Many familiar foods did not exist in Europe before contact with the New World, notably potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and corn. The main crop for Novgorod was rye, planted in the winter, and barley, planted in the spring. Wheat was a luxury, because it was only grown further south.(1) The region's mean summer temperature of 63 degrees limited both the length of the growing season and what could grown.(2) A stretch of bad weather at the wrong moment could ruin the year's crop.

The threat of famine was always present. A famine in 1215 forced Novgorodians to eats bark and sell their children into slavery, and in 1230 the city was racked once again by hunger. A dramatic description of the latter famine can be found in the Chronicle of Novgorod, dated 1230:

"...some of the common people killed the living and ate them, others cut up dead flesh and corpses and ate them, others ate dogs and cats...Some fed on moss, snails, pine bark, lime bark, lime and elm leaves and whatever each could think of..." (3)

Another risk was ergot, a fungal infection of the cereal crop which poisoned those who ate the grain.(4) Despite frequent famines, diseases, and the impoverished selection of raw materials typical of all Northern Europe, the cuisine of Rus' was nevertheless hearty and varied.

Arriving guests were welcomed with bread and salt at the door. Bread, in especial, has long been a sacred food in Russia. Grains were the most important of staple foods. Rye was used not only for bread, but for gruel, porridge, and pancakes. Oats, though grown mostly for horses, also fed humans. Barley and millet were minor crops, and wheat a rarity. Breads were cooked slowly on the surface of the stove, while pancakes were pan-fried. Hemp and flax seeds provided cooking oils.(5) Special events and feast days were honored with refined breads made with honey and poppy seeds.(6) Pies, called pirogi, are mentioned twice in period sources.(7)

Foods were prepared simply. Meals were served in turned wooden or ceramic bowls, plates, and goblets. It is likely that even in an affluent home several people shared each dish. Domestic meats included beef, mutton, pork, goat, chicken, duck, and goose. In addition, Novgorodians and the Rus' were intimate with animal resources of the forest and other wild lands. Game meats were part of the staple diet. The Testament of Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh records this vigorous prince hunting European bison, elk, stags, bears, and boars.(8) The Rus' ate all these and nearly every other animal available including rabbit, pheasant, partridge, thrush, blackbird, quail, and lark. Certain Old Testament dietary restrictions derived from the Book of Leviticus were part of Orthodox Church doctrine. Meat and milk were not eaten together. Birds and other animals killed in snares or strangled were not eaten. Beavers and squirrels were proscribed as vermin. The church forbid believers to eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. During the 1200s, these church doctrines probably were not rigidly enforced. The Orthodox Church was still struggling against lapses well into the 1500 and 1600s.(9) Secular limitations on meat consumption resulted from hunting restrictions on noble's lands. Given the relatively small population and vast amount of land, this would only assume great significance in later centuries.

Fish provided an important food source. It offered a significant alternative to meat on the nearly 200 church-imposed meatless days per year. Fresh water fish were abundant. Commonly eaten varieties included sturgeon, beluga, whitefish, pike, perch, pikeperch, bream, sig, and smelt. A 16th century source mentions 35 species of fish. Besides being eaten fresh, fish was salted, smoked, and dried. Dried, powdered fish was used for stock.(10) Smoked salmon was a trade item, and caviar was also known.(11)

Garden plots were part of every household and wild greens were close at hand. Turnips were an important staple, playing the role later taken over by potatoes. Other vegetables which fed Novgorod included cucumbers, lentils, beets, carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic, peas, and beans.(12) Soups probably abounded. Vegetables were served raw in season, while in the colder times of year marinades sufficed. Fresh and dried fruit were available-cherries, apples, plums, pears, raspberries, and black currants-as well as raisins, currants, and prunes. Berries were preserved with honey for use in the winter. The collection and consumption of mushrooms and fungi is an ancient Russian vocation. Fungi were also preserved dried, on a string. Almonds and walnuts have been found among imported luxury goods.(13) Dried figs, preserved lemons, and salted nuts may also have been imported. Olive oil is known to have been imported into Russia,(14) while eggs and dairy products were readily available.

Survival depended on successful food preservation. Salt was key to this process and an elaborate economy flourished around the salt trade. Novgorodians used salt to cure fish and meat. They used brine to pickle cabbage, cucumbers, and other vegetables.(15) Special items, such as oak leaves and black currants, were added to these pickles for flavor and texture. Although the traditions of smoking and pickling began as a way to extend the variety of foods during lean times of year, they came to be valued for the flavors they imparted to foods.

Travel being slow and difficult, there was no telling when visitors would arrive. In later times the Russians solved this with the tradition of zakuski-a Russian version of the smorgasbord. We don't know if this practice goes back to the 13th century, though some modern authors claim it was brought to Novgorod by the Vikings.(16) It is tantalizing to imagine a spread which was to be consumed over several hours. Among the period foods which were later used in zakuski we find breads, mustards, horseradish, smoked and salted fishes including herring, salted cucumbers, preserved meats, ham, eggs, radishes, sausages, and marinated mushrooms.

We are on safer ground reconstructing the Novgorodian feast. Then as now, Russians equated hospitality with abundance. As is true among hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies today, people were physiologically adapted to boom and bust cycles-periods of plenty alternating with famine. In good times, people put away as much as they could. Eating prodigiously at feasts was the norm.

Hosts exhorted guests to eat and drink repeated toasts. Alcoholic drinks known to the Rus' included mead; kvass, made from fermented rye bread; kumiss, or fermented mare's milk, known since Scythian times; and barley beer. Of these drinks, mead appears to have been most important. Prince Vladimir provided 300 kettles of mead for the dedication of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in the 10th century.(17) Mead came in several varieties including sweet, dry, and pepper.(18) Drinking was central to the Russian character of the time. The Kievan Prince Vladimir, who converted the Rus' to Christianity, rejected the Islamic missionaries on this ground alone. "Drinking, he [Vladimir] said is the joy of the Ruses. We cannot exist without that pleasure."(19)

Drinking horns and goblets are mentioned in the chronicles. Feasts could become boisterous, brawling affairs as noted in the Novgorodian poem, Vasili Buslaev, which describes a fete in the prince's courtyard:

"...He set out the table of oak
He spread it with sugared food
He spread it with honeyed drinks
With mead which was quite mellow
He rolled out casks into the fortified courtyard
Eat your fill of my food
And drink yourselves drunk on my drink
Only do not take to quarreling among yourselves..."(20)

Of course slaves, serfs, and peasants would not have been so lucky. Domestic meats were luxury goods, taking five to ten times as much energy to produce as cereals. The staple foods of the poor were likely the coarser millet, barley, and oats. Kvas was the drink of the peasants. Depending on availability of time and land the lower classes could supplement their diet with garden vegetables, wild plants, and game.


(1)Thompson, pp. 87-92.

(2)"Novgorod," Encyclopedia Britannica (1973)16: 684

(3)Riha, p. 39.

(4)Smith, p. 8.

(5)Ibid, p. 5, 22.

(6)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 307.

(7)Ibid, p. 306.

(8)Cross, pp. 214-5.

(9)Smith, p. 12.

(10)Ibid, p. 10.

(11)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 307.

(12)Ibid, p. 109.

(13)Thompson, p. 22.

(14)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 307.

(15)Smith, p. 27.

(16)Nicolaleff, p. 26. "Zakuski...were brought by the Ruriks."

(17)Cross, p. 121 (992).

(18)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 308.

(19)Cross, p. 97 (983).

(20)Riha, p. 63.

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