Belarus

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Jess and I began our long President’s Day weekend with a Valentine’s Day brunch at the Beat Hotel in Harvard Square, accompanied by the sweet bluegrass sounds of the Frank Drake trio. Snowflakes had already begun to fall as we stopped at Mike’s Pastry (the new Cambridge location) for some treats on our way home. We were in for another blizzard. Knowing that not even the public transit system would be open for business the next day, we prepared to hunker down for another snowy weekend at home. Fortunately, we had already gathered plenty of supplies—including several tons of potatoes, above—for our next globetrotting destination: Belarus.

The Republic of Belarus is controlled by president Alexander Lukashenko, a man whom  reporters have often described as “Europe’s last dictator.” Lying just to the east of Poland, the country remains one of the region’s poorest and most repressed. Our old friend Russia is a close political ally, and throughout the weekend we noticed many culinary and cultural similarities between the two countries as well. On Saturday evening, for our first Belarusian meal, Jess located a recipe for mushroom-stuffed kalduny. These are very similar to the Polish pierogi, which we had learned to make last year in a fun class at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Here’s Jess busy stuffing the kalduny: image The final step was to cook the kalduny in a large pot of boiling water. Jess also prepared a traditional cabbage salad, though with red cabbage instead of green, and a dish of mushy peas inspired by her discovery that Belarusians eat a kind of puréed peas called kamy. image These recipes made for a delicious meal and a great start to the weekend. After dinner, we started to learn more about Belarus with this five-minute animated history of the country:

While the animations were cute, we couldn’t always be sure that the filmmakers were presenting the country’s past as it was, or as they wished it to be. (Part of the problem is that the country itself is only about a century old. Before that, the territory belonged to various neighboring states.) We next gained a far more sobering look at Belarus’s recent past with the evening’s feature film, Come and See (1985):

Produced in Belarus while the country was still a part of the U.S.S.R., the Russian-language film depicts a Belarusian boy’s struggle to survive while his native land was being attacked by the German army during World War II. Our evening wasn’t entirely bitter, however, as Jess had also learned that Belarusians enjoy eating baked apples.image While the apples seemed to be slightly overcooked, they were still quite delicious topped with powdered sugar. Here’s the recipe.

The next morning, another foot of snow had covered the many feet that already lay piled on the ground. Hard-working Jess kept us cosy with a recipe that is traditionally served for breakfast on Christmas morning: a barley porridge called kuccia. image We enjoyed the buttery barley along with some strong black tea, flavored with raspberry preserves and cream—similar to the fruity black tea that we had brewed in Russia.

Later that morning, we acquainted ourselves with the state of modern Belarus through several short videos that Jess had found on YouTube: first a beautiful day in the life of Belarus, then a tour of Minsk, the country’s capital city, and finally an undercover investigation of the country’s repressive government from the U.K.’s Channel 4.

For lunch, Jess helped me to make a large pot of borshch, another Russian favorite, complete with cabbage, beets, carrots, turnips, and (a Belarusian touch) large chunks of potato. We served it with dollops of low-fat sour cream:

imageAfter our hearty lunch, we headed into the blizzard in search of a local memorial to the artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985), who was born in what is now Belarus. Chagall was a modernist whose works now reside in museums around the world. Just a few blocks from our apartment, an artist named Pasqualina Azzarello had painted A Celebration of Imagination: a Tribute to Marc Chagall in 1997.

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As you can see, the snow was blocking at least the bottom third of the mural, but we climbed behind the drifts for a closer look at the inscription in the lower right-hand corner:

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As we walked back to our apartment, we noticed that the icy wind had already erased our footprints in the snow!

Soon it was time for another hot meal of Jess’s delicious kalduny, mushy peas, and cabbage salad. After dinner, we watched another somber Belarusian film called Fortress of War (2010), which told the story of the disastrous but apparently courageous Soviet defense of the Fortress of Brest during the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. Here’s the trailer:

Monday was President’s Day, so our sojourn in Eastern Europe continued. For breakfast, we had more of Jess’s tasty kuccia, and for lunch we had more of my (also tasty) borshch. For dinner, we fried up a new Belarusian recipe for draniki, a type of mushroom-stuffed hash browns. Here I am frying the draniki in some heart-healthy canola oil:

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And here they are with some of the mushy peas and cabbage salad, topped like the borshch with a dollop of low-fat sour cream:

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Everything was quite delicious, and made for a tasty end to our long weekend in Belarus. Having exhausted our supply of gruesome Soviet war movies, we spent our evening rewatching a newfound classic, Disney’s Frozen.

– Derek

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