euros, even though I am not earning any more than before.”
On Friday, just over a week before the vote, the city of Berlin announced the purchase of 14,750 residential properties for 2.4 billion euros from German real estate giants Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, a deal forged under pressure to find an answer to rising rents.
Forcibly taking ownership of privately owned accommodation has largely been rejected by national and local politicians in favour of plans to speed up the building of new homes.
“The best protection for renters is and always will be having enough places to live in,” Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, told a real estate conference in Berlin in June.
The social-democrat favourite in the local Berlin elections, Franziska Giffey, also declared her opposition to the proposal, saying it could “damage” the city’s reputation.
But her party’s candidate to be chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has called for a “rent moratorium” to stabilise prices.
Only the far-left Die Linke and some individual Green candidates have come out in favour of expropriation, with some even displaying the rent campaigners’ logo on their election materials.
President’s decision to decline invite to centenary an ‘own goal’, says Senator
President Michael D Higgins’s decision to decline an invite to a centenary church religious commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland has been branded an “own goal” by Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell.
The move was “uncharacteristic” of the President, who has “always been the man to step forward for reconciliation and to do his bit to try to bring this country together”, said Mr Craughwell on Saturday.
The event in Co Armagh next month is not a celebration, but a commemoration, he said, adding that the declination has brought about a “deep sense of disappointment” in some unionists.
“I think we have missed an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to the more moderate unionists and we have actually enraged the more radical unionists,” he told RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon radio programme.
Mr Higgins was invited to a “service of reflection and hope”, the Senator noted, adding: “Any of us sitting in this country today, north or south, would want to reflect on the history of this country with the hope that we might have for the future of the new Ireland- an Ireland that would embrace all traditions.”
Mr Higgins’s statement politicised the situation, which was “so uncharacteristic of the President it is difficult to accept”, he added.
Mr Craughwell was one of six Independent Senators who signed a letter to the President on Thursday voicing concerns that he had declined the invitation.
In their letter, the Independent Senators said: “We earnestly suggest, if possible that you should reconsider the matter with a view to attending the event as we believe your attendance has significant potential to advance the cause of reconciliation between the different traditions in Northern Ireland and on this island.”
Mr Craughwell said there will be “extreme unionists who make serious mileage out of this and the more moderate ones will be deeply hurt”.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane told the programme he could not see “any circumstance” where the President of Ireland would mark, commemorate or celebrate partition.
Mr Cullinane said there is a “fine line between commemoration and celebration”, and he said partition of the island is not a historical event but contemporary, as the country “is still divided and our country is still partitioned”.
Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said she agrees with the actions of the President, who was “completely within his right” to decline the invitation.
“The partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland is not something that most people would consider good developments or something that we should celebrate in any way,” she said.
There would be a “very different discussion” to be had, with other concerns expressed, said Ms Shortall, if the President had accepted the invitation to the event with its current title, which stated it would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.
Minister of State for the Department of Health Mary Butler said the discussion around the issue has been “a little bit unhelpful” as it overshadowed the President’s visit to the Vatican.
“Unfortunately something that was really positive turned into a negative … The President of our country is entitled to make a decision on any invitation he receives,” she said.
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