Mixing in many circles in London since I left university has taught me many things about life and what certain types of people do. One thing I know is that those who went to public school generally have a gap year in South East Asia. I on the other hand did not go to public school; rather my gap year was in Siberia.
Why you may ask? Well, why not? I spent 6 months in the city of Novosibirsk working in an orphanage in 1996. My parents knew this would be very challenging for me as I grew up on a beautiful farm in the middle of no-where in Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland I can assure you it did make me grow up, and fast, parents know what their offspring need and mine was no exception. Was it cold in Siberia? No, it was the summer and 42C. To get to Novosibirsk I travelled to St. Petersburg and from there took the Trans-Siberian Express for 4 days. I would love to extol the virtues of this epic train journey as Michael Portillo in his recent BBC 2 series talked about the Great Continental Railway Journeys, but I can’t. You see, the Iron Curtain had just fallen, the Russia was still rather sensitive and all I could see looking out of the window for 4 days were pine trees, we passed through the Ural mountains over night as we passed from Europe into Asia, I saw nothing or nada as the Russians would say.
Many things struck me about Russia, the opulence of the Hermitage, the size of Red Square, the queues for the only McDonalds in Russia and the amount of freshly cooked food. I spent 6 months living with a Babushka, she spoke no English, I spoke no Russian, and it’s amazing how one can communicate with a little practice. Every morning I was served the same breakfast, it was called ‘Kasha’, roasted buckwheat porridge. I was never particularly enamored with Kasha, it repeated all day, sort of like kippers do for breakfast. Lunches and dinners would always be casserole or cabbage soups, of which the famous Borscht is only one variety. An interesting ingredient I discovered that seemed to be in every dish was Smetana – a thicker variant to our soured cream that was used as a garnish, in baking, in cooking. Not forgetting the sour cucumbers, and believe me, they were toe curling sour.
Siberian culture was rather strange to me. The house I stayed in had no bathroom, daily visits to the sauna or ‘banya’ were horrendous. Boiling hot communal sauna, where you were whipped with willow branches to improve circulation, a jump into a cold pool and back into the sauna. Mum and dad, thank you for sending me on this experience, waking up at 4am to herd cows that had broken out of the field on a wet January night was far superior to this. The advantage to growing up where I did was no matter how cold and wet it was outside, no matter what time of day or night one could always find warmth and comfort at our then 2-Oven British Racing Green AGA. Our AGA did not have a name; neither did our Massey Ferguson tractor, but both worked equally hard for the McIntosh family. Mum now has a beautiful cream AGA Total control.
One of the first things I was taught to cook were dropped scones. A hallmark of any AGA cooker demonstration. On one of those nights when I could not sleep and felt the concept of counting sheep felt very 1980’s in concept I added up how many dropped scones I had made in my 10 years of AGA demonstrations. It was well into the thousands. It’s just a matter of mixing the ingredients together into a batter and pouring a little with a spoon onto a lightly oiled Simmering Plate, turning with a palate knife once bubbles appear and cooking for a few more seconds. When cool, top with Smetana or soured cream, some caviar and fresh dill sprigs. Caviar was a little out of the price range for Babushka so we had strawberry jam.
So thank you mum and dad for sending me to Siberia you knew how get me the experience I needed for life by sending me north of Outer Mongolia to learn how to make dropped scones, a skill that forms part of my income.