Friday, October 29, 2004

Real men drink Kvass. And like it

Russian Barbecue - Note bottles of Kvass in foreground
Having just noticed half a loaf of stale bread, some rotting carrots and two empty plastic diet coke bottles in the kitchen I've decided I might make some Kvass this afternoon.
After vodka, Kvass is the second national drink of Russia. My first experience of Kvass was at a barbecue near Voronez. I recall noticing the bottles early on in the afternoon and thinking 'why has someone filled those old plastic bottles with the water from a sink after doing their washing up?'. Later on, our hosts offered me a glass of the stuff, which I drank. I recall then thinking 'why has someone filled those old plastic bottles with the water from a sink after doing their washing up and then offered it to me to drink?'

I then spent the next few days believing Kvass to be some kind of traditional Russian joke played on visiting foreigners but, no, I actually observed locals drinking the stuff voluntarily. My suspicions had largely been aroused by the sheer peculiarity of the taste and genesis of Kvass but also because I recognized that Russians are capable of being vicious pranksters of the highest and most sophisticated sort.
On our first night in Voronez, our local factory manager took us out for a meal and, through an interpreter, told a very funny story about how the last British visitors had been fed huge tumblers of vodka at their welcome meal whilst he had been drinking water. The visitors became extremely drunk in less than an hour and had made complete fools of themselves. Within an hour of the manager telling us that story, the three of us were completely drunk, singing karaoke and dancing with a group of middle-aged council officials who were looking for lurve. In the corner of the room, the factory manager could be seen grinning slyly; completely stone-cold sober.
The factory visit carried on in a similiar vein for the next week or so; us being kept drunk 24/7 and being offered women of varying quality. The factory manager using the merest fraction of his talents to keep us where he wanted us. I played along on the basis that it was clear where most of the collosal fraud was taking place but having absolutely no inclination to die exposing it.
Our last evening there is one of my fondest memories as it ended with me dancing and singing around the prostate and defeated figure of the factory's drinking champion, an ex KGB officer. I think at one point I actually lifted his head up from the table to taunt him some more. In many ways, this was the peak of my professional career. Thanks to a compliant waitress two of us had finished 2 litres of water at the start of the meal before switching to real vodka. By the time our minder had got suspicious, the evidence had been consumed and we were merrily matching him drink for drink. I recall capping the contest by us depth-charging glases of beer with vodka chasers. The strangest thing. Even though they came from a people that drink pints of vodka a day, and Kvass, our Russian hosts were aghast at the beer/ vodka thing; describing it as a mad thing to do. Stef Top Tip - The only way to beat a Russian at a drinking contest, if you can't do a water switch, dare him to down a pint before drinking his vodka.
Anyway, back to Kvass. Kvass can basically be made out of anything that is stale or rotten. The variety of recipes is enormous. A basic recipe is something like this ...

1 lb bread
3 pints boiling water
6 beets, large, peeled, thinly sliced

  • In bowl, cut bread into pieces, add water & beets, mix well.
  • Cover with towel and set in warm place for two or three days.
  • Strain through fine sieve, or cheesecloth, mashing pulp through screen. Discard the bread mix.
  • Decant into old discarded plastic Coke bottles. If there's some flat Coke left in the bottles, great.
The resulting drink is lightish brown, foamy and smells vaguely of stale eggs. It is definitely best served chilled and preferably to someone you dislike.
And Hitler actually believed he could defeat these people?
I've tried Kvass flavoured with a couple of raisins and, even better, horseradish. Drinking really is believing. Apparently Kvass was/ is popular in Russia because:

  1. they have a lot of stale bread
  2. the fermentation process purifies the drink and reduces the risk of contracting cholera
  3. it tastes really yummy (to Russians)
Drinking Kvass was one of the many experiences in Russia that taught me that life is hard in that country and that Russians have developed the ingenuity and fortitude to cope with that hardness. Western Europeans are complete pussies in comparison and really don't know when they have it good. Russians and East Europeans do, however, know how good we have it which is why so many of them are cramming into the UK and elsewhere. Consumption of a simple glass of Kvass conveys understanding, and some sympathy.
One day, when I become independently wealthy, I would like to start industrial-scale Kvass production in the UK. I think it might be a hit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i know this is about 3 years after the fact, but i really like kvass. its especially wonderful when its been brewed and fermented with dried fruit or fresh berries. it would be a hit here in the USA if it was sold anywhere other than the russian dellies.