Good beginnings set tone for year ahead
It can be distressing to decide from where to begin; we all know that feeling. However, the country has entered the year quite smoothly, without any particular debate on ‘How?’ and, as yet, no dilemmas regarding fuel or enterprises’ production plans — regardless of the global crisis.
Many dishes are associated with a parti-cular country: Japanese sushi, Spanish paella and Scottish haggis. Belarus also has its own traditional recipes and, in early 2013, two from the Glubokoe District became part of Belarus’ intangible cultural heritage: the ‘butter ram’ (homemade salted butter shaped into a ram with horns and curly wool); and rye bread.
Welcome with bread and salt
The Glubokoe District is located 180km to the west of Vitebsk and one of its villages is Derkovshchina — once home to the Domeiki family. It’s known for its 40m long fortress-like Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, constructed in 1822. Made from stone, and boasting a stone wall, it has a two-storey bell tower and was built by Levon Domeiko — an uncle of Ignaty Domeiko (a prominent geologist, mineralogist, geographer and ethnographer). Levon was born in 1802 in western Belarus and was one of the most famous students of Vilno University. After the Polish rebellion of 1830, he emigrated to Germany and then France before settling in Chile, where he was elected rector of the Chile University, in 1867.
Nearby is the more modest Orthodox Church of the Great Martyr and Healer Panteleimon. It’s no less dear to Derkovshchina residents, as they built it recently with their own hands. Local resident Stepanida Lupach inspired them in this endeavour but believes that God is behind all our successes.
Ms. Lupach, 72, bakes the rye bread now registered on the intangible cultural heritage list of Belarus and tells us that the recipe was learnt from her mother. She thinks it’s been made in the same way for about 200 years. Stepanida explains, “My mother had six children so I learnt how to knead dough from an early age. It’s unusual in not using yeast — just rye wheat, sugar, salt and caraway seeds; it’s very natural and tasty!” Her secrets include using well water and making sure the oven contains steam, to avoid the crust burning. First, she bakes a ‘podpolonok’ in the frying pan — a thin pancake which can be quickly eaten. The main round loaves are coated with salo (lard) before being placed in the bottom of the oven, on a special wooden shovel covered with oak tree or maple leaves. Stepanida tells us, “Once, during zazhinki (an ancient farming holiday) Father Sergiy showed us an icon called The Grower of Crops, depicting God’s Mother in the sky, with sheaves beneath. I bought the same icon and hung it opposite the stove.”
During the holidays, Stepanida Alexandrovna supplies delicacies to workers at the local agricultural enterprise and to her neighbours, as well as baking bread for relatives in Kazakh Kostanay. Her local clergymen have even taken her loaves to Jerusalem
Golden Fleece from butter and horns from wax
Another hostess from the Glubokoe District owns an ancient recipe which has been registered on the intangible cultural heritage list of Belarus. Marina Khrol heads the local House of Culture in the village of Matyukovo and her ‘butter ram’ has been prepared by her family for four generations. I’m curious to know more, so Marina tells me that, long ago, butter was churned in a ‘boika’ — a narrow barrel with a wooden cylinder. It was then washed until the water ran clear. I roll a 300g ball from her ready-made butter and, while I knead it, Marina reveals the history of the ‘butter ram’.
She emphasises, “For me, the ‘butter ram’ is as much part of Easter as dyed eggs. My grandfather would take everything to the Catholic Church of the Most Holy and Tender Mother of God to be consecrated; it’s located nearby, in the village of Zadorozhie. Then, he sprinkled the table in the middle of our room with holy water and placed a beautiful wreath of flowers there; it’s a wonderful family tradition.”
The ram is really festive, especially the curly fleece, and it’s hard to believe that it’s actually made from butter. When I finish kneading my butter ball, Marina divides it into two; the larger part becomes the ram’s head and body while the fleece is shaped from the smaller. Butter is pressed into bandage strips, making it easier to curl, and these are placed over the ram’s body with a knife; it takes 3-4 hours. The horns are then moulded from wax and black pepper grains become the eyes. Everything is then decorated with dill or parsley.
Ms. Khrol’s mother taught her to make the ‘butter ram’ and she moulded her first independently at the age of 12. She now praises me for my diligence and advises, “To make the butter figurine last longer, we add salt and, according to tradition, we eat the ram from its tail.”
Ancient traditions for everyone
Now that rye bread and the ‘butter ram’ have been recognised as part of the intangible cultural heritage of Belarus, it’s likely that more people will try them. Tatiana Molotovnik, the Head of the Glubokoe District Executive Committee’s Cultural Department, tells me, “Last year, over 13,000 officially registered tourists visited our village of Mosar, which is called the ‘Belarusian Versailles’. We’re planning to open a small guesthouse and a centre of traditional folk culture, to show tourists how looms were used for weaving in days gone by, and how earthenware items were made on the potter’s wheel. Guests will also be able to prepare and sample traditional Belarusian dishes, following ancient recipes. It should all help preserve our ancient folk traditions while attracting even more tourists to our district.”
By Sergey Golesnik