A dish from the East.
One of the glorious advantages of being a chef in the Rocco Forte Hotels group is being able to witness the fascinating European diversity that each of our hotels exemplifies.
Here in Cardiff, we work in an iconic structure that shouts from the rooftops the message that Cardiff is a young, dynamic city that is determined to earn a reputation as one of Europe's leading destinations.
In the group's recently opened Brown's Hotel in London, we have the very finest of establishment hotels, while those in the likes of Rome, Brussels and St Petersburg all represent the individuality of the city or nation in which they sit.
It's to the last of these hotels mentioned that I'm drawn for inspiration this week, partly because the recent cold snap reminded me of the fact that people have an ability to use food as an excellent distraction from the rigours of the elements.
The weather surrounding our Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg is, of course, considerably harsher than anything we in the UK suffer. The so-called White Days of St Petersburg are seeing temperatures of minus 35C currently.
But, strangely, the city is often at its best in these White Days. Its Zhivago-like charm is most keenly experienced when the architecture is powdered with snow and the winter sun reflects like platinum in the city's canals.
Only during the White Days can you stroll leisurely through the Hermitage and the Russian Museum or ride in a traditional Russian troika through the parks of tsars.
The Astoria's flagship restaurant, Davidov, has as you would expect an international reputation. Located on the ground floor adjacent to reception, it overlooks St Isaac's Square and is divided by flowing linen and crystal chandeliers, which illuminate the distinctive local Lomonosov porcelain.
One of the highlights at the Davidov - apart from the 80 assorted vodkas to try! - is the weekend 'Russian Table'. Plates of salads, pickles and treasures from the land and sea are available from the buffet.
But how to sum up Russian cuisine? Of course, it is a huge country spanning from Europe in the west to Northern Asia in the east, with a massive 37,653km coastline. Also, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to completely isolate the cuisine of Russia today as compared with the Soviet Union of yesteryear.
Some dishes which most of us would consider to be Russian are, strictly speaking, no longer so. A good example is Chicken Kiev: the town of Kiev is now in the separate country of Ukraine.
Although there have been many 'man-made' influences, including the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century, who introduced herring and preserving techniques, and the Mongol-Tartar invaders in the 13th century, who brought with them the samovar (a tea-making/ serving vessel), the main influence of what the peoples of Russia have eaten over time has been the climate.
The long-lasting cold winters meant that the food consumed needed to provide warmth and energy to ensure survival during the winter.
This has given rise to high levels of slow burning carbohydrates and fat being consumed above high protein or vegetables. Bread often made from rye and porridges made from various grains became staples in the Russian diet. Other cereals, beans, lentils and peas were also important foodstuffs, as were beetroot, cabbage and mushrooms.
Another Russian culinary tradition can also be attributed mainly to the climate, namely the zakuski table which became popular during the 19th century. This is similar to the Swedish smorgasbord. Filled savoury pastries called pirogi are another central part of Russian cuisine. They differ from English or French pies and petAs en cro[currency]te in that the encasing dough is made from a light yeast paste.
The fillings range from sauerkraut to sturgeon marrow, but the most lavish pie of all kulebjaka contains salmon. It's layered either with cooked rice, Smolensk buckwheat or, as in today's recipe, with a semolina mixture similar to the one used for Italian gnocchi. Although a competent amateur cook will easily be able to make it, you will see from this week's recipe that it takes long and painstaking preparation. Well, what else is there to do on a cold winter evening?
Serves 4-6INGREDIENTS700g salmon filletSalt and pepper300g salmon bones, skin & trimmings100g butter150g sliced mushrooms1 finely diced onion50g semolina5 hard boiled eggs600g brioche dough or rich short crust made with self-raising flour6 very thin pancakesFresh dillParsleyBeaten egg
METHODCut the salmon into small cubes and season.
Pour 300ml water over the bones, boil, simmer for 20 minutes and strain the liquid.
Sautee the mushrooms in a third of the butter. Soften the onions in a third of the butter.
Bring stock to the boil again, add the salmon and poach till just done.
Rain the semolina into 250ml of boiling, salted water. Add the rest of the butter and stir till the semolina has cooked. Cool. Stir a little of the stock into the semolina and then the onions.
Roll out the pastry to about 30cm x 35cm. Cover a third of the pastry with pancakes, leaving 1cm free around the edges. Sprinkle parsley and dill over the pancake.
Layer the kulebjaka with semolina, salmon, mushrooms and egg. Pack it quite tightly, sprinkle with more dill and parsley and cover with the rest of the pancakes. Fold the rest of the pastry, back over the filling and seal the edges. Brush with egg and make a hole for the steam to escape.
Bake 40 minutes at 170C, gas mark 3.