Both my grandmothers were career driven – each in her own way and in line with her profession. Both were highly respected and in constant demand at work. Every school holiday they would work out a schedule of military precision to make sure that their days off did not clash, as there was an ongoing struggle as to which of them would have the lion’s share of me and my sister coming to their houses; with the main battleground being their kitchens. There was no end to the lengths they would go to in trying to outdo each other – even finding ways to get their hens to produce yellower egg yolks – for the most golden stacks of pancakes! Being a very picky eater, I set my grandmas a culinary challenge no less formidable than Julia Child’s mission to make French cuisine palatable to the American public.
For me, spring in Ukraine has always been associated with prickly cucumbers from my maternal grandma’s greenhouse, green onions freshly grown in a pot on the kitchen windowsill, and the first radishes of the season. Chop these three vegetables, season well, add a dollop of homemade sour cream and some dill (as soon as it emerges a bit later in spring) and one of the most aromatic, nutrient-laden salads is ready! Don’t forget to mop up all the juices with some freshly baked bread… Mmmmmmmm…
To get me to appreciate the ingredients of spring even more, my grandma decided to initiate me into the entrepreneurial world of the Ukrainian vegetable market! Every weekend, from the end of the winter, I went round to her house to tend to our trays of burgeoning green onions (spot her ploy to lure me there so that I spent more time with her than with my other grandma). Once our product launch day loomed large, we spent all night sorting our produce, carefully wrapping each bundle with rough twine tied in a bow.
My poor grandfather was roped in as our driver, tasked with driving us to the busiest spring market in our southern region, where hundreds of home producers had exactly the same bright idea of selling the year’s first spring onions. Unfortunately, my ‘Dragon’s Den’-style pitches and flamboyant storytelling did not wash with customers at 6am on a dank, gloomy March morning… yet every time I had a quick break from the stall, I would return to find that our stack of banknotes had grown exponentially, even though it looked like we still had the same amount of bundles! Only twenty or so years later did my grandma finally come clean, saying “every job deserves payment, especially one performed with such perseverance”. One thing I did take away from that experience, was my business partner’s ability to find a common language with each and every customer – from a professor of semiotics to the market cleaners (who my grandma would always give some of our produce to as a ‘thank you’).
Summer smells of cherries. Climbing the tall tree, collecting buckets of fruit, my hands covered in sticky juice from getting the stones out of each one with a safety pin – a trick my paternal grandma taught me. Sprinkling sugar on top of sour cherries and, while waiting for the juices to leach out, my maître cuisinier preparing the dough for varenyky – a type of traditional dumplings filled with cherries, and one of our most beloved national dishes. A satisfying, ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ delicacy, combining sweet and sour; and grandma always had all the patience in the world to shape hundreds of these varenyky at a time and fill the freezer with them – ready for a busy day or for treating guests.
We spent long, warm summer evenings destoning the different fruits which grew in her garden, preparing them for jams, preserving them in compotes or drying them for snacks on the roof of her root cellar, where she kept all her potions of love in sterilised glass jars. Her language of love was to share; aromatic apricot jam for Ukrainian-style croissants, cucumbers pickled in vinegar ready for winter beetroot salad, aubergine caviar to serve on top of rye bread, juice made from grapes or redcurrants or apples… This generosity and skill in ensuring a plentiful supply of everything she had adopted after experiencing the hunger of the second world war.
“Prepare for winter during the summer” she would often say, skimming the foam off a bubbling pan of raspberry jam. Harsh Ukrainian winters (with temperatures sometimes reaching as low as -20°C), meant you learned to preserve, ferment and can during those warmer months. That feeling of satisfaction and real sense of achievement at the end of a long day, counting the upside-down glass jars (they are turned over to check the seal is tight), sipping our black tea with honey and lemon and watching a Brazilian soap opera on TV…
I have always loved this season of weddings, spending an equal amount of autumnal weekends with each of my grandmothers, as both were always on someone’s wedding guest list. One lived at one end of town, and the other at the opposite end – which meant they hardly ever had double invites.
Long tables stretched out under rigged-up marquees, groaning under plates piled high with Ukrainian delicacies. In some villages, neighbours would gather a week before the wedding to start doing the ‘prep’ for the feast – starting with rolling out the dough for the honey cake at the beginning of the week, moving on to the biscuits and cold meats and so on. Autumn is harvest time, so traditionally food costs a lot less then, which is why it is a popular time to get married.
No wedding in my childhood was complete unless a traditional wedding band had been invited. On arrival, guests were greeted with a piece of music called the ‘Wedding March’; everyone’s eyes on you as you came through the reception area, gave flowers to the bride, and were seated accordingly to how close you were to the bride or groom – relative, friend or neighbour. Then the food festivities would begin – cold salads, plates with meat cuts, appetizers, pancakes with savoury fillings, baskets of breads, followed by steaming dishes of meat and potato stew, stuffed peppers and cabbage leaves, and duck with home-made noodles. But as a child you were eagerly awaiting the ‘sweet table’ – jellies, cakes, biscuits, chocolates and fruits. While the grandmas were busy chatting to the people on their left and right, I would always manage to sneak one or two sweets before the bride and groom divided the wedding Korovai – an enriched yeast bread decorated with intricate details made out of dough – which heralded the start of the dessert course! Walking home with bags of sweets, talking about the bride’s gorgeous dress is one of the favourite autumn memories, and one in which both grandmothers drew in their ‘best granny’ competition.
Pyrizhky or stuffed buns. One dish, but two completely different recipes and fillings made by two women I loved dearly. Once again, the competition was fierce. One made them in an ordinary shape, but with comfort food fillings – mashed potatoes and fried onions, sauerkraut, Ukrainian curd cheese, chopped hard boiled eggs with green onions or sweet apples. The other grandma specialised in a deep-fried twisted-shape pyrizhky using brynza (a salty sheep’s cheese) as a filling. This brynza was brought especially from her native region not far from Transdniestria. Sitting by a hot stove, staring into the fire and nibbling on these delicacies warmed me on cold winter days. No matter which grandma’s kitchen I was in, I would be quizzed about whose pastries were the winner!
Today, I make all of my grandmothers’ pyrizhky recipes; even on the hottest of days here in the Middle East where I now live, as it is the most soul-warming food I can think of. As it was back then, it is still impossible to choose a winner, as I have always loved them both equally.
P.S. My grandmothers loved and respected each other, even living together in their final years and looking after each other. Their competition still continued in the kitchen they shared though, still battling it out for a ‘Masterchef’ crown from their granddaughters in order to establish once and for all which of them managed to squeeze more love into a single dish.