By Darra Goldstein. From Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas (April 2000).

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At the birth of Peter the First in 1672, a wondrous display of molded sugar-paste confections concluded the celebratory dinner prepared for Peter’s proud father, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. The sugar conceits included

a cinnamon spice cake (kovrizhka) made with sugar in the shape of the Muscovy coat of arms; a large, cone-shaped cinnamon spice cake decorated with colors, weighing 2 puds 20 pounds; large, molded sugar confections shaped like eagles with the royal orb, one white and the other red, each weighing 1 1/2 puds; a 2-pudswan of molded sugar; a half-pud sugar duck; a 10-pud sugar parrot and an 8-pudsugar dove; a sugar Kremlin with infantry, calvary and two towers, with eagles soaring above them, and the city molded into a square surrounded by cannons; two large 15-pound horns made of sugar and flavored with cinnamon, one red and the other white; two large marzipan cakes made with sugar, one on 5 rounds, the other made with hard candies; two candy spires, one red and one white, each weighing 12 pounds; 40 dishes of sugar decorations depicting infantry and cavalry and other figures, half a pound on each plate; 30 dishes of various fruit-flavored hard candies, 3/4 pound on each plate; 10 plates of crystallized sugar with spices, a pound on each plate; a half chest of figs, candied rind, lemons, nutmeg and bitter oranges, dried apricots and peaches, ginger in syrup, watermelon, melon, and other fruits—in all there were 120 dishes on the table.

Such regalement reflected the standards of Muscovite hospitality, which dictated the preparation of elaborate confections for all guests invited to royal events. At the end of these feasts, guests were given additional confectionary to bring home, the amount determined by each person’s rank. This podacha or presentation was a ritualized aspect of Russian hospitality, and those who received it basked in the favor of the Tsar. Couriers delivered the podacha to anyone unable to attend the festivities.

The cost of these confections must have been astronomical. Russia’s first sugar refinery did not begin production until the early 1720s, so before then processed sugar had to be imported through the far northern port of Archangel on the White Sea. The journey from Archangel to Moscow, covering nearly 1,000 miles by river and land, could take several weeks, depending on the weather. After the rivers became navigable in late spring, barges could easily sail down the Dvina and Sukhona Rivers to the town of Vologda. But there the route to Moscow continued overland, and the Russian roads of late spring were notoriously muddy. If merchants waited for the roads to dry out, the water level in the rivers sometimes dropped low enough to make passage extremely slow. The price of sugar was not really an issue, though, since the Tsar’s expenditures bore little relation to financial reality. As for most Russians, they had never even tasted sugar, thanks to the wide availability of Russia’s native sweetener, wild honey. Even those who had remained suspicious of it, since sugar was rumored to be refined with blood and therefore unsuitable for fast days.

The Russians took fasting very seriously, dividing the year into feast (skoromnyi) and fast (postnyi) days, the sequence of which they strictly observed. No meat or dairy products were allowed on fast days, which added up to nearly two hundred days a year. However, for the well-to-do, fast days did not necessarily mean deprivation. A mid-seventeenth-century state dinner given for the English ambassador Carlisle lasted for eight hours, with no less than five hundred dishes served, not one made with meat products. For the dinner’s finale three small trees were brought to table, each covered with gilded cakes, which Carlisle and the boyars released from the branches and ate for dessert.

For those who could afford it, even the fast-day diet proved ample and varied. This we know from an inventory of the foods served on Palm Sunday, 1656, to Boyar Boris Ivanovich Morozov, head of the Treasury under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Morozov’s ability to procure the finest products does not seem to have been affected by the losses he suffered during the 1648 uprising against the higher salt tax levied by his department. Breaking into Morozov’s house, the mob headed straight for his cellars, where they drank barrels of mead and vodka. What they were unable to drink, they smashed, carousing knee-deep in liquor. When Morozov’s house caught fire, many brawlers perished as the alcohol went up in flames. But Morozov recovered his wealth quickly enough, and eight years later enjoyed the following meal:

Fine wheat bread, cabbage with herring, pressed caviar, black caviar, red cisco roe, sturgeon marrow (viziga) with horseradish, steamed herring, boned salted pike with horseradish. Backbone of spawning (narostovye) sterlet, fresh sturgeon garnished with cucumbers. Fish filet (telo) with cucumbers. Salmon (losos’) with lemons. Fresh salmon (semga) with lemons, pike, steamed bream, steamed pike-perch, steamed sterlet, half a head of sturgeon, pancakes; salmon back, white salmon back, beluga belly, white salmon entrails, red pike, fish pie (prosypnoi), black sterlet, pie with fish filets in brine. Pike soup, pie with filets of [fish] (s telesy so mnevymi), perch soup, pie with sturgeon milt, crucian soup, white salmon pie, tench soup, a large sturgeon (osetra) pie, bream in brine, sour fish pies; [fish] (kolotka), small pancakes, perch in brine, long pies with dried peas, half heads of fresh sturgeon, fresh herring in pastry, white salmon backbone, crucian with fish filets (s telom), lateral backbone (zvena bocheshnye) of beluga, fritters, central backbone (zvena stupishnye) of sturgeon, whitefish with sauce, Ladoga whitefish [lodoga] with horseradish, soup with fish belly and tongue. 2 fish bellies, 2 sturgeon vertebrae. For the derzhal’niki: cabbage with herring, sturgeon marrow, sturgeon with cucumbers, buckwheat groats with fish, perch soup (ukha), long pies. Whitefish, Ladoga whitefish, five dishes. For the servants, six dishes. For thepodacha, 20 beluga and sturgeon vertebrae.

This menu reflects the refinement of the Russian palate in regard to fish. Not only did well-to-do Russians enjoy a variety of fish, they also appreciated parts of the anatomy that our own culture generally discards, such as the entrails and the backbone, even distinguishing between the marrow and the flesh surrounding the lateral and central portions of the backbone. They considered the backbone of spawning sterlet especially succulent, since fish is at its fattiest as it heads to the spawning grounds.