A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure

By Darra Goldstein

Olearius' text
Olearius’ text
(Wiki Images)

In 1635 the German scholar Adam Olearius (1599-1671) set out on a journey through Russia, down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Persia, part of an embassy sponsored by Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who hoped to negotiate an overland route for the silk trade. Tsar Mikhail I had granted permission to travel through Muscovy, and Olearius later wrote a lively account of his travels,  offering commentary on the lands and their people, their mores and habits. [1]  He devoted several pages to the Russian love of drink:

“The vice of drunkenness is prevalent among this people in all classes, both secular and ecclesiastical, high and low, men and women, young and old. To see them lying here and there in the streets, wallowing in filth, is so common that no notice is taken of it…None of them anywhere, anytime,or under any circumstance lets pass any opportunity to have a draught or a drinking bout” (Baron, p. 143).

Olearius went on to note how Russians dealt with alcohol’s aftereffects by preparing a dish called pokhmel’e, which takes its name from the Russian word for “hangover”:

“The Russians prepare a special dish when they have a hangover or feel uncomfortable. They cut cold baked lamb into small pieces, like cubes, but thinner and broader, mix them with peppers and cucumbers similarly cut,[2] and pour over them a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and cucumber juice. They eat this with a spoon and afterwards a drink tastes good again” (p. 156).

When I share this recipe with my students, their reaction is generally “Ewwww!” But just think about it: savory roast lamb, pungent pepper and crisp cucumber mixed into a kind of salamagundi with a sharp, sour tang the Russians love. Olearius did not share this appreciation for hearty foods. Noting that “They are not accustomed to tender dishes and dainty morsels” (p. 155), he damned the Russian delight in pungent alliums:

“They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s place in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little” (pp. 156-157).

Adam Olearius
Adam Olearius
(Wellcome Library)

Yet even as Olearius disdained the lingering smells, he recognized the wisdom of Russia’s homeopathic cures: “In general, people in Russia are healthy and long-lived. They are rarely sick, but if someone is confined to bed, the best cure among the common people, even if there is a high fever, is vodka and garlic” (p. 162).

Although seventeenth-century Russians did not understand the science of metabolism, they certainly knew what made them feel good. The dish pokhmel’e is a case in point. The high protein content of the lamb surely boosted energy, while copious amounts of pepper would stimulate the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid, thereby aiding digestion and easing the upset so common in hangover sufferers. Most crucial to the recipe, however, is the brine (rassol) that results from the traditional Russian method for making pickles. Cucumbers are brined in a salt solution, which initiates malolactic fermentation, a process with many health benefits that the Russian peasantry instinctively understood when insisting on something sour with each meal. Thanks to its high proportion of electrolytes, pickle brine can reduce hangover symptoms by mitigating the dehydration caused by alcoholic overindulgence.

Russian Boyars
Russian Boyars
(Library.ru)

The malolactic fermentation of traditional Russian pickle making also creates what we today call “probiotics”—microorganisms beneficial to the digestive system. These microorganisms were the focus of research by Russian biologist Ilya Mechnikov, whose work led to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908. Could Mechnikov’s interest in the properties of lactic acid and its effect on the gut have been stimulated by the culture in which he lived?

Pickle juice gained modern fame in 2000, when the Philadelphia Eagles football team won handily over the Dallas Cowboys in blistering heat after drinking pickle juice before the game—no Eagles player suffered the crippling muscle cramps that benched many Cowboys. As for hangovers, it has taken the West nearly four hundred years to catch up with the remedies Olearius described. Only recently has The Pickleback become popular in bars: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. In this trendy drink we can perhaps see a modern version of the pokhmel’e the Russians understood long ago.


[1] Offt begehrte Beschreibung der newen orientalischen Rejse (Schleswig, 1647). The book was soon translated into several languages and appeared in an expanded version in 1656 (Vermehrte newe Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reyse). John Davies of Kidwelly made the first English translation: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia (London, 1662). The Russian portion of the journey appears in a modern English translation by Samuel H. Baron: The Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth-century Russia (Stanford UP, 1967).

[2] The original German is translated into Russian as igral’nye kosti or “dice,” a finer degree of chopping than cubes. “Peppers” should appear here in the singular, as “pepper” (Russian perets), in reference to the aromatic spice. Bell peppers, a New World plant, arrived in Russian in the late sixteenth century, most likely via Constantinople, but they did not become widespread for at least another century. Thus the passage in English should more properly read: “…mix them with cucumbers similarly cut and pepper…”.

Introduction: “Russian Recipes” at the July Recipes Project

By Clare Griffin

Dear Readers of the Recipes Project Blog,

Earlier this year I was asked to put together a series of posts on Russian Recipes. But how to introduce the posts to help non-Russianists grasp them? Through all the organising and writing of this ‘special edition’ of the Recipes Project, this has remained the hardest thing to pin down. What, fundamentally, were the central aspects of early modern Russia, and how to do them justice in one introduction?

My solution is the following brief travel guide for the curious visitor to Russia c. 1690. Hopefully this will provide a useful introduction as you peruse our featured posts on “Russian Recipes” this month.

L0004274 Map of Russia lent by Dr. Schuster.
Russia in the Early Modern Period
(Wellcome Images)

Location:                                         

Although having its roots in the early Medieval princedom of Kiev, by the early modern period Russia meant a tsardom centred on the more northerly Moscow, hence its other early modern name, Muscovy, although there was a large and growing empire far to the east of that city. Travellers arriving after 1703 would be more likely to head to the new capital of St Petersburg, modestly named after the reforming Tsar Peter the Great.

800px-Russian_Empire_1745_General_Map_(HQ)
The Russian Empire, 1745
(Wiki Images)

Laws:

Staying within the bounds of local law is key to any successful journey, and early modern visitors to Muscovy had to bear some important points in mind. Movement across the borders and within the country was strictly controlled, and documentation was necessary to avoid arrest. If you were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had to take care not to have roots or herbs on your person, as those could be cause for accusations of witchcraft.  Although there were many foreigners in Muscovy, interaction between them was not always encouraged; if you were a foreign visitor, Russian servants would not stay in your house overnight, as you were considered to be a heretic, and excessive contact with you was thought to be dangerous.

The Population:
The Russian population was distinguished in several ways. In terms of dress, Muscovites wore traditional clothes; as a visitor, you would have stood out!

Bojaren
Russian Noblemen
(Wiki Images)

Russians rarely knew foreign languages, although this was changing throughout the early modern period, as increasing numbers of “boyars” – as Russian nobles are called – kept collections of foreign books alongside other exotic foreign objects such as clocks.

Russia was not as culturally homogenous as you might think. Several courtly families came from outside the Moscow lands, including from Kazan’ and from the Georgian royal family. Outside of the court, the atmosphere was even more mixed, as the empire encompassed various races, nations, languages and religions, who were mostly left to their own devices, provided they paid their taxes on time.

There was also a thriving foreign community in Moscow, with merchant strongholds in Kholmogory and Archangel, the most important port. These communities dated back to the 1550s, when English merchants accidently found the northern coast of Russia while searching for China. Although the English were dominant for some decades, the Dutch and the Germans also had a significant presence in Moscow, where they had their own churches and community activities. Some people even put on amateur performances of Western European plays in their own homes.

Sight-seeing:
There were many wonderful sights in early modern Russia.

Ushakov's Archangel Michael and the Devil
Ushakov’s Archangel Michael and the Devil, 1676
(Wiki Images)

Early modern Russia was a very religious society, and churches played a large role in Russian life.  Services could go on for several hours. Churches and monasteries were also used in religio-political ceremonies, such as when the Tsar paraded through the streets of Moscow. Icons were similarly important. If you were an early modern visitor to Russia, you might be lucky enough to see the work of the great seventeenth-century Russian icon painter, Semyon Ushakov.

If you ventured outside of Moscow, you could have visited many wonderful sights in the early modern Russian Empire. To the East and South, you could have travelled to the towns of Kazan’ and Astrakhan, both former khanates but a part of the empire since the sixteenth century. You might even have gone on to distant Siberia!  Although partly used to exile prisoners, Siberia was also valued for its wildlife.  Siberian furs fetched high prices in Western Europe.

We hope you enjoy your visit to early modern Russia!

Posts in the series: 

What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russiaby Carolyn Pouncey

A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure, by Darra Goldstein

How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia, by Clare Griffin

A Modern Culinary Manuscript from Russia’s Ural Mountains, by Aleksandra Ippolitova

Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History, by Elena Smilianskaia