BLOG Jane MacNamee

NWR Issue 121

Borscht Without Tears

Beetroot_Photo by Ulada/Shutterstock

Phil and I were making the most of the late summer sun. There was a ripple of autumn through the salty evening air, but it was still warm enough for one more meal cooked out on the patio, the tide coming in. We had fresh mackerel on the barbecue, with potatoes fried in chilli flakes and a beetroot salad I’d made with different varieties from the farmers’ market. I’d spotted them immediately, bunched together on the edge of the vegetable stall in jewelled clusters of ruby, gold and amber, under a thin coating of crumbly soil – I had to have them.

Some deliciously sweet, others with soft, smoky or even sour undertones, with names like Robuschka, Touchstone Gold, or the lavish pink and white candy-striped Tonga di Chioggia, fresh beetroots don’t need ‘dressing up’. That night, I simply peeled, sliced and layered them carnelian around the plate with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Listening to the fish sizzle over the fire and looking down at the salad on the table, glowing through a veil of rosemary-scented smoke, I thought about my father. He had a knack of dropping in like that.

My father loved his food, and his enthusiasm for it delighted me. Occasional food shopping trips with him on a Saturday morning, when Mum needed some extra provisions , were a highlight of my early childhood. She would issue us with a list promptly lost or abandoned before we got to the supermarket, either somewhere on the dashboard or amongst the collection of various receipts and strips of paper that provided extra lining in my father’s jacket pockets – a habit I have inherited and failed to break, adding snack wrappers to the mix.

Without the list, we shopped by instinct and Dad’s magnetic attraction to the cold meat and cheese counters, and the condiment aisle. Spectacles raised to his forehead, he made meticulous studies of different brands of wholegrain mustard, horseradish, piccalilli and his favourite – pickled beetroot, all kinds: sliced, whole and crinkle cut. Returning home with a selection of goods vaguely resembling my mother’s request, we’d reward ourselves with beetroot and crisp sandwiches, assembling the ‘ingredients’, as though they formed a closely guarded culinary secret, in a corner of the kitchen. There were certain unspoken rules for their construction: a thick layer of butter first, on both halves of dense, rubbery white bread that left your fingerprints in it when you pushed down just hard enough not to break the surface. That was followed by a generous overlapping layer of sliced beetroot, then as many crisps as possible (preferably ready salted), before crunching it all together in a ruddy mess of sandwich, crimson juice oozing from the edges, savouring the heady tang of vinegar with every bite. I cherished those rare and simple private moments with my father as much as the evenings we played duets on the piano, finding a wordless harmony that seemed to suit us both.

A few years later, my parents separated and my father left the family home, returning only once more one afternoon, to load the car with the last of his things, glancing back at me watching him silently through an upstairs window, before he drove away, saying nothing. I rarely saw him by myself after that other than pre-arranged lunchtime meetings of measured informality near his office in London. But Borscht ‘n’ Tears is one restaurant I’ll never forget. I had never eaten borscht, nor tried any other Russian cuisine, and was intrigued by the menu in an alphabet indecipherable to me but which opened countless doors to other, mysterious worlds and flavours. Dad and I settled in at our table, the whole interior of the restaurant looking like a warm blanket of deep red, from the rich textures of the burgundy flock wallpaper to the velvet seats. A single candle on every table illuminated varnished wood and the faces of other diners in the mellow light. The soft conversation, a gentle brook of sound, was sophisticated and reassuringly familial all at once. I wondered who they were, what their families were like, who were the businessmen and women, and the tourists – where had they come from, where were they going? Like the alphabet and the menu, they fed my curiosity for different cultures, landscapes and people, other ways of living, being and communicating with or without language – lives which seemed at such a far and exotic remove from the strictures of my suburban upbringing.

Whilst my memory of the precise detail of the meal has faded, the name of that restaurant lodged in my mind, perhaps because those lunchtimes were as precious as they were painful. I knew my father wasn’t coming home again, knew we wouldn’t be playing the piano together anymore, and that he always had a business meeting to attend to in an hour or so, elsewhere. But in my young teenage mind, he was still my infallible oak, the one I clung to as a five-year-old, the one who made me feel safe, and if this was as close as I was going to get – that was good enough for me. It sustained me long after the solitary train journey home and the barrage of questions from my mother when I walked through the door: Where did you go? Who else was there? Did he ask about me?

As an adult, choosing to live at a long distance from our old family home, I developed my own passion for cooking, thanks mainly to the boundless energy of a senior warden I worked with in a youth hostel in north Wales. He taught me that mountains and good food were both nourishing and deserved equal respect. I was introduced to seasonal vegetarian cooking and recipes that strode boldly out of the ‘special diet’ box confined to the bottom corner of British menus at that time. Soon after, I started making borscht.

Reading up on the heritage and subtle regional variations of the soup, I found that most included meat, particularly beef, or, if they left the meat out, stressed the importance of a good meat stock. The success of a vegetarian version hinges on a high quality vegetable stock, beetroot as fresh as you can buy, the addition of a spot of yeast extract and the magic ingredient – cider vinegar. Experimenting over the years with soup recipes from innumerable books, I’ve come to find my own way of preparing it, impossible to write down as every batch is different, depending on the nature of the beetroot, the stock and the time of year. Whenever I make it, I savour the sweet earthiness as it simmers, playing around with the amount of vinegar to get it ‘right’. I’ve made it as a Christmas treat, as a starter for a friend’s hen night menu and christened the white kitchen walls of a newly rented flat with it, when the hand blender got out of control. It’s hard not to smile when offered a ruby bowl of it, as luxuriant and comforting as the restaurant I remember. I only wish I could have made it for my father.

I’ve heard people say that when someone dies, loved ones can identify the ghost of the deceased in the gait, clothes or gestures of others. And so it happened for several years after my father died suddenly from a heart attack aged only sixty-two, whilst on holiday with his second wife and his mother in 2002. I saw him everywhere in the town where I’d started working, although he had died a year before I moved there and had no connection to the place. I’d spot him walking out ahead of me at the train station with a load of bulging files in a tattered leather briefcase; catch the strong profile of his nose waiting in the queue at a newspaper stand; or see him, hurrying along, late, smoothing down wisps of grey hair and shoving scraps of paper back into his pocket. One Saturday morning in the local supermarket, whilst I was hovering over the root vegetables deciding whether I was going to make salad or soup, he came and stood right next to me. Our hands moved towards the globes of beetroot at the same time. Everything about him, was Dad. Convinced it was him, my hand started trembling, wanting to touch his. I stopped myself, pulled back and, looking round nervously to study his face, found that he had gone. Again.

With these sightings, some welcome, some disconcerting, I asked myself whether it was because he’d died so suddenly that he hadn’t fully left us yet and kept popping up every now and then until he was ready. Or, possibly, my heart was struggling to keep pace with the sudden shock of his death, leaving me floundering in the shallows, too terrified to face the deep chill of the vast ocean ahead of me. Either way, he was taking his time, which was the general approach he took to life, and had advised me from an early age, quite wisely, to do the same.

As I recalled those episodes that night, now seventeen years after Dad’s death, Phil listened kindly, without interruption. If he’d heard it all before, which is likely, he didn’t show a hint of impatience and there was something different in the telling this time – I was smiling. I imagined Dad here, sharing this with us. He would have loved sitting out in the sun, eating mackerel, enjoying a glass of wine. I could hear his laugh, see the familiar way he would tilt his head back when something amused him – a laugh that sent joy skyward and shared itself so generously with those around him. I felt his presence that evening without the tears. We raised a glass to him before we left the patio, the light of the setting sun catching the lacy silver patterns of the slugs and snails who share this home with me, weaving their own slow, wordless stories.

Jane MacNamee lives on the coast, at Aberystwyth, and writes on nature, food and travel. She is working on her debut collection of essays.


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