A complicated story of one salad
Being an ex-pat in Brussels you're sometimes surprised how much all European nations have in common. In terms of cooking your findings can be even more astonishing, you discover that one dish can 'travel' to and from being transformed with national and regional variations, appearing here and there with slight or major changes, whereas the heart of it stays the same. Writing this post I discovered what Poland and Belgium have in common and even though you would have never imagined an answer, it is fairly simple: a Russian salad.
National pride - a Polish (?) salad
I'm a huge fan of traditional Polish cuisine, it's hearty, flavoursome, fragrant and nobody makes sausages and cold cuts like the Poles do! The only thing you cannot not say about Polish dishes is that they're light. In fact, it's better to stop counting calories before you are invited for a traditional Polish feast.
That said, you cannot find too many salads in the menu, but there's one that you find across the tables during all the feasts starting from weddings and finishing with religious holidays. When I was a kid my mother referred to it very often as 'The salad'.
'The salad' was the centre of our family celebrations and I would never have thought it was not Polish, but one sunny relaxing day during my studies in Greece I was faced with the reality. Out of pure curiosity I ordered a Russian Salad in a restaurant. Leaving all the stereotype animosities between the Poles and the Russians behind I was astonished when I immediately recognised the look and the taste I've known so well since my childhood - 'The salad' cannot be Russian! It's Polish!
The story behind the salad
I had forgotten about it for some years until last week when I felt homesick and the ingredients in my fridge almost shouted 'Polish salad'. While eating my creation I felt eager to finally solve the mystery of its origins.
Grouse, veal tongue, caviar, lettuce, crayfish tails, capers, smoked duck and a mayonnaise-based dressing. That's as much as we know about the original ingredients of the salad. However, the exact recipe still remains unknown. It was invented in 1860s by a Russian chef of a Belgian (!) origin, Lucien Olivier, who was tsar's cook as well as the owner of the noted Moscow restaurant - the 'Hermitage'. The salad prepared at the beginning for the tsar himself became quickly restaurant's signature dish. The key to its popularity was Olivier's secret recipe dressing prepared in solitude every evening. As we all know, friendship and business don't go well together - one day Olivier's sous-chef and friend, Ivan Ivanov, attempted to steal the recipe while Olivier was called away from his preparation room on an emergency. Soon after that event Ivanov left the Hermitage and started working as a chef of Moskva restaurant where he was serving strangely similar salad under the name 'The Capital Salad'. Some say that Ivanov sold the recipe to the editors as well (what an ass!).
Salad more effective than a revolution
After 1905 Russian aristocrats banished from their homeland popularised the dish in Western Europe - you can find its varieties almost in every cuisine. Its expensive and hard to find ingredients like grouse or veal tongues were replaced or completely removed. Every country adjusted the recipe according to its own taste, ingredients and food traditions - Spaniards introduced tuna, red pepper and green olives, the Greek version contained beans of some sort, whereas the Bulgarians added salami or ham. Actually, the sole ingredient that still remained the same in all the variations and which is still the link with the original recipe is the mayonnaise dressing.
And finally a Polish salad again...
After a long introduction, I'm inviting you to try the Polish version of the salad. It's definitely worth it! Especially during autumn, the season of domination of root vegetables.