|A glass of water at Leningrad’s airport, bound for Riga.|
On several occasions while in Moscow and Leningrad in 1987, we’d join the line for квас (kvass or kvas). In 2016, I wrote about kvass after returning from Estonia.
I was delighted to see both mead and kvass on the drinks menu, even if they’re commercially produced and not rigorously farmhouse-sourced. They paired nicely with my meal of sauerkraut soup and salted herring.
Kvass is a lightly fermented, traditionally homebrewed “soft” drink made from dark bread and yeast, with a myriad of other additional ingredients varying from kitchen to kitchen. We tend to think of kvass as Russian, though many Baltic and Eastern European countries have their own versions. In the Estonian language, it’s called kali.
To create that tangy fermented flavor, kvas makers start with Russian brown bread. You soak it in water, and then add some yeast (other additions — raisins, honey, mint — vary from recipe to recipe). The whole mixture ferments for a few days, a process that creates a natural carbonation, as well as a distinctive sour flavor.
According to Russian writer Alexander Genis, that sourness is beloved in the region. “The sour is the taste of Russia — everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste. Like sour cream, for example, or pickled cucumber. Cabbage, mushroom.”
Given that one of the glories of Estonian cuisine is its dense, moist black bread, kvass/kali is a natural product line extension. It tastes like its principle ingredients, bread and water.
The commercial version of kvass available at the Golden Piglet Inn actually lacked the tang of what I remembered at a street stand in Moscow, circa 1999. It was sweeter but no less delicious, and would be an apt thirst quencher in summertime, so keep the lemonade and iced tea. Let’s cook some kvass instead.
No photographic evidence attests to the consumption of kvass in 1987, so you’ll be compelled to accept my testimony. However, the scene was little changed from this view in 1999, when Barrie and I returned to Russia for a Moscow encore.
Looks like I was hungover in 1999, too. One big difference would be the plastic glasses, which weren’t a part of the Soviet street scene 12 years earlier.