A Taste of Home: A North Ossetian New Year’s Eve Feast | Jenny Holm

from Gastronomica 13:4

Stepping from the stuffy Soviet-era train to the snow-dusted platform below, I fill my chest with a welcome breath of mountain air laced with frost and cigarette smoke. The white caps of the Caucasus rise into a dusky gray sky. Swarthy men in fur caps offer their hands to kerchiefed women disembarking from the train. For a moment I imagine myself the heroine of a pre-revolutionary Russian adventure novel, here at the edge of the empire for the first time. “Come on,” Yulia shakes me abruptly out of my reverie, pulling both me and her suitcase toward the station. “We’re going to be late for dinner!”

New Year’s Eve is just a few days away, and Yulia has invited me to accompany her for a weekend of celebratory feasting at her late father’s childhood home in Vladikavkaz, capital of the southwestern Russian province of North Ossetia.1

The region occupies a tiny swatch of rumpled land in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains, which span Russia’s southwestern border from the Black Sea eastward to the Caspian. Just across the border lie the Republic of Georgia and its disputed territory of South Ossetia, which has been occupied by Russian troops since a days-long war in August 2008.

Yulia grew up about three hundred miles northwest of here in a city of about a million people called Krasnodar, located a two-hour drive inland from the Black Sea coast. I met her at the local university there, where I was studying on a fellowship and she was finishing her undergraduate degree in English and German translation. She lives with her Ukrainian-born mother on the outskirts of the city, in a small apartment on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. Years ago, before he died of an illness I never asked much about, her father lived there, too. The rest of his family stayed in Vladikavkaz, and now Yulia travels there from time to time (to “Vladik,” as she calls it affectionately) to visit her Ossetian relatives and to connect with a part of herself and her heritage that she can’t find in Krasnodar.

The mountains over Vladikavkaz provide a magnificent backdrop to what might otherwise be a drab-looking city, with its blocky concrete hallmarks of Soviet officialdom and self-built homes hidden from view by solid metal gates that line the side streets. Yet the name of the town bespeaks a different past: it means “to rule the Caucasus” in Russian, and reflects its founding as the first fortress from which the Imperial army launched raids to subjugate nearby highland peoples under tsarist rule.2

Read more

A Taste of Paradise | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 12:1

When talk turns to chocolate, Tobago rarely jumps to mind. But this small island off the Venezuelan coast was once home to dozens of thriving estates planted with indigenous Criollo cacao trees. Though Criollo beans are celebrated for their rich, complex flavor, they are highly susceptible to disease. Most of Tobago’s Criollo trees were lost to a devastating blight in 1727, nearly ending the island’s cacao production. Within a few decades, the heartier Forastero variety was introduced to Tobago’s sister island, Trinidad, where it mingled with the remaining Criollo trees to yield a natural hybrid called Trinitario.

By the early twentieth century cacao—Trinitario, in particular—was Tobago’s leading agricultural commodity. The King’s Bay Propagation Station offered small farmers subsidies for clearing their land and provided seedlings for planting. The island even had a cooperative fermentary. Then, in 1963, Hurricane Flora ripped through Tobago, destroying not only most of its cacao trees, but also the coffee, banana, and coconut plantations so crucial to Tobago’s economy. The hurricane, arriving not long after Tobago’s independence from the U.K., prompted the new government to turn its back on the country’s agrarian past and embrace an economic future based on oil and natural gas. By 1970, Tobago’s rich history of cacao production was a thing of the past.

Duane Dove’s ancestors came to Tobago from Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century. As a young boy Duane had worked on his family’s cocoa estate. At six hundred meters above sea level, the property looks out over the island’s beautiful rainforest and to the Atlantic Ocean beyond. After Flora’s devastations, the family abandoned the plantation. Duane eventually left the island to attend culinary school in Canada and train as a sommelier. He began to specialize in the pairing of fine rum with chocolate, which got him thinking about his family’s abandoned cocoa estate. When he returned to Tobago for a visit, he found the property overgrown with bamboo, an imported tree whose sticks the local farmers used for training yam vines on the island’s steep, terraced hillsides.

Read more