When the brilliant, energetic, and visionary Peter the Great of Russia decided to drag his country into the modern age, among the orders he gave were that men had to cut their flowing hair, women had to stop wearing face veils, and everyone among the nobility should learn a foreign language, preferably French. He also ordered people to have parties, and he led the way by hosting grand assemblées at his palace in the newly named and freshly redecorated capital of St. Petersburg.
The Russian nobility hesitated, but only briefly. They quickly figured out that dressing beautifully, living comfortably, and eating sumptuously were not hardships. In fact, after the death of Peter the Great, not only did the nobility refuse to go back to their former ways, they made good living one of their main preoccupations, and for Russia’s nobility, good living meant good food.
Even when Catherine the Great came to the throne, her example of hard work, frugality, and simple eating did not slow the nobility for a second. There were, in fact, families at court whose wealth was greater than that of the Romanovs, and parties were their favorite way of showing this off. The Youssoupoff family, for example, had a different formal dining room for every night of the week, enough gold and silver plates to serve a thousand guests, and their own Sèvres porcelain factory right on their property. Other families had the legions of servers at their banquets change their elegant clothes with every course.
By the early 1800s, pretty much the entire upper class of Russia spoke French. They hired European tutors, governesses, chefs. However, Russian food still remained distinctly Russian, despite its continental trimmings. Both climate and long-standing custom made it difficult to really transform the cuisine. A few new dishes were created, but most were just variations of things that Russians already ate: meat, fish (especially sturgeon), game, beets, pickles, sour cream, tea, vodka, and caviar. (In fact, caviar became the real test of affluence—how many kinds and how much of each could you serve.)
The exotic French sauce, Mayonnaise, had long been a fixture in the Russian court–so much so that vegetables mixed with mayonnaise became known as “Russian salad” across the continent. The more substantial recipe below dates to the mid-19th century, when the passion for all things Gallic was still high. Originally, the dish would have been made with wild fowl, rather than domestic chickens. But its popularity grew so quickly that the substitution was soon in coming. This dish is in fact the progenitor of all chicken salads made today.
Salat Oliviye (or salade Olivier, if one were at court) would more than likely be served during a zakuska—a feast of zakuski, or small dishes (a close approximation of the meaning of zakuski might be “appetizers,” though this is more of a meal than that term might imply). A range of cold dishes, perhaps one or two hot dishes, pickles, breads, fruit, paté, mushrooms, caviars, and vodkas would be set out to help sustain arriving guests until dinner was ready. While such a hearty meal might have been necessary for those who traveled by troika during a Russian winter, most of us would view this dish as a main course, rather than a morsel to help us make it to the big meal. It is visually stunning and makes a great presentation dish for a party, but is good enough you may want to make it more frequently. Enjoy.
Russian Chicken Salad
1 3-pound chicken, cooked, boned, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 boiled new potatoes, cooled, peeled, and thinly sliced
3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and thinly sliced
2 sour dill pickles, coarsely chopped and drained, (about 1/2 cup)
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground pepper
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup sour cream
1 small head of Boston or bib lettuce, washed and well dried
2 Tbsp. capers
1 Tbsp. finely cut fresh dill (dried acceptable, but use slightly less)
1/2 cup small black or green olives
3 tomatoes, cut in quarters
Put the chicken, potatoes, eggs, and pickles into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss gently to combine. In a small bowl, beat together the mayonnaise and sour cream. Stir half of this mixture into the salad. Taste for seasoning.
To serve, place lettuce leaves on a serving platter and mound the salad on the leaves, shaping it into sort of a gently curving pyramid. Spread the rest of the mayonnaise and sour cream mixture on the outside of the mound, then sprinkle with capers and dill. Arrange olives and tomatoes around base. Serves 6.
©2008 Cynthia Clampitt