Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trail Food on Chatyr Dag

Recently after a truly glorious--though exhausitng--11-hour hike on Chatyr Dag mountain, I wrote this blog post for The Pickle Project. Here it is in its entirety because at the moment I am too lazy to edit it!
One of the things that has amazed me about food in Ukraine—and continues to amaze me after three years of living here—is how Ukrainians never hesitate to turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.  Weddings, holiday gatherings at work, birthday dinners at home, relatives visiting, breaking of religious fasts, guests from a different country—the list is endless of the opportunities to turn a typically “good” meal into a true feast.
But nowhere do I see this phenomenon so dramatically as out on the hiking trail. More than once I have been travelling with a group of Ukrainians, carrying all of our food and water on our backs, only to sit down for lunch and watch them pull out a vast array of differentdishes to share with everyone—a true trailside banquet. This past weekend was a case in point. My hiking partner, fellow Crimean Peace Corps Volunteer Cheryl Pratt, and I joined with our newest Ukrainian fellow hikers for a day trip into the Crimean mountains. Our group was composed of: Lilya, a young woman who works at my library; Anton, a young man we met on our last hiking trip (where he helpfully guided us back to the right trail as we had gotten a bit lost); his mother Olga, an attractive, very fit looking woman in her forties who works as a psychologist in two local schools; and two individuals we met on the trolleybus on the way to our starting point—Pavel, a 60-something TV technician, and his 13-year old son, Boris. Pavel had heard Cheryl and I speaking English on the trolleybus while looking at a trail map. He gave us lots of friendly advice on future trail possibilities, and then askedif he and his son could join us that day. But, in truth, we ended up joining them. Pavel turned out to be a very experienced hiker and had been on the mountain many times and knew the correct route (which I was a little hazy about). We also realized he was an excellent English speaker, a rarity in a Ukrainian of that age. He told us that in his earlier life he had been a professor of English at a local university.
As we began the long trek up to the high plateau of Chatyr Dag (“tent mountain” in Crimean Tatar), Pavel pointed out the vegetation along the way, frequentlygiving us the Russian, Latin, and Crimean Tatar names, and told us some of the history of the area --how the plateau was at one time used as a pasture for Crimean Tatar shepherds and later Soviet collective farms--and also how to find some of the fifty caves located on the vast plateau. What a wealth of information he had, and oh so wonderful, he spoke English and I could understand him!
After struggling up some very steep inclines, we finally reached the plateau and made our way to the lowest of the two peaks on Chatyr Dag, marveling at the views all around us as we were on the second highest mountain in Crimea. To the south was the Black Sea, to the east and west the peaks and plateaus of the Crimean mountain range, and far to the north, the city of Simferopol.Somewhere in those distant northern ridges wasmy village of Ak Mechet, where I so frequently gazed at this very place we were standing on.
The fog from the sea rolled in and out, temporarily obscuring our views and the warmth of the sun. This sea fog is the reason that the Crimean mountains, though not high, are considered dangerous, as the frequent and sudden fogs result in several deaths every season when inexperienced hikers become lost and stumble over the steep precipices on the edges of the mountain plateaus.
Deciding to take a break after our steep climb, we all settled down on the soft carpet of alpine grass and got out lunch. As usual, Cheryl and Ipulled out our standard lunch fare—cheese, bread, hard boiled eggs, cucumbers (in season now), apples, and cookies. Pavel and Olga, however, had other things in mind. First, Olga got out a flower print plastic tablecloth and spread it on the ground. Then she started hauling out food from her and Anton’s backpacks: a plastic container of cheese pancakes (made from the local cottage cheese called tovorg which is frequently sweetened with sugar); another container of cutlets (ground meat mixed with onions and herbs and fried in the ubiquitous sunflower oil);a large bag of cucumbers; bread (“baton” in Russian, what Americans call French bread);  pre-made sandwiches (egg salad I think) on two types of bread, white and dark; and apples and juice. Pavel added salo (cured slabs of fatback, an Ukrainian national food)that he cut into small pieces with his hunting knife, fried pieces of fish, and “blinchikis” (thin crepe-like pancakes wrapped around some kind of filling) filled with a meat/spice mixture that was quite tasty.
Both Olga and Pavel assured us that all the food was “domashne”—made at home from scratch, as it always is in Ukraine. Pavel even made sure that we knew his mother (whom I’m thinking must be at least 80) made those blinchikis. And also, as always, food was brought to share and in large quantities and was laid out in the middle of the tablecloth where we all gathered around and chose from the many offerings.
 I think about our typical American hiking lunches—each individual having their own sandwich and maybe an apple and a couple of cookies (something I have learned NOT to do here in Ukraine)--and think, “yep, these Ukrainians really have this food thing figured out.” What a wonderful meal in the middle of what turned out to be a long and arduous hike. It provided nourishment for our bodies and also a chance to share with other people, who before that day were mostly strangers, the fruits of our labor.
Rested, satiated, filled with the pleasure of eating delicious food surrounded by the beautiful scenery of Crimea, we were ready to trek on to the highest peak on Chatyr Dag, a few kilometers away, and then down and across the lower plateau to our final destination of the village of Perevalnoe and the trolleybus back to Simferopol. Daylight had faded by the time we arrived in the village after our 11-hour hike, but despite our tired and sore bodies, I think we were all filled with wondrous memories of the day and the gladness of finding new friends to share it with. And of having eaten some really good food.

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