Preserving preamble

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OK lovely people.  There is tons of produce out there.  Some of it might be in your garden. Some of you might have a greenhouse bursting with aubergine plants in builder’s buckets (Gill Brown).  There might be an overflow of runner beans in the farm shop. Or the Pick Your Own site is giving away currants and raspberries. Either way, make like your grandma and get preserving!  It’s not complicated.

A couple of decades ago I had a brief sojourn working in Moscow (think 1993; Constitutional Crisis; Yeltsin v Russian Parliament; storming of the Ostankino TV Centre) with 6 other colleagues.  We were delayed for 3 days hanging around in London till the Foreign Office agreed we could go. There’s probably a book in there somewhere – the experiences we had were life changing – and when we arrived with tanks on the streets and snipers on the roof. Most importantly we stayed with local families for the duration of our stay.

My mum had always made marmalade and jam and so had my nan.  But in Moscow I discovered the connection between the joy of preserving  and its place in family history and family stories.  My host Olga (also Dean of Sociology at Moscow State Institute) opened her dresser and showed me all the preserves she and her husband  Viktor had made from produce on and around their dacha just outside Moscow.  As their little dogs Mika and Fella danced around our feet, a rich warm aroma wafted from the depths of the cupboard – bottled plums, tomatoes, cucumbers; bottled blackcurrant juice; pickled and salted mushrooms that Viktor found in the woods and on the hills. And my favourite – a jam made from berberis berries.  Olga, Anastasia and I would sit in the kitchen in the evening, pouring boiling water from the samovar onto coal-black tea leaves in the teapot, taking little spoons of red jam from a shallow saucer to eat and thus sweeten the tea, topping up the teapot again, another little spoonful of jam.  And so it went on.  Companionable. Timeless.  Strangers taking tea, with snipers on the roof and tanks on the street. Ageless and significant rituals of normality.

When our small work group embarked on the St Peterburg  train from Leningradsky Station, our host families packed us generous amounts of  food in paper bags and baskets.  From our culture of plenty we naively wondered why. Eggs, bread, meat, tomatoes, preserved fruit, fruit juice, carrots, cucumbers. Pickles.  We were sworn to silence on the journey because we were travelling on ‘local’ tickets (cheaper) not ‘tourist’ tickets (expensive).  Inevitably the silence didn’t last long because the six of us ended up all over the train in different carriages………  so we negotiated seat swaps where we could, sometimes offering food as an incentive. The most popular incentives were the pickles, jams and juices.  In the end we had a magnificent and memorable trip up to Pskov. It took 15 hours. We hardly slept. We pooled the food. Vodka was involved. Broken conversations with other passengers. Gestures, smiles, lots of laughing.  We crept through deserted isolated stations populated only by lone dogs. Sometimes we stood just staring into the darkness.  And beneath the blinds in the carriages, lifted at the corner, we watched the birch forests slip, slip, slip away in the moonlight. We collected hot water from the boiling samovar in every carriage and were warmly looked after by the attendant – we were offered hot water bottles, blankets, but the train – like the buildings – were desperately over heated and steeped in diesel fumes.  Scalding black tea – sweetened with raspberry jam – was the reviver  Everlasting memories. And everlasting friendships.

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14 years ago I stopped over in Moscow on the way to Siberia (working again). I didn’t really need to but I wanted to. I met up with Anastasia and Olga (sadly, Viktor had died), and we spent the day together before I flew out again over the Urals to Irkutsk. The years just rolled away and we laughed and walked and ate and laughed some more, and commented on how much had changed in Moscow.  There were now MacDonald’s and magnificent eateries.  But the warmth of memory, the companionable kitchen, the samovar, the jam, the dresser full of dacha preserves will last all my life.

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