Apart from eating pork fat shaped as genitals and drinking copious amounts of warm vodka in Ukraine, I have been talking to people. About salo, about the future of Ukraine and its land, about the little things that seldom matter.
So, over the next couple of weeks I will be posting stories of three Ukrainian men, each with his unique tale, who are nevertheless united by one passion – Ukrainian soil and therefore food.
Myhail is a smallholder, with a handsome plot of land in the village of Skmeliv, in the West of Ukraine, about an hour from Lviv.
I have found Myhail through a Ukrainian company that certifies organic food. His land is no longer certified organic (too expensive when there’s little uptake from customers), but he is a great believer in organic agriculture. Although there’s more to his beliefs than not using pesticides.
Myhail is, what I would call, an organic, local philosopher (clearly Gramsci on my mind). His philosophy of caring for the land, eating what you’ve grown yourself, of making your own bread and salo, of walking barefeet (he says, each person needs to walk shoeless at least three months a year), of taking time to talk (as opposed to ‘bazikat’, or chatter) is about that trite but necessary expression of – connecting to the land.
There is very little organically certified produce in Ukraine, which is not surprising of course. It doesn’t mean though that people don’t know what organic means. In the country that saw the largest nuclear disaster ever, people understand only too well the concept of ecologically clean food.
Many Ukrainians would tell you that produce available at markets and shops is divided sharply and unequally between adulterated stuff (such as milk diluted with palm oil or soda) and foods grown without the use of harmful chemicals on little allotments by babushkas or their equivalent (I am sure that the situation is not as clear cut, but this is what people say). The problem is to know which is what, as even little old ladies can be canny, believe it or now:).
Lack of trust and a debilitating apathy about people, food, politics and government is the most common thread that went through all of my conversations in Ukraine. And so, who would trust some label, which, everyone know, could be bought?
Therefore there’s almost no industry or market for certified produce . People either grow their own stuff – farming comes ‘natural’ in the land blessed with such fertile land and so much sun – or put their heads in the ground, so that not to think about the stuff they consume.
People like Myhail are a rarity therefore. He grows enough to be able to sell to locals, but unfortunately after the initial surge of interest in his ‘pure’ produce and real, old-fashioned bread, people’s interest has waned off..so these days he grows everything from wheat to beetroot to courgettes to chickens and pigs for the consumption of his own family and relatives.
…I only spent half a day in Myhail’s house, exchanging banter with his adorable young grand-daughters, eating small sweet-sour apples fallen naturally from trees, drinking water from a well, walking around the land overgrown with grass and healthy wheeds…
And of course, I was fed.
I do not remember eating such delicious potatoes. Honestly! These were just plain boiled potatoes mixed in with home-made smetana (to call it sour-cream would remind you of the stuff in stores here, but really to compare the heavy, sweet, butter-like smetana in Ukraine, you’d think the tubs in England are a completely different product).
A big platter of simply stewed veg from the garden: courgettes, onions, carrots, a few tomatoes.
Nalivka – home-brewed liqueur of rose petals.
Bread that Myhail is very passionate about – he has over years developed his own recipe to make bread with a natural starter. Bread, in my view, is one of the biggest tragedies in Ukraine these days. There are no artisanal bakeries, you simply cannot find ‘real’ bread any more. Bread, white bread, is still plentiful and of course an inseparable part of any meal, but although being a notch better than Tesco value, it’s devoid of any vitamins or wholesomeness. White pap.
And then there was salo of course.
Myhail tends to just keep one pig, which they slaughter once a year, eating the meat fairly quickly but spreading the pleasure of eating salo throughout the year…this is how it’s been traditionally in Ukraine, he says.
Salo – simply cured with local salt for a couple of weeks – is both most treasured and most basic stuff.
The Med has olive oil, Ukraine has its salo.
Before leaving, I just sat with Myhail for an hour, in the almost-derelict house he uses for baking bread, where
we talked about the fact that most Ukrainian farmers are loners (as everywhere in the world really) and so creating successfull cooperatives is a struggle;
about the recipe I use for Russian Borodinsky bread (which I’ve promised to post to Myhail in a letter)
about having children..
about Myhail’s reverence for Ukrainian vareniki, dumlings filled most frequently with potatoes and/or tvorog.
How our palms are as if created to shape little vareniki – put a circle of dough into your palm, then a filling, then close the whole thing up, with your fingers and your palm..
Palms shaped by God to make little Ukrainian vareniki. I like that.