Our Stalin style one bedroom flat, which my parents and I shared with my maternal grandparents was a typical example of a place a well educated but not terribly well off family of an engineer would live in. It was packed with the 1970s Soviet furniture, ‘Persian’ rugs on the walls, a black and white TV and net curtains on the windows. But in a sideboard full of Soviet and Czech crystal stood a cup. An unusual cup. A cup of an age gone long ago - a gilded, hand painted , beautiful cup. It was simply out of place.
(I since took it to Antiques Road Show. In its current cracked state, this cup which once belonged to a not-so expensive Bohemian set is worth about £40). Nothing too special, but for me it was a mystery. What was it doing next to these rather austere Soviet objects?
It was early 1980s - the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union recently invaded Afghanistan, the US just boycotted the Moscow Olympic games. Bourgeois objects like this were not exactly the norm.
But I was little and knew nothing of all of this. I was playing in the yard with my friends, observed by other grannies, and was following my babushka on her errands. (Mum went back to work when I was one and babushka was looking after me, which was the thing to do then).
I loved going to the market with her. We had to go really early - 7am or something like this, as it was all over by 8.30. Buying meat was the main thing. All prices were controlled by the state to prevent speculation, so to make money meat sellers used to give you meat cuts which always contained hidden bones. They were quite crafty too, only back home would you realise just how bony/fatty the piece of meat was.
But money was tight and nothing was thrown away. So the first thing my babushka would do is to make stock. Below is a recipe for beef stock, which we will use to make borsch. You can make borsch with vegetable stock or water, but (apologies vegetarians) it’s not the real thing. I tried making it with some shop-bought stock, but it just doesn’t taste right either. So don’t be lazy and make your own. (You can make it in advance and freeze it.) I always make masses and freeze some for the future.
Beef Stock for Ukrainian Borsch
There is no need to roast/fry the bones and meat. What we are after is beefiness, not delicate flavour you'd need for a sauce or gravy.
2-3 pieces of beef/veal bones - you can get them from your local butcher.
½ of ox tail (about 500g)
2-3 medium onions cut into quarters with skins on
2-3 medium carrots - washed and cut into chunks
1 celery stick if you have it
2 bay leaves
10 black peppercorns
Put everything into a large pot, cover generously with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer on low heat for good 2-3 hours. Taking the scum off here and there.
The stock will be cloudy, but it doesn’t matter. We are here for the flavour not the looks.
Sieve the liquid. Discard everything else. Skim the excess fat from the top.
Cool. You will need 2.5l for the borsch. Freeze whatever you are not using.
Next time - Ukrainian Borsch.