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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Ukrainian Food and Wine Evening

I imagine it's fairly safe to say that Ukrainian food and wine is not well-known in this country, so I thought it would be at least unusual (and hopefully interesting) to present an evening of Ukrainian food and wine to the Cambridge Food & Wine Society last month.

Given the amount of cooking involved (the emphasis of the evening was more on the food than the wine), we had to limit our numbers, but a sudden flurry of last-minute interest led to us deciding to squeeze in a few extra people and even then we had to turn some people away.

After a few rounds of revisions, we ended up with around 10 food courses plus two types of sparkling wine, horilka (vodka) and brandy.

I started off by asking how many people, if any, had been to Ukraine - it turned out one couple had been on holiday and one member had travelled there on business a couple of times. That meant almost 90% of the audience had never been to Ukraine.

Next question was to see if anyone recognised any of the names of food items (all in Ukrainian) - most people got "borshch" (beetroot-based soup), "shokolad" was a fairly easy guess and one person got "ikra" (caviar, served on white bread with butter).

There were two main reasons that I put down only the Ukrainian-language versions of the food - firstly, in many cases, there is no English equivalent and secondly, the descriptions did not really do justice to the food. Stuffed cabbage rolls may not sound appetising, but the reality is that they are delicious little parcels of mince and rice, wrapped in a cabbage leaf and gently simmered in a tomato sauce until tender and then served with sour cream.

Other popular items included the otbivny (similar to a schnitzel, but made from pork and without breadcrumbs) and, particularly, varenyky (little pasta parcels like ravioli, but filled with sour cherries and served with yet more sour cream).

As for the drinks, the sparkling wines were generally deemed to be "workmanlike", but the vodka was a hit and the brandy received the most praise. Smooth with aromas of dried fruits and vanilla and a rounded and full-bodied feel in the mouth, there were plenty of requests for top-ups for this one.

I think part of the reason for the lack of success for the sparkling wines lies in the old Soviet attitude to agriculture in general - there is no concept of terroir in Ukraine, no idea that the key to producing great wine lies in the growing conditions and location of the vines. Instead, people tend to talk about which "factory" produces the best sparkling wine, as if wine-making is just another industrial process.

Another interesting footnote which turned up during my research is that Russia and Ukraine claim to have permission from France to label their sparkling wines "Champagne"; apparently, when sparkling wines were introduced into the then Russian empire, the rights to the use of the word “Champagne” was granted in perpetuity to the Russian Imperial Government by the French and that this cannot be rescinded.

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