This book reminded me of the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in its lavishness, eccentricity, and cast of low-key, but idiosyncratic characters, most notably, the Count, Alexander Iliyich Restov, or “Sasha” to his friends. This book truly had everything I love in a novel: interesting, actual locations, introspective musings by characters I like, lots of food, literary, historical and art references, and an underlying moral to the story, that is uplifting. And of course, a love story, in this case, underplayed and unexpected. As a fan of Rules of Civility, I expected the writing to be impressive, and I was not disappointed. The following excerpt (the Count is enjoying his lunch in the grand dining room of the Metropol hotel) encapsulates a lot of the things I loved about Towles’ writing, although it is a bit long. (But then, so is the book!) The Count’s impeccable taste buds are legendary in his little universe:
“Turning his attention to the okroshka (cold soup), the Count could tell that any Russian in the room might have been served by his grandmother. Closing his eyes in order to give the first spoonful its due consideration, the Count noted a suitably chilled temperature, a tad too much salt, a tad too little kvass, but a perfect expression of dill – that harbinger of summer which brings to mind the songs of crickets and the setting of one’s soul at ease.”
I frequently find myself casting the movie version of the books that I read, and this one was no exception. One of the hotel’s semi-permanent guests is a 9 year-old, enormously precocious girl called Nina Kulikova. In the movie she would be played by a twelve year-old Saorsie Ronan, the age she was when she was in Atonement. Now that I think of it, she was in The Grand Budapest Hotel, too. I had trouble casting the Count. The best I could do was Henry Cavill, although I did consider Hugh Jackman for a time.
When I did a search of sights to see in Moscow, this was the image that immediately caught my eye.
St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, begun in 1554, was built by Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia. It has 9 chapels within it, the 9th of which was dedicated to St. Basil, who was buried in the cathedral in 1557. What a unique and beautiful building.
It had to be okroshka, but not just because of the excerpt above. Truth is, I wanted to make kvass, which is a fermented drink that Russians reportedly drink like Coke. The most fun recipes to make are those that take me far from my comfort zone. It’s an adventure for me. Granted, it all takes place in my kitchen, and there’s very little danger involved, but it’s still an exciting journey.
2.5 gallons or 10 qt of water
1 lb or 9 slices of classic black, dark or rye bread
1 handful of raisins
1.8 lb (4 cups) of sugar
1.5 tablespoons of active dry yeast
6 large plastic soda bottles
DAY 1: (best if prepared in the evening)
Fill a giant stock pot with 2.5 gallons of water (or divide it into two large pots)
and bring to a boil. While waiting, toast the bread slices twice on the darkest
toaster setting. Darker bread makes darker kvass.
When the water starts to boil, remove the pot from heat. Add a handful of raisins
and the toasted bread to the pot, cover with the lid and let it stay overnight or at
least 8 hours.
Carefully remove the toasted bread and discard it. Quickly warm up the kvass on
the stove, until it is around 95°F. Don’t use water hotter than 110°F, or it will kill
the yeast. If the water is cold, the yeast won’t activate.
In a medium bowl, mix together 4 cups of sugar and 1.5 tablespoons of yeast,
add them to kvass mixture and stir.
Cover with plastic wrap or lid and leave the mixture on the counter for another 6
hours, stirring every couple hours.
Using a strainer lined with cheese cloth, pour kvass into a Pyrex 4 cup
measuring cup, then pour the kvass from the measuring cup into the bottles.
Squeeze some of the air out of the bottle before loosely covering with the lid.
Refrigerate overnight. Check the bottles to release air if they expand. The
following day once the bottles are completely chilled, you can tighten the lids.
DAY 3: enjoy
It’s best to store kvass in plastic soda bottles since they are designed to hold
1. Double-toasted bread 2. Yeast and sugar working 3. Kvass!
in boiling water. their magic.
Okroshka with Kvass
3 C of okroshka kvass not sweet kvass, chilled
4 oz ham steaks, finely cubed
2 medium potatoes peeled, cooked and finely cubed
2 hard boiled eggs, cubed
½ long english cucumber finely cubed
5-6 radishes finely cubed
1/2 tsp salt
1 C sour cream to dollop when serving
2 green onions sliced
bunch of dill chopped about 1/4 cup
Hardboil the eggs and cook the potatoes until cooked, but not overcooked
and soft. Peel and cut into small cubes. Cool the eggs and cut into cubes.
Cut the ham, cucumber, radishes into the smallest cubes you can.
Slice the green onions and dill and set aside for when you are garnishing.
Place eggs, potatoes, ham, cucumber, radishes and salt in a large bowl.
Add the chilled kvass and stir together.
It’s best to refrigerate for an hour to allow the soup to get really cold, before
serving with the sour cream, dill and green onions. When mixing the sour
cream, stir quickly so it doesn’t curdle.
We had this for lunch in February when it was 20º outside, and it was delicious- like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I can imagine how refreshing this would be on a hot summer night.