May 1: International Labour Day

Debout, les damnés de la terre
Debout, les forçats de la faim
La raison tonne en son cratère
C'est l'éruption de la fin...

From 'The Internationale'  words by Eugène Pottier (1816–1887)

I used to hate the news on TV when I was a kid – I found it frightening, sometimes I still do. One of the main things I remember was the huge display of military pomp broadcast from Red Square in Moscow on the first day of May.  The Soviet Republics celebrated May Day because it is International Labour Day and is a special time to remember the struggle of working people all over the world for dignity and respect in the work place.  What I didn’t know was that its origins are American and I bet they kept that quiet in the Politburo.

International Labour Day started to commemorate the death of workers during the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886. The demonstration was to support a strike for an eight hour working day. When it turned violent and a bomb was thrown, the police fired indiscriminately into the crowd.  Four civilians and seven policemen were shot dead.

To counteract the apparant Communist dominance of International Labour Day, in 1955 the Catholic Church dedicated May Day to ‘St Joseph The Worker’. They made St Joseph the patron saint of workers, craftsmen and also of ‘people fighting communism’ - hmmmm…..

All of this has made me think about why we have communal holidays at particular times of year, and the way that even today festivals can sometimes be traced into the deep past.  Once upon a time community celebrations were dictated by the seasons and by cosmic events such as the solstices, or by the events that marked the year, like taking your animals to the high pasture (which btw was yesterday  Once religion became organized then feasts and festivals got pinned down, and once governments get involved they get pinned down even more.  

May Day was a holiday long before International Labour Day – and as we've seen before is associated with new milk and fresh cheese -

Anyway talking of state sponsored holidays we’ve got a lot of communal jollification in the UK this year.  The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – 60 years on the throne is no mean achievement whatever your views, and of course the London Olympics, which are certainly not confined to London. The Olympic torch will be passing the end of my road very soon.

I visited the USSR in 1980 to go to the Moscow Olympic Games.  We stayed in a student hall of residence and I ate a lot of borscht. It was horrible - pink soup that was both sweet and vinegary with a knob of gristly meat in the middle, but there were some nice things to eat too. One hot summer's day we drove to the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana, on the way there we passed little wooden dachas with pretty gardens and picket fences. By their gates old ladies were selling fresh, sweet redcurrants.

Twenty years later I went to St Petersburg and hit the food markets.  What joy!  What utter deliciousness!  Pyramids of soft curd cheeses cheek by jowl with lily of the valley, bunches of fresh gathered wild greens, fat speckled sausages, slices of thick smoky ham and huge gooseberries.  I loved it.  

Anyway I’m going to try and get over my borscht phobia.  To make it even more of a May Day celebration I’ve also made vatrushki – little curd tarts as well, they are a traditional Russian accompaniment to soup.

The recipes are from ‘The Cooking of Russia’ a Time Life book published in 1971 in its ‘Foods of the World’ series. No author is credited, so s/he won't have to mind that I've tweaked them. It's a long recipe for borscht but bear with it, it's worth the effort.

1 packet of ready rolled puff pastry (100% butter if you can get it).
I carton cottage cheese
2 tablespoons of sour cream
I egg and 1 egg yolk
Salt, white pepper and nutmeg
Oven 190c

You will need a 3-4 inch circular pastry cutter

Put the cottage cheese in a seive to drain off excess whey.

Cut out your circles of pastry and gently fold the edges inwards, now circling the pastry in your hands make the edge stand up and pinch and crimp as you go round. You end up with a neat little open tart. Brush the little tarts with egg yolk, put on a baking tray and chill.

Add the sour cream, egg and seasoning to the drained cottage cheese and put about a dessertspoonful in each tart. Put into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.  Turn them down a bit if they brown too quickly, but you need to cook the pastry thoroughly. They will puff up beautifully but will subside when you take them out. Cool on a rack. You can make these in advance and reheat when you are ready. The sour cream is really important - they are much too bland otherwise.

Borscht with horseradish cream

Stage 1
1 piece brisket about 2lb-3lb in weight
Bouquet garni and cooking oil

Stage 2
4 medium sized uncooked beetroots
1 parsnip
2 sticks celery
2 onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 tin tomatoes
about six pieces of parsley tied with a bit of string so you can fish them out later
3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar

Stage 3
1lb small potatoes peeled
1/2 smallish red cabbage finely shredded.

Sour cream and a small piece of horseradish root (or a tablespoon of sauce)

Cook the meat and make the beef stock first. Brown the whole piece of beef in a hot pan in a little oil and put into a casserole, I used my slow cooker. Brown one of the onions in the same pan and add to the meat, swill out the pan with water.  Cover the meat generously with water and add the bouquet garni and a few peppercorns. Cook slowly for at least 3 hours or until tender.

When the meat is done, peel the beets and shred into fine matchsticks with a knife or julienne cutter - a food processor or mandoline helps here. (You can grate them but it makes the borscht mushy) Peel the parsnip and shred in the same way. Chop the onion and celery and crush the garlic.

Put the the vegetables into a deep large pan with a couple tablespoons of oil and sweat gently for about 10 minutes. Take the beef stock (from the brisket)  and add enough to to the vegetables to cover them, add the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer for 40 minutes. Reserve the rest of the stock.

Cut up the meat into small pieces. Put it into the borscht with the red cabbage and potatoes, add more stock if necessary and simmer for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are soft.

 Mix the sour cream with the grated horseradish and add a pinch of salt, or mix cream with a teaspoon of horseradish sauce. Put a dollop on top then sprinkle with parsley or dill.

Serve with the vatrushki or some crusty rye bread.

I loved it by the way - it 's a perfect pick-me-up for a cold spring day....

...And I was home again, painfully at home, 
amid the smells of fish and tobacco, 
children, kittens, borscht, 
fumes rising, purifying.....

From 'The Hut' by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b 1933)


thecatalanway said...

That was lovely Liz - really interesting that the original Labour Day was American.
Here it is a holiday - the streets are quiet and the shops closed. Dia del Trabajador.
For me it has always been the day to go out and wash your face in the morning dew as my mother taught me when I was very young.
Kate x

Liz Woods said...

and that's why you have such a beautiful complexion Kate....