Alissa Timoshkina reveals a modern side to Russian cuisine20th Mar 19 | Lifestyle
Ella Walker meets the cookbook author to talk snow, memories and Napoleon cake.
When food writer and cookbook author Alissa Timoshkina talks about snow – the glittering kind she misses, the kind that falls thickly in Siberia – the present fades out.
“Massive snow plains, and walking in fresh snow, is the most beautiful and breath-taking sight,” she says, reverently. “The crunch, the sound of it is incredible, the texture under your feet – it’s quite magical.”
Back in North London where we’ve met to talk, there is only drizzle, but the table is laid with dishes from Timoshkina’s debut cookbook, Salt & Time – beetroot fritters, soured cream courgette dip, vinegret salad and aubergine caviar – while her new baby daughter Rose snuffles away happily (she appears as the star bump in the book).
Two years ago, the Russian-born, Siberian-raised cook, realised there weren’t any really good contemporary Russian cookbooks to be found. Anywhere.
“Anything you do find is really old and dated, and the aesthetics, it’s just so kitsch,” she says of the raggedy recipe collections you might unearth in charity shops. Her photographer on Salt & Time recently dug one out, the cover emblazoned with pictures of a Russian woman in a crown, a samovar and a bear. “Could this be any more cliché?” Timoshkina asks with a laugh. “It’s just so boring.”
And boring Russia is not – especially when it comes to culture, cuisine and politics. “Obviously in the news, politically, you hear about Russia quite a lot – not in the best light,” Timoshkina muses archly. “But still, everyone knows Russia and is fascinated by Russia, yet the food is such a huge part of any culture, and it’s such a great way of learning about a culture. So I thought, ‘What’s going on?’”
Salt & Time: Recipes From A Russian Kitchen fills this gap. In it, Timoshkina features the food she creates at home (like those beetroot patties, which are genuinely incredible) and revisits the food of her childhood, the fare her mum and grannies cooked, and the traditional Russian dishes that are dinner staples for many who grew up in the (former) Soviet Union – although she does put quite a spin on them.
She’s very clear, she’s “not an anthropologist just recording authentic recipes” but instead adapts and updates, taking inspiration from elsewhere as she goes. Consider ‘herring under a fur coat’: The layered Russian salad is traditionally a psychedelic cake of pickled herring, mayonnaise, onion, and grated boiled veg – including the bright pink of beetroot. Timoshkina’s version is elegant, minimalist; the traditional is straight out of the Seventies.
“I am waiting for that,” she says wryly, when asked if people will be a bit miffed at her skewing time-honoured dishes.
Timoshkina grew up in Siberia and lived in Israel for a bit (“I’m happy I tried my first hummus in Israel”), before moving to England in 1999, aged 15.
In retrospect, she says the school food she was subjected to on arrival wasn’t actually that bad, but at the time, fresh from a land of ferments, pickles, krauts and foraged foods, it was certainly “strange”. “Hash for breakfast, fish and chips – there was so much fried stuff,” she recalls, bemused.
She began cooking seriously as a way to escape the intense study of her PhD in Soviet Holocaust and Film History. Then, once she was done with academia, she threw herself into running monthly supper club and film event company, KinoVino.
“It was the best cooking school because I’d always help the chefs prep and be with them in the kitchen during the event,” she explains. “KinoVino has been my Leiths [Cookery School] equivalent.”
The process gave her the confidence to cook herself, she says. However, the kitchen has always been a huge part of her world. As a child, it was the main communal space, particularly in small soviet apartments at a time when you didn’t eat out except for pickles from the market, or patties from the store. It’s where the grown-ups would be smoking, chatting “and drinking vodka”, and her great-granny could be found making pastries and proving dough in huge enamel casseroles.
Her great-granny’s celebratory Napoleon cake – a colossal mille-feuille of pastry and crème patisserie, a Soviet dessert invented in 1912 to celebrate the centenary of Russia’s victory over French invasion – is in the book.
“She was known for making the best Napoleon cake in our family. It’s quite a laborious thing to make,” says Timoshkina. “It had a very special significance, and my great-granny was very special to me.
“When I was testing her recipe, I looked at others, and hers has an obscene amount of butter in it. At first I was like, ‘Is that right?!’ But it tastes so good, I immediately saw her kitchen [in my head]. It was just so moving; tasting that cake I suddenly felt really connected to her. That crazy buttery crème pat was her signature.”
Timoshkina offers a window on a time and a place, without being saccharine or wistful about it. She talks of eating fiddlehead ferns from the far east of Russia where her father was born, to foraging out of necessity, because in the soviet days “you had so little in the shops”.
“Mushroom foraging was a completely standard thing to do,” she recalls. “We would always go with my grandpa, we’d put all the mushrooms in the bathtub and clean them with toothbrushes.
“It was an amazing sight and suddenly the bathroom smells like the forest.”
Salt & Time: Recipes From A Russian Kitchen by Alissa Timoshkina, photography by Lizzie Mayson, is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £25. Available now.
© Press Association 2019