Russian language does not have the word “organic”. Or, it technically does, but no-one uses it. Rather they use the word “artificial” when speaking about food produced with the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or GMO crops. And in Russia, even for those living in the cities, it is very possible to choose to consume non-artificial foods. Natural food is abundant in Russia, and we’re meeting all sorts of people who understand and value the importance of such food.
“The food has soul, spirit to it.” Says Nastya, a Ukrainian now living in Moscow. “When I go into a supermarket, the food is apathetic. I have no appetite for it. I grew up going to markets in the West Ukraine where you buy eggs off one lady and cheese from another. And I choose this one because I like her hands. Here, there is a direct transaction of the food, from one hand to the next. Perhaps fancy restaurants in Moscow make attempts to bring back this spirit to the food. Or maybe I’m just told to believe it’s there. But the transaction is indirect there. I don’t know the process.”
We’ve lucky to spend some of our time in Russia staying in the countryside. In the villages and towns nearly everyone has a large garden, in which they grow fruit and vegetables. Apple trees spilling fruits – no one complains about the spots or imperfections. Berry bushes giving their last fruit before the winter. Carrots pulled from the soil. And of course, potatoes. “We have a joke in Russia,” Tells Olga, our host in the Ural Mountains. “You can be a millionaire, rich with all the money in the world. But you’ll still have to go to the field and help your family dig potatoes!”
Small stalls line the Russian roadsides, offering fruits and vegetables. People can make some extra money selling their excess produce to cars passing by. “The pensions are quite good now, and these people in the villages grow most of their food, so save most of the money. They can make some extra cash on what they sell on the roadside.” Says our truck driver (for whom we are the first foreigners he’s ever met!)
It is amazing for me to be in a country where here there are white people who still have traditions. Preserving food through pickling, drying or making juices is the norm, and we’ve stayed in many houses where people are busy with these preparations for the winter. “You’d be mad not to make preserves,” Tells Katya, whose family doesn’t have a garden, but are preserving fresh tomatoes from the market. “Fresh food is just too expensive in the winter.” People understand the forests and often go foraging for mushrooms or collect herbs from the mountains to make their own teas. Really, I have been drinking some of the best herbal teas of my life in Russia. We’ve even tried a special jam made of pine cones!
Russian people, from all walks of life, have knowledge of traditional medicines and natural remedies for good health. People talk about the healing properties of honey from different regions (but better not put it in tea or the properties are killed.) Even our truck driver told me how healthy the berries being sold roadside are – use them to make a juice that is the best hangover cure! As well as fruit and vegetables, it is also common to see stalls selling bunches of dried oak leafs along the roadsides. These are for hitting against the skin during the Russian banya (sauna), to intensify the heat and sweating, very good for cardiovascular health, they tell me. Olga, a recent mother, was even taking 2 month old baby Zara into the banya! Apparently, it’s good for the baby’s immunity. The family was also keeping baby Zara’s pram just outside the kitchen window when she was sleeping. Olga tells me babies sleep much more peacefully when they have cool, fresh air, rather than the air with heating in the house. Even in when it’s -30, babies are put outside for naps during the day and not only for good sleep but mostly for strong immunity… Of course the pram is covered with a blanket and baby checked regularly to make sure they’re not freezing!
But how have these food traditions survived in Russia, when they have long been forgotten and replaced by mass production and everything-all-the-time supermarkets in The West? Well, 70 years of communism can give us some of the answers. “I remember my parents turning off the refrigerator in our apartment because there was no food to put in it,” Told one of our drivers, recalling the crisis of the 90s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. “There was no food in the shops. People were even stealing window wipers off cars, hoping to get some money for food.” During these times, often the only food people had, was that which they could grow themselves. “Nowadays, many people buy a dacha (Russian summer-house) so they can grow at least some of their own food.” A truck driver explained. “It gives them a sense of security.”
So, though the food growing culture comes out of times of hardship for Russian people – times of no freedom of speech – it has kept alive some of the freedom we in the West have close to lost: freedom of choice. On leaving Russia and entering Estonia (a former member of the Soviet Union, now a European Union member where people highly depend on bank credits) our first driver, a Russian living in Estonia, put it well when comparing the two countries: “[In EU] It’s a new “democratic” system: everybody has money but nobody has anything. And in Russia people have no money but they have everything they need.” The grandmothers who try to sell their vegetables or jams at the roadsides in Australia would likely be shut down for not having licences to prove hygienic production! I’ve seen how people’s efforts in their gardens gives them ultimate independence from their government (whom they have long ago learnt, cannot be depended upon.) It’s devastating that the borders of Russia are getting harder for people to move across, because we have so much to learn from what’s going on inside this vast country.