Leo Tolstoy’s birthday: September 9th 1828

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending;--

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

From: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

I’m a big Tolstoy fan and he’s all the rage this autumn because of the new film of ‘Anna Karenina’ which was released in the UK this week.  I read ‘Anna’ when I was about eighteen and haven’t touched it since, although I’ve read ‘War and Peace’ a couple of times and totally love it.  I’m fascinated by that old Russian fairy-tale culture of forests, long slow rivers, orthodox pilgrims, wooden dachas and old baboushkas in printed pinnies.  I think it must have been too many of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ at an impressionable age.

I fell in love with Russia when I went there in 1980.  One blissful August day I went to the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana.  The house is low and wide with polished floors and deep verandas, all surrounded by woods and hay meadows.  We dutifully followed the guide and translator around the house. In every room the guide said ‘And this is where the master wrote ‘War and Peace’ (well it is a big book) and then she showed us the leather chaise lounge on which Mme Tolstoy - at her husband's insistence, gave birth to all her children. Thankfully we then accepted an invitation to go on Tolstoy’s favourite walk and to see his grave, which is in a little woodland glade not too far from the house.

When we emerged from the woodland I saw a sight that took my breath away and which has become one of my most treasured memories.  We were on a small rise; rolling away in front of us was a huge hayfield, studded with wild flowers.  Across the field at about 20 foot intervals was a row of headscarved country women each wielding a large scythe. In unison, down the gentle slope they were cutting the grass for hay.  It was a scene that could have come directly from Breughel and I will never forget it. Here's the very slope, with Tolstoy himself ploughing it, I think we were standing at edge of the wood in the top left corner.

    Ilya Repin (1889)

Yasnaya Ployana was built for Tolstoy’s grandfather Nikolai and he modelled it on an English estate. Leo Tolstoy loved it; he wrote  Without Yasnaya Polyana, it would be hard for me to imagine Russia and my feelings for it.’  It’s ironic then, that Tolstoy gambled away the main part of the house which was dismantled and carted off by his creditor. What you see now are the remaining two wings of the original property. The surrounding estate was managed by Tolstoy, and 'Anna Karenina' contains a lot about his views on agriculture and estate management; Levin is Tolstoy’s mouthpiece as he wrestles with the whole issue of responsibility for and to the serfs who worked on the estate.  

Tolstoy believed people had a ‘natural’ geographical setting - his characters' moral character is affected by their surroundings. Levin only feels comfortable in the countryside, because the country embodies traditional Russian values like purity, hard work, and old style religion. Oblonsky is at his best in the city, but when Levin stays in town for a long time he starts drinking, gambling and chasing other women. As soon as he goes home to the country, he becomes his ‘natural’ and good self. As James Meek says in his recent article in ‘The Guardian’ it is Levin’s journey to ‘faith, family and commitment’ in the countryside, which mirrors Anna’s city-based adulterous journey and ultimate downfall.  
( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/31/rereading-anna-karenina-james-meek

If you want to indulge in more Tolstyana, I recommend Andrew Wilson's immensely readable biography of the great man, I'm staggered that he learned to read Russian in order to write it....

There were lovely damsons in the greengrocer's this morning so I thought I'd make kisel, which is a sort of Russian blancmange and a real country dish. The fantasy landscapes of Russian fairytales have rivers running with kisel - it must have been such a treat to have fruit at the end of the short Russian summer and milk kisel was a way of using up an excess of milk at the same time of year. Kisel was originally thickened with the sour liquid from fermented cereal, these days potato flour, cornflour or arrowroot are usual. I used potato flour - fecule, I find the results with the other two a bit slippery.

You can make kisel with virtually any fruit, but berries and plums always seem the most authentic to me.  Damsons are sharp fruit, you'll need less sugar if you use a different plum or berry.

Damson Kisel

1lb damsons

4 tablespoons sugar
1 dsp potato flour, cornflour or arrowroot

Wash and pick over the fruit and put into a pan. Cover with water and bring to the boil, simmer until the fruit is thoroughly cooked. Put through a sieve to remove the stones and skin. At this point I had about 14fl oz puree. Add the sugar and rewarm until the sugar has dissolved.  Put the flour into a cup and dissolve in a couple of tablespoons of water, add to the fruit puree and stir over a low heat until thick, do not over boil as it will thin down again. Pour into serving bowls and serve at room temperature, with cream or yoghurt. Alternatively make some milk kisel and serve the two together.

Milk Kisel

3/4 pt full cream milk - or about 3:1 milk to cream, for an even more unctuous result
1 rounded tablespoon of potato flour, arrowroot or cornflour (use more if you want it stiffer)
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
0.5 tsp vanilla or sweet almond extract - I used a few drops of bitter almond essence (impossible to get in the US, difficult in the UK - easy in Germany)

Heat the milk, add the sugar and stir until dissolved, add the flour slaked with a little cold milk, stir until thick, then add the flavouring. Cool and serve at room temperature as above.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade -
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.

From ‘The Deserted Village’ by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)

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