“Pokhlebkin and the Soviet Union are dead, yet Borshchland lives on. Recipes, like birds, ignore political boundaries … The faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam off bowls of beetroot and cabbage in meat stock, and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and, in emigration, from Brooklyn to Berlin.”
When I first had a decent job and, therefore, a decent thickness to my wallet, I made a big switch in my life. Saturday night still meant going to see the latest Truffaut or Godard flick but after the film I also added a European influence to my palate. No longer did I head for a diner for my chips and gravy. For a buck or two more I could go to an Eastern European café for Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian or Russian delicacies, for dishes that had never touched my tongue before in my life.
It wasn’t long after I discovered these charming restaurants that I discovered the charm of borscht. I always liked beets, especially jars of pickled ones with some old Cheddar. So it was just natural that I’d like borscht. I liked saying the word. I liked that I knew how to spell the word (including a couple of variations). I liked that it was sweet and sour at the same time. I liked the baggy pants comedians who played The Borscht Belt. And I liked the expression “cheap like borscht” and overused it.
Those Eastern European cafes closed their lace curtains for good long ago. To be replaced mostly by fast food franchises. So I hadn’t had borscht for a long, long time. I hadn’t seen it on a menu for a long, long time. Until I saw it on the menu at Verintort.
I didn’t even know it was on the menu at Verintort for a long time. For I never looked at the menu at Verintort. Only at the glass display case that housed their superb pastries. Then it was simply a matter of humming and hawing for a few seconds…no make that more like a few minutes…finally choosing and paying, and walking up Codo trying not to get the cream on my beard.
Maybe Verintort didn’t even sell borscht when they first opened but now they do, along with some classic noodle dishes like pelmeni and vareniki that also take me back to my coming of age in the world of international cuisine.
“You pop your head in the door on Calle Codo, and the world is transformed.”
The very camera-shy Vera Khrolenok said that. Vera is the chef/owner of Verintort. Vera is from Uzbekistan. About all I know about Uzbekistan I learned from an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations from about ten years ago. But I do remember Anthony Bourdain liked Uzbekistan and he liked the food.
I remember the first time I personally popped my head in Verintort I liked it. Because it looked so much like those Eastern European cafés in Toronto where I took the first women who infatuated me. Where we over-intellectualized the not-really-so-deep meanings of those new wave films. Over pirogies, cabbage rolls and napoleons.
There are similar paintings on the walls. There are similar flowers on the tables. There are the matryoshka dolls that I discovered in John Le Carre novels and now stand in line on the shelf at Verintort. And there’s the borscht.
That delightful quote I began with is from James Meek, in an article called “The Story of Borshch” that appeared in the also delightful Guardian.
Vilyam Pokhlebkin, the person mentioned first in the quote is the person who did more to document Russian cuisine than anyone. In The Cuisine Of Our Peoples (now there’s a Russian title), Pokhlebkin writes, “One could understand and forgive foreigners for calling borshch a Russian national dish, but when it turns out that they gleaned the information from Soviet cookbooks or from restaurant menus, one is embarrassed.”
Pokhlebin traces the origin of borscht not to Russia but to Ukraine (I hoped it would be Uzbekistan to add a little more local flavor to my Verintort story). The original soup was not made with beets but, according to Wikipedia, “Borscht derives from an ancient soup originally cooked from pickled stems, leaves and umbels of common hogweed, a herbaceous plant growing in damp meadows, which lent the dish its Slavic name.”
So how does someone from Uzbekistan end up in San Miguel de Allende? Vera Khrolenok’s story isn’t all that much different from mine. And maybe yours.
“At the end of the last century I moved to Russia. From there to Spain and then to Mexico where I have been living for ten years.” said Vera. “I liked San Miguel at once.”
“Only in San Miguel can you find the inspiration and courage to open a European-style cafe in the heart of Mexico and have it be successful.”
Vera’s borscht is one of many reasons for Verintort’s success.
There are two types of borscht, hot and cold, and Vera Khrolenek makes both. I still remember my first ever cold borscht. It was the first cold soup I ever ate. Before vichyssoise and before gazpacho. How continental, how cosmopolitan, I thought.
Verintort’s cold borscht is vegetarian; their hot borscht is not. Which is probably why the hot is my favorite. It has a nice hint of beef bouillon and a touch of cabbage but the dominant flavor is still those beets. I also like my borscht in the style that Campbell’s calls chunky. And Verintort’s is with lots of dice-sized cubes.
There are two things that borscht should be topped by, dill and sour cream. The dill comes automatically. The sour cream comes on the side because sour cream is apparently an acquired taste (that people should acquire immediately with borscht). There is also some hard to find and easy to dunk rye bread. Plus there is a green salsa but I don’t know why, other than almost everything in Mexico comes with a green salsa on the side. Ignore it.
I mentioned earlier that Verintort has some good noodle dishes (and some very good beef blinis). You shouldn’t have them though if you’re having the borscht. Because you then probably won’t have room for dessert and Vera’s Russian…or perhaps Ukrainian…or perhaps even Uzbekistanian…pastries are still the stars of the show.
I’ll leave you not with my words about Verintort but with Vera Khrolenek’s: “There are hundreds of places to eat but nothing like this!”
Verintort Café is located at Codo 20 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.