Above: One of the finest meals presented to us, prepared by my mother’s godfather’s granddaughter, who visited us in the US in the early 1990’s. Her grandfather was very close with my grandfather, as they emigrated to the United States together through Germany, during and after WWII.
Between Amsterdam and Lviv, Lael and I dined and drank almost exclusively on the ground. We purchased food in markets and in small town shops, and ate in parks and high atop hills. We pointed at cheeses and meats and pronounced new words to taste the local flavors, ranging from fresh cheeses to the popular packaged snacks of the country. In each place, we discover favorite in-season produce, packaged cookies, or alcoholic libations. Cheeses and sausages change subtly between places, but they change. Wine gets better or worse, depending upon your proximity to France, Italy, and Spain; while vodka gets better depending upon your proximity to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Belgian and German beers are the best, while the Czech brands are also among the best, perfect for an afternoon in the shade.
In Ukraine, our patterns changed. We left our bikes for a period of ten days to travel by rail, bus, and foot. We visited family, dined in restaurants, and picnicked on overnight trains. Most all of this time, we ate in chairs at tables. Most impotently, we often dined with the guard of a local cook, ensuring a uniquely Ukrainian experience. In Ukraine, we were served horilka (vodka) at breakfast, although we declined. We experienced the season in which trucks loaded with watermelons from the coastal plains of the Black Sea flood the countryside with produce. We tasted caviar from the Caspian and homemade wines from grapes grown overhead. We ate familiar and unfamiliar things, discovering that many of the things we prepare for ourselves as Ukrainian-Americans is outdated, regional, or most likely reserved for special occasions. As anywhere, we discovered a food culture which is far greater than the summary of a few popular dishes.
From my time at the Ukrainian table, both at home with my grandparents and in Ukraine, I know that simple handmade food is best. In Ukraine, family-style dining is the only style. Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bread, kovbasa, and maslo (butter), are good for you.
While in Ukraine, I stood on chairs at every dining table I visited. I photographed markets, picnics, parties, and farms. We dined in homes with family, and prepared simple meals while traveling by rail. These photos are the result. This began as a simple project to reveal several memorable and picturesque table settings. It has become a broad catalogue of our time in Ukraine, and the relation of people and food and family. It is an exciting reminder of where we are headed in a few weeks.
We begin by visiting my grandfather’s family in Bershad, near Vinnytsia. There is a great market in Vinnytsia, adjacent to the train station.
Lunch, times three. As guests on my birthday, we received overflowing hospitality.
When visiting, sometimes you need a snack between meals.
And a snack between snacks. When you want to be the best host that you can be, food is essential. In a country that has experienced shortages and hunger, food is one of the most important things you can give.
Traveling to Kyiv, thanks to my cousin Yaroslav. A meal appears out of the trunk of the car.
Visiting Olya, my mother’s godfathers granddaughter in the suburbs of Kyiv. Another birthday cake, this one is the popular Kyivski Torte, most notably manufactured by the Roshen chocolate and confections company owned by recently elected President PoROSHENko.
At the B&B in downtown Kyiv, probiotic yogurt, coffee, rolls, and fruit make a nice breakfast. Kyiv is a world away from life in the village. They might as well be separated by 80 years.
Dining out is the only time we received individual plates of food, although we applied family-style dining rules.
Great handmade varenyky and bliny at the Pecherska Lavra monastery.
Picnic on the train, more Euro than Ukrainian.
Chai, almost always plain black tea, is common. How many scoops of sugar do you want? They will look at you strange if you say none. Some use enough sugar so that the spoon will stand up.
In Stakhanov, in the far east, we visit my grandmother’s family. We arrive to a refreshing lunch outdoors in the garden.
They don’t buy the wine and horilka, but make it at home and reuse old bottles. The woman in the green dress is like a great-aunt to me, and is reported to have a small business selling homemade horilka. She’s got to be sure to test her product for quality, even at lunch.
We enjoy a late dinner outdoors after taking Zhenya to see his first movie at the theater in town. It is watermelon season, for sure. Trucks line the roadsides selling melons from down south.
The next day is structured around a meal at another house down the street. The table sits beneath a trellis of grapes, next to the root cellar, amidst drying sunflowers. These people are hardly farmers, but they grow most of their food.
And make their own drinks to enjoy.
Back to Kyiv, via Kharkiv, on the train. A quick snack in the train station. Trains operate at maximum occupancy. While many facilities and trains are old, the stations are gorgeous thanks to Soviet spending.
Take-out in Kyiv, including traditional Ukrinian dishes and a French baguette. Incidentally, it is harder to find tradtiionaf food in Kyiv than is it to find some more modern international offerings. Sushi is immensely popular in the city right now.
Leaving my parents and my family behind, Lael and I train back to Lviv, to ride our bicycles into the Carpathian Mountains. We stop in Striij to rejoin Przemek. He’s already made friends in town. In fact, he’s made a lot of friends.
Darts, once the meal has subsided.
And a little homemade juice for the road. Thanks Djorka!
Into the moutnains, we stop at a small farm which serves simple meals.
Down the road while filling water at a mineralic spring, we are invited to stay with Pavlo and his wife at their summer dacha, about 25 miles up the road. We arrive to a hot meal of stuffed peppers. They live full-time in Ivano-Frankivsk, and are lucky enough to have a small summer home in the mountains.
The most typical Ukrainian breakfast includes buckwheat, prepared with a fried egg and a pickle in this case. Black tea starts the day.
While cycling in the mountains, we encounter a couple of young Ukrainian bikepackers. We share a picnic outside a small shop including pickled fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and chocolate.
Returning to Striij, we enjoy one more meal with our friends. We peel potatoes, cut watermelon and salo (pork fat), and sit under a starry sky. Nights like this are validating and encouraging, despite occasional challenges on the road.
Food in Ukraine largely comes from close to home.
Just out the door.
In the garden.
Or out in the fields.
Drying for later use.
Underground for much later.
Brought to the table bit by bit, until hopefully, the next harvest has arrived to replenish the supply.
From local markets.
Selling goods from distant regions.
Or from local producers, selling goods which may be transported around the country, such as these wines from Crimea.
And horilka, this one made with buffalo grass to produce a lightly sweet flavor.
In shops it is not uncommon to see an abacus in use, although it appears there is a calculator in case the abacus fails.
On the trail, it is hard to ignore this bounty of apples.
Or these honeys and nuts being sold on the roadside.
In Crimea, samsa serves as fast food, sold from this wood-fired drum by the roadside.
It is less than three weeks before our discovery of food continues in Eastern Europe. Oh, and there should be some good riding along the way.