Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Farmland of my Roots and its Vinegret

My farming ancestors came to Canada from Russia in the 1890s and, ever since I was a child, I dreamed of visiting their village on the Dnieper River.
That opportunity came in April. Despite the conflict between Ukraine and Russian separatists, which is unfolding east of the Dnieper, I made a trek to the little village once known as Klosterdorf.

It was also a journey into the history of wheat. Some 2,500 years ago, farmers along the Black Sea – from the Danube to the Dnieper and beyond – supplied wheat to ancient Greece and Rome, neither of which could grow enough grain to meet the essential bread demands of their populations.

The shores of the Black Sea are dotted with the ruins of Greek colonies such as Histria in Romania and Olbia in Ukraine, both of which I visited on my way to Klosterdorf. Beautiful pottery, delicate glassware and gold coins on display in the archaeology museum of Odessa paint a picture of a prosperous agricultural society on the shores of what the Greeks called the Hospitable Sea.
Fast forward to the 1770s. The Russian army captured the area from the Ottoman Empire. Czar Catherine the Great invited farmers to return to the land and they did, from all over Europe, including my German ancestors.

A century later, the port of Odessa handled 40 percent of Russian’s grain trade. No doubt, some of that grain was grown on the fields of Klosterdorf.

Today, Klosterdorf is no longer a place on the map. It has been amalgamated into a larger village called Zmiivka, Ukraine. That was my destination as I boarded a dusty bus on a sunny spring day in April along with my husband, John, and an English translator named Viktorya.  

The old bus rattled down the country road, gears grinding and shocks falling flat. Apple trees were blooming and the young wheat was green. On either side, the fields were so wide and flat and straight to the horizon it reminded me of home, where I grew up in Saskatchewan.

We had not gone far when Viktorya began chatting up the old women at the front of bus. They laughed, flashing gold teeth and peppering her with questions about our venture to the village at the end of the road.
Before long, we had been invited in for tea, given a brief history of the village and pointed in the direction of Naberezhnaya Street, which was in former times the main street of Klosterdorf.

It looked as it might have a century ago, long low cottages on tidy lots that run perpendicular to the road, hens in the yard and laundry on the line. Gardens were turned and ready for potato planting. “We love our potatoes,” one lady told us through Viktorya. “Without potatoes we would probably starve.” Hmmm, reminds me of my dad.
Another old-timer recalled a little German church at the far end of the street, but it’s gone now. Most of the German settlers left long ago. Today, Zmiivka is better known for its Swedish settlers who have maintained some ties with their former homeland.

From a high point on the street, we had a spectacular view of the Dnieper by which grain was transported in former times. The river has been dammed downstream, flooding some of the land once associated with Klosterdorf, but it presents a picture of a contented and self-sufficient village that time forgot.

We wandered back to the bus stop with time to sit and have a cool drink outside the little grocery store, where the clerk calculated our purchase on a wooden abacus. A curious gentleman sat down and asked our story, what had brought us from Canada to Zmiivka, which Viktorya related to him.

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said. “When I look at your face I can see your ancestors.”

This beet and potato salad is ubiquitous in Ukraine and a favourite in my kitchen back home in Canada.
Vinegret
2 potatoes
2 beets
3 carrots
2-3 dill pickles
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper

Boil potatoes, beets and carrots separately until cooked. Cool and peel. Chop vegetables and pickles in a small dice. Mix with onion, oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)