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Battle for Borscht

As well as inscribing amazing sites of historic, natural and cultural interest UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) also recognises ‘intangible cultural heritage‘ which the organisation describes as ‘the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities, groups and sometimes individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.’ And this can, of course, include food.

Ukraine is vying to declare borscht, the delicious, hearty soup which has beetroot as one of its primary ingredients, as a heritage designation for this country. This may cause some consternation with Ukraine’s neighbours, many of which, including notably Russia and Poland, where the soup is very popular indeed, who might want to claim borscht as their own.

There are many, many recipes for Borscht which include a number of variations on the ingredients, but Ukraine’s argument for UNESCO heritage status is that the preparation of this soup also involves many other cultural elements.

You can read about the bravura bid for borscht’s definitive distinction here.

Red Square and Red Soup in Russia

When we were travelling in Moscow, in between visiting Red Square and the Kremlin, we ate lunch with a local guide who declared, “Russians do not consider a meal to be a meal unless it has soup.” Which seems to be an entirely reasonable sentiment.

Borscht isn’t a favourite soup in the UK, largely because beetroot isn’t considered to be a particularly tasty vegetable by many. You are more likely to find it pickled in very sharp vinegar which detracts from the earthly flavour of the beet and sets your teeth on edge. But soup based around beetroot is popular all over Eastern Europe, from Poland to the Baltics to Ukraine, of course, Russia. It is best known for its deep red colour, derived from beetroot of course, but other vegetables such as potatoes, celery, parsnips, cabbage and carrots can also feature. Traditional borscht uses meat or bone broth as the stock along with fermented beetroot juice which gives a wonderfully sour flavour and complements the earthy sweetness of the beetroot.

We’ve been growing beetroot in our garden for many years and had a bumper crop last year. They are easy to grow – being root vegetables they can pretty much be left alone after you’ve sown the seedlings and slugs don’t seem to want to eat them. They’ll need just a bit of watering if the weather is particularly dry for a prolonged period, and they will overwinter in the ground without any problems, even enduring frosts and cold weather, to be picked any time. Which is great, because winter time is the best time to be eating a warm, hearty soup.

We had quite a glut last year so ended up making quite a lot of soup. It should probably be described as ‘Borscht-ish’. It is so easy to make and very delicious. There are loads of recipes out there but we went for a very simple approach.

Quick aside for planning ahead: Whenever we roast a chicken we always use the carcass to make a stock. It’s so easy – chuck the bones into a pan, cover with water and boil for a couple of hours. Then strain off the liquid and… instant stock. You might want to skim off any scum, then let it cool down and you can also remove any fat that floats to the surface should you wish (or not, fat does add flavour). Once the stock is made it can be frozen for several months.

Our soup ingredients are very simple:

3-4 beetroot, peeled and cut into cubes. (Wear gloves if you don’t want bright red fingers.)

A couple of litres of chicken stock. If you are vegetarian you can use vegetable stock cubes.

Knob of butter

Two cloves of garlic.

Salt and pepper

A generous dollop of sour cream. Shamefully, we didn’t have any dill to add a green flourish.

Crush the garlic and fry off in the butter.

Add the beetroot cubes and stock to cover all the ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to the boil then simmer for about 30 mins until the beetroot is soft and cooked but not mushy.

Blend with a hand blender or in a standard electric blender. The advantage of the hand blender is that you can easily achieve the precise soupy consistency that suits you. The disadvantage of a hand blender is that you stand a very good chance of getting soup all over the walls if you aren’t very co-ordinated.

Then dollop a generous spoonful of sour cream and garnish with dill if you remembered to get some. Eat with thick hunks of bread.

And yes, we did make a glorious mess of the kitchen.