Included as part of SRAS’ Cultural Program
This summer, the students enrolled with SRAS Moscow had the opportunity to visit the outskirts of the city and spend the day at a very generous Russian family’s dacha. A dacha is similar to a country house, and they are a hugely important part of Russian culture. Masha, our guide and the dacha’s owner, informed us that most dachas are very affordable and are therefore a popular investment for many Russian families who live in city apartments.
Our day started off by riding a suburban train from Moscow and then walking about a mile though a neighborhood of country houses. Upon our arrival at the dacha, we were greeted by the other inhabitants of the house–Masha’s parents and son, Sergei. We were given some delicious homemade mors (a juice made from boiled berries and sugar,) and were given a tour of the family’s land.
The dacha is made up of a variety of buildings, each with their own purpose. First is the main house complete with a kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, small terrace, and living room. Next comes a similar, yet scaled down version of the main house. There are also different houses for toilets, storage sheds, and even a banya–Russia’s version of the sauna!
After the tour, we began cooking some borscht for lunch! I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I got to peel the beet. We all worked together to prepare broth and add vegetables such as carrots, onions and potatoes. Once the soup was cooking, we began making my favorite Russian food–pelmeni (Siberian dumplings.) We mixed flour with yeast and water to prepare the dough. Rolling out the dough was the hardest part because pelmeni shells need to reach a very specific level of thickness before they can be stuffed with meat and cooked. Once we finished rolling out two enormous balls of dough, we were given small glass cups. Masha instructed us to stamp the cups onto the dough, thereby making small circular cutouts. We then took the cutouts and placed a small piece of raw meat in the center. We wrapped the dough around the meat and made sure that the insides were fully sealed within the shells. First, we brought a pot of water to a boil. Next, we dropped the bowl of pelmeni into the water. Once the first pelmeni began to rise to the surface of the water, we were instructed to wait just 5 more minutes before turning off the stove.
Lunch time! We started by refilling our cups with mors and digging into bowls of borsht, which were served with sour cream. Next came the pelmeni, also served with sour cream!
After we had finished stuffing our faces with food, we painted matryoshka dolls! We all sat, enjoyed some wine and the nice weather, and channeled our inner artists as we decorated the traditional Russian dolls, guided by Masha who is a trained artist.
Dinnertime arrived in a flash. We stuck pieces of marinated pork on skewers and cooked them over a fire, which resulted in a wonderful and filling dinner of shashlik! For dessert, we all helped to prepare blini–Russian pancakes! Masha prepared the liquid dough and taught us how to cook the perfect pancake. First, we poured oil onto a small pan on the stove. We then added the mix and swirled it all along the rim of the pan so that the surface of the pan was completely covered. Since the mixture was so thin, we only needed to wait about 45 seconds before we flipped the pancake.
At the closing of the day, we enjoyed singing and dancing to traditional Russian songs set to the tune of Masha’s father’s accordion. We all sat family style and dug into homegrown tea and blini (with sour cream, sweetened condensed milk, peach jam, and even caviar as toppings!)
Dessert and tea brought us right to the end of the day. With only five minutes left to get to the train, we knew that there was no way that we could make it to the station on foot. Talk about Russian hospitality–Masha and her parents generously invited us to hop into their cars and proceeded to drive us to the train station. We crossed the gates just as the train was arriving. Like most dacha dwellers, Masha and her family keep close tabs on the train schedule and know just how much time they need to get to the station.
It was the perfect ending to one of the most genuine and authentic cultural experiences I have ever had! My favorite part of this trip was learning how traditional Russian foods are made, and Masha’s mother’s motto: “If you don’t help, you don’t eat!”