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As an American living in Europe, I’m often asked if there’s anything I miss from back home. The first thing that comes to mind is breakfast. If there’s one breakfasting establishment I fantasize about, it’s the legendary New York establishment, Barney Greengrass. There I don’t order the diner fare, but bialys with cream cheese and smoked sturgeon and glasses of cold Russian borscht, a beet soup that is a staple of Russian, and by extension Russian-Jewish immigrant, cuisine.
Part of the family of sour soups, borscht is originally Ukrainian, but features in numerous Baltic and northern Slavic cultures. There are various jewel-colored renditions of borscht, the beetroot-centered crimson version being the best-known. You can find little-used recipes for a white borscht, also called sour rye soup (with a base of rye flour) and green borscht, packed with sorrel leaves. The consistent theme is that the soup has a sour taste, and that is can be eaten warm or cold.
The History of Borscht
These sour soups have an ancient predecessor that was consumed, historians believe, by early Slavic tribes. It was a foraged soup, prepared with pickled hogweed (also called cow parsnip or eltrot), which thrives in the wild, moist fields of the Baltic states and the expanses of Russia.
The word borscht, is Yiddish, but it derives from the proto-Slavic word for the hogweed plant, bursci. This plant would have been a regular, vitamin-packed part of the diet of roving Slavic tribes. To preserve it, it was pickled, and then thrown into cauldrons of boiling water and animal bones and whatever other edibles they had to hand. This is a satisfyingly ancient, pragmatic history. So many dishes in this series were daintily designed by a 19th century French chef, and it feels resonant to eat something that has been eaten by our ancestors for a millennium, if not more.
How to make Borscht
Borscht, these days, is a good deal more elaborate than those Slavic tribesmen of yore could have imagined. Beets are, of course, the centerpiece, but they are enriched with garlic, shallots, coriander, cayenne, cloves and, to my surprise, sugar. The pinkness comes from integration of yogurt, but the hardcore will use sour cream. The preparation couldn’t be easier: boil everything together until tender, then puree in a blender.
In fact, that was too easy. So my next step is to turn back the clock. Could I recreate the ur-borscht of our ancestors? Could I forage and prepare the sort of hogweed soup that would satisfy a hungry Slavic tribesman?
The Original Ancestors’ Borscht
I am fortunate to live in a heavenly place for foraging, at the foot of the Alps. The soup might be delicious using fresh hogweed, and surely those ancient Slavs prepared some soup with the fresh stuff. But the tradition goes that the preserved hogweed (through a lacto-fermentation process) was the more enduring part of their diet, when the herbaceous plant was no longer growing. Thus what is earthy, garlicky when cooked with a fresh primary ingredient, gives birth to a sour soup, which in turn leads to the multi-faceted borscht tradition we know today.
The recommended balance is 50/50 between hogweed leaves and stalk. Cleaning them, I chop them into small pieces and put them in a Mason jar. A little salt and to the top with boiling water. I seal the jar, but not airtight, as air bubbles will form and need to escape. In just three days, the hogweed will have sufficiently soured. At this point, I could make the seal airtight and keep the ingredients indefinitely, but now is prime time for cooking.
What doing next with all that lovely, soured hogweed? Uncomplicated: Throw it into a big metal pot over a fire and add whatever was to hand, what had been foraged. A nice bone broth with leftovers from the last feast, some beetroot, onion, garlic. More modern recipes might call for tomato, topping off the bowl of soup with a blob of sour cream.
But when bonding with one’s ancestors, I prefer authenticity over artifice. If at all possible, consume this soup out of a terracotta bowl, with a wooden spoon. And possibly while wearing nothing but the hide of a bear.