17 September 2008

Kvas: Magic in a bottle

The clock is ticking and my time in Ukraine is quickly drawing to a close: in two weeks, almost to the hour, I'll set foot on my native soil once again. This will also mark the completion of my field research for my dissertation and as such, the last time I'll spend an extended period of time in the former Soviet Union, at least for the next few years. Because I don't have anything interesting to say about America (indeed, the circus seems to speak for itself), I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be one of the last posts on Darkness at Noon for some time.

Given that this is the end of a personal journey that has taken me to some of the most fascinating and bizarre places on earth over the last two years, you might think that I'm going to wrap up with a thought-provoking, introspective look at how my experiences have helped me grow as a human being. Or maybe I will draw some sweeping conclusions about the people and places I've seen. Maybe I'll declare that I've finally come to understand the Russian Soul, the Ukrainian Nation, or the Belarusian, um, Potato.

Nope. I'm going to devote these final words to the most magnificent of bubbly brown drinks, kvas. I've got a bottle of the magic elixir just inches away from my grasp even as I pen these lines, just waiting to take me back to a simpler time and place. You see, unlike 99.7 percent of non-Slavic people in possession of their full mental faculties, not only can I stomach the stuff, I am deeply and passionately in love with the bewitchingly aromatic, palette-tingling, mildly fermented beverage made of stale black bread. I love kvas so much that I even write poetry about it:

Квас, квас!
Как люблю Я Вас!

Kvas, kvas!
How I love you!

That's all I've got so far. I know it's not much, but it rhymes (in Russian) and I'm pretty sure that's the most important thing for a poem. Someday maybe I'll even share my poetry series on public transportation which is equally impressive... But in the meantime, we have tasty verses about kvas to quench our thirst for culture.

To be sure, kvas is the national drink of the East Slavic peoples. Vodka doesn't count because it is consumed largely for its well-documented medicinal benefits. Or at least this is what a local guide in Odessa recently told me. And while beer is certainly witnessing an impressive surge, nothing quenches that deep down latent-peasant thirst like a big mug of kvas. I'm sure Tolstoy would agree with me.

In fact, the work of another talented poet (much like myself) stands as testament to kvas's importance to Russian life. In Evgeny Onegin, Alexander Pushkin writes:

They needed kvas like air; at table
their guests, for all they ate and drank,
were served in order of their rank.

Now, I don't know if it rhymes in Russian, but I'll assume so since Pushkin is generally considered to be a pretty talented poet and clever rhyming is the hallmark of all great poets. Needless to say, it's telling that the father of modern Russian language and literature would focus his genius on this humble beverage, without which Russians could not survive.

Kvas's immense popularity is not just limited to the days when guys like Pushkin rode around in troikas and got shot in duels. In fact, kvas is apparently the fastest-growing soft drink market in Russia today, with sales increasing by 43 percent in 2007. It's probably no accident that I spent much of 2007 in Russia, but I don't think that I alone was responsible for the surge in demand. Rather, kvas is the summertime drink.

And why shouldn't it be? After all, ask any Russian why kvas is so great in the summer and you'll get the same answer from every single one: "it's refreshing!" And they're right, it IS refreshing! Better yet, it's versatile too: chop up some raw vegetables, a boiled egg, a forest's worth of dill, and any mystery sausage/meats you have lying around, pour some kvas over it with a big dollop of smetana, and you've got okroshka a refreshing cold summertime soup. Did I mention that it's refreshing? Because it is...

So enticing is kvas and its special place in Russians' hearts that Coca-Cola launched their own kvas label in 2008 called "Mug and Barrel." Doesn't that just make you want to pick up a sickle and go out and harvest some wheat? Well, maybe not - I've actually tried Coke's kvas, and while it's pretty good compared to the other bottled brands available for sale in stores, it, like all bottled kvases, is no match for the amber liquid bubbling away on babushka's window sill. For manufactured kvas is produced today just like any other soft drink: carbonated water is added to a flavored concentrate which probably never even touched a stale piece of black bread in its life.

No, for delicious authentic kvas your inner peasant will have to turn elsewhere. One deceptively attractive option is the ubiquitous kvas tank found on street corners throughout Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian cities, often accompanied by a buxom female attendant that resembles her kvas tank both in shape and demeanor. Often yellow in color, the tanks are also easy to identify by the helpful description inscribed in large letters on the side of the tank - КВАС - just in case you get them mixed up with the tanks dispensing martinis on the opposite street corner...

Here are a couple of examples of kvas tanks, the first in Kiev and the second in Sevastopol:

From Darkness at Noon

From Darkness at Noon

As you can see from the photos, they're rather mobile beasts (the tanks, that is, not the attendants): each tank comes with a trailer hitch and a set of wheels. At night when it's time for the kvas tanks to sleep and get refilled, they get hitched together in long chains, snaking through the streets behind a truck. Whenever I see a parade of kvas tanks in the city I have to restrain my urge to join the parade or simply run after it like a dog chasing a car on a country road. Because it IS refreshing, you know!

When you come across a kvas tank, you will likely see the customers standing around the tank enjoying their beverage right there without leaving the vicinity of the tank. This phenomenon has its roots in the Soviet era, when kvas tanks were ubiquitous but cups were not. Back then there was but one cup for customers and thirsty Soviet citizens had to line up for their refreshment, just like they lined up for everything from cabbage to Lenin. After each customer was served, the attendant would dip the communal cup into a bucket of water to "wash" it (I use the term loosely) and then fill it for the next customer. Not exactly hygienic, but then again the Soviets were never really known for their attention to little details like this. The point is, you couldn't wander away with the only cup (I imagine that would be enough to get you arrested since denying people their kvas would constitute oppression of the proletariat) so people became trained to stand at the kvas tank while quenching their thirst. While the communal cup has been replaced with disposable plastic ones (everyone gets his own cup), the conditioned behavior remains: people stand around the kvas tank sipping from their plastic cups as if held there by Comrade Brezhnev's invisible leash...

While the probability of catching a nasty bug from the communal cup has gone down, unfortunately the prospect of catching something unpleasant from the contents of the tank has risen considerably since the good old days. There wasn't much that the Soviet economy did well, but maintaining quality control on kvas was apparently one of them. Since the Soviet collapse, I am told that quality control has gone down the drain, and much of what should go down the drain ends up in the kvas tank. As such, I have been warned by several locals not to drink from the kvas tank, lest I wish to spend a week in very un-refreshing discomfort.

So what is a kvas lover to do if the bottled stuff doesn't cut it and the stuff on the street corner deserves a "thanks, but no tanks..."?

If you're lucky enough to have a babushka around, you should have started with her in the first place. I probably should have mentioned that at the beginning, sorry. If you don't have your own babushka, I suppose you might be able to rent one of the little ones selling flowers outside the metro station and convince her to make some for you. But if this approach fails, you're on your own - you gotta make it yourself.

This is the point where all you Americans can just stop reading since you think the stuff is wretched anyway. And you Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians can stop reading too since your babushka can do this in her sleep. So I guess that leaves us with a few Aussies, a couple of Brits, a handful of Canucks, and the occasional Dane. So welcome to the few of you that are still with us and want to learn how to make kvas.

Like most things worth having, making kvas is more of an art than a science. I say this because it sounds a lot better than saying, "every time I make kvas it comes out different." But I do have several homemade batches under my belt by now, so at least I can tell you where things are going to go wrong despite the fact that you're following the recipe...

Here's the basic recipe I use, which I've tweaked a bit based on experience. I should also point out that there are as many kvas recipes as babushkas, so I don't claim to have the "best" one. If you've got a babushka with a better recipe, by all means, send it my way!

1 lb stale black bread or 1 lb stale pumpernickel bread
1 cup sugar
a few raisins
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves or 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves or a packet or two of mint tea.
1/2 teaspoon Active dry yeast (or more or less, I'll discuss below...)
1/4 cup luke warm water

-Cube the bread and let it dry completely. You can do this on a cookie sheet in a low-temp oven, or just let it sit out for a few days. I think the stuff in the oven tastes better and it makes the kitchen smell like black bread. Mmmm, Borodino! The darkest black bread you can find is the best - the stuff that seems denser than pig iron. If you can't find that, pumpernickel does work fine.

-Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add the bread cubes. Cover it and let it sit at room temp for 8 hours or overnight, whatever works for you.

-Strain the juice (mmm, bread juice!) through several layers of cheesecloth - you don't want bread chunks floating in your kvas. Alternatively, you can use an old (but thoroughly washed) pillowcase. But don't tell my landlady that I suggested this - I don't think she'd be happy knowing I've been using her linens to strain my kvas....

Carefully pour the juice through (making sure you have a vessel underneath to catch it) and dump the soggy bread goo into the pillowcase. You can hang it up and let it continue to drip drain, but I'm usually too impatient to wait for too long and you never get that much extra liquid out anyway.

-Put the yeast and a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar into the luke warm water and let it dissolve. Put it aside for a few minutes while it gets excited an bubbly. Can you blame the yeasties? They want to be refreshed too!

-Dissolve the remaining sugar in the bread juice and add the yeast mixture and the mint. Stir everything to dissolve well, cover it with a towel, and set it aside for another 8-12 hours at room temperature.

-Strain the stuff again if you've got little things floating in it like renegade bread goo, mint leaves, or dill (which somehow finds its way into everything Slavic but is best left out of kvas)

-Add the raisins and re-cover. Put it in a cool (but not cold) place if possible, otherwise room temperature works fine too. Then you wait for the raisins to float up to the surface. My original recipe said that this would happen in 4-5 days, but it only takes one day for most of my batches. In general the fermentation process depends on three factors: 1) the amount of yeast turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, 2) the amount of food (sugar) the yeast has to consume, and 3) the temperature at which fermentation takes place. More yeast and higher temperatures will produce faster fermentation, and if you let it go long enough all the sugar will be converted and fermentation will stop (though I don't know how much sugar & time would be required for it to become anything more than minimally alcoholic).

But before you kvasaholics get ahead of yourselves and triple the yeast to hurry up the process, a word of warning: once you bottle the stuff and refrigerate it, fermentation and the resulting carbonation will continue to take place if there is still sugar in the liquid. The original recipe I used called for 2 TABLESPOONS of yeast, and my bottles were gushing violently upon opening them after only a couple days in the fridge. By contrast, homemade root beer recipes call for 1/8 TEASPOON of yeast which is enough to carbonate a gallon of soda. Ultimately you'll have to experiment with what level you prefer between these extremes. Using less yeast will take longer to achieve that nice sour/sweet balance that is good kvas, but then you won't have as many volcanic eruptions in the kitchen later on.

-Regardless of how much yeast you used, at some point your raisins should start floating because they are bloated and gassy, much like the kvas tank attendants you now know to avoid. At this point taste the kvas. If it's pleasantly sourish with still a bit of sweetness, and if you like the way it tastes, you can go ahead and bottle it. If most of the sugar has been fermented already and you'd like it to be a bit sweeter, add some sugar a little at a time until it tastes good to you. Or, if it's still too sweet and not enough sour, then let it ferment some more.

-When you are satisfied with the taste, filter it one more time to remove the raisins and anything else that might still be in there. Pour it into bottles and cap them tightly.

-At this point you have a choice depending on how much yeast you used. If you used a lot of yeast, they will continue to ferment enough in the fridge so that carbonation will develop there (assuming there's still some sugar to ferment and your kvas hasn't gone completely "dry"). If you used the minimum amount of yeast, you can leave the bottle at room temperature for several days while the carbonation builds up, testing it every day or so to make sure you don't over carbonate. Once it's bubbly to your satisfaction, stash it in the fridge.

Once it's chilled, there's only one thing left to do: pour yourself a big mug, kick back, and enjoy that delicious kvas down to the dregs.

Because after all, it's refreshing!

01 September 2008

Lost and Found

One of my most loyal readers declared yesterday (over email), "Your blog is strangely silent - are you too busy to write about all the things you see and do?" A fair enough question, and one that deserves an answer...

The fact of the matter is that yes, I've been quite busy, much more so than during my time in Russia last year. Not only did being forced to relocate to Ukraine swallow up a fair amount of time and attention (I spent most of June learning the ins and outs of the Kiev rental market. Not pleasant...), but Ukraine itself has taken up quite a lot of attention as well.

In fact, the last two months feel like a dizzying Ukrainian whirlwind - I've crossed this fascinating country from north to south, east to west. I've talked to nationalists in Lviv, miners in Donetsk, and farmers in the Ukrainian heartland of Podillia. I've seen Russian and Ukrainian sailors walking side by side in Sevastopol, gawked at crispy red sunbathers oozing onto the beaches in Yalta, and watched young children playfully skipping down the Odessa steps. At times it has been relaxing (10 days sailing the Dniepr and Crimea can do wonders for your soul) but mostly it's been exhausting as I ascend dark stairwells in run-down apartment blocks, ringing countless doorbells in search of interview subjects.

But despite the darkness, the exhaustion, the sore feet, and the frequent frustration of doors shut in my face, it has been nothing short of a truly enlightening experience. I won't try to sum up the Ukrainian people, nor will I even attempt to characterize those that I found in the West, the East, or the center. That, I'm afraid, will have to wait for the dissertation. But what I will say is that Ukraine's people make it a remarkably complex and multi-faceted country. While such diversity is one of Ukraine's most intriguing gifts, it is also one of her greatest dangers, as the divide across the country on even the most basic issues is immense. The future - dare I say the survival - of this country will depend on the ability of these diverse people to coexist in the same country, and it remains a monumental challenge.

And so, "I've been busy with research" is part of the explanation for my silence on this blog. But it is not the only reason. If one were to dig among the posts throughout the lifetime of this blog, you would quickly see that my best material - most of my material - comes from ordinary experiences I've had while traveling. Specifically, they are based on the gap between expectation and reality in a part of the world where reality is sometimes too bizarre to understand. Put another way, this blog has been about Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine through my eyes, an endeavor that has attempted to illuminate both the subjects that I view but also the lenses through which I view them. For absurdity is the eye of the beholder: to me it is amusing, to the girl wearing the shirt that proclaims, "Sexyrural world of promise" it's simply a pretty shirt.

I have a suspicion that my reticence on this blog during the last couple of months has been the result of a narrowing of the reality-expectations gap, leaving me with less "A" material to write about. I suppose it's entirely possible that Kiev is less absurd than Moscow, and that this is why there's less for me to comment on. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that after almost 12 months abroad during the last year and a half, my expectations more or less conform to reality here. The lenses through which I view my surroundings have changed their focus, redefining what I see and how I see it.

It is not that my surroundings - whether Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Russian - have become any less absurd. Rather, they've become normal in my eyes. And therein lies the problem for the blog - when "Just like a thousand pound football, I will challenge with my invincible power" starts to make sense as a catchy t-shirt slogan, you know that you've been here too long. And you know that you're probably starting to do absurd things that the new arrivals are making snarky comments about. Like the plastic grocery bag, now patched with duct tape, that I've been carrying around since Minsk...

In short, I fear that I've become somebody else's "A" material without realizing it.

So is this the end of the Darkness? Well, not quite. I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve and I haven't gone so completely native that I can't shake my head in wonder at the man who was spitting water on his appreciative girlfriend in the sweltering heat of August. But there is a big bottle of kvas and a sack of potatoes in the kitchen serving as a subtle reminder that maybe I'm not quite right in the head anymore...