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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cabbage Smell Signals Winter Fast and Feasts

Depending on your taste, the smell of Russia is either a disgusting or addictive bouquet of car fumes, papirosy smoke and cabbage. The sharper noses among you may have noticed that last week there was an increase in the proportion of cabbage in this particular cocktail.


The Russian Orthodox Church has just celebrated pokrov, a feast connected with the veil of the Virgin Mary. The scarves with which Russian women modestly cover their heads in church are a reminder of this protecting veil.


The feast also happens to coincide with the cabbage harvest, when Russians stock up on this vital vegetable for winter. For religious believers, the cabbage is especially important, for it is one of the few foods they are able to eat during the long fasts before Christmas and Easter.


In Soviet times, cabbage season was dreaded by all students because they were obliged to spend the start of the autumn semester helping the collective farmers bring in the crop. Now the farms use paid labor.


Last week, a distinct aroma of cabbage drifted out into the corridor from the apartment of my friend Natalya Zaitseva, who lives in the little town of Kolomna, 100 kilometers southeast of Moscow. She had been up early to buy cabbages from the back of a farm truck and, with the help of a neighbor who loaned her his car, brought home three sacks full.


In Kolomna, the administrative center of a mainly rural district, cabbage costs 700 rubles (13 cents) per kilo this year. In Moscow, it is selling for up to 4,000. Many people in Kolomna are unemployed because the vast machine-building factory on which the town depended is standing idle. Natalya heard, as she was waiting in line to buy her supply, that many locals were surviving by dragging sacks of cabbage on the elektrichka -- suburban railway -- up to the capital.


"Just imagine," she said, "they have only one minute when they get to Novaya station [on the edge of Moscow] to unload all their sacks before the train leaves again."


Natalya is not quite pressed for time but still she must work effectively, dealing with all the cabbage she has bought before it starts to rot.


For a start, she makes a big pot of shchi, or cabbage soup.


"Every Russian housewife has her own recipe for this," she says. "To a Russian, shchi is almost sacred."


The rest of the cabbage will become kvashennaya kapusta, similar to sauerkraut, and if made properly, it will last all winter.


"You should really have a wooden barrel but I will use an enamel bucket," said Natalya. "You slice up the cabbage, add a little shredded carrot for color and salt the mixture. The salt brings out the juices."


For strict religious believers, who must abstain not only from meat but also from milk products and sex during the Orthodox fasts, kvashennaya kapusta is one of the few pleasures of life left to them.


Natalya is not especially religious, although a little icon hangs in her kitchen. Like millions of other Russians, she is just poor.


"The cabbage will be an essential part of the family diet this winter," she said. "We can't afford juice but we'll still get our vitamin C."