There is a lot of talk about ‘borscht’ these days, how to make it, what ingredients to put in, where the sourness comes from, beetroot or no beetroot – there are so many variations.
The truth is that borscht is used throughout eastern Europe and beyond. I can’t do it more justice than this article in the New Yorker Magazine https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/let-me-count-the-ways-of-making-borscht. It is written by Olia Hercules, the author of two cookery books about Ukrainian and Georgian cuisines, which have so many similarities to the Romanian cuisine.
Romania with the Black Sea stood as a gateway between the Middle East – with its flourishing trade, the former Roman Empire- that was slowly disappearing into different countries busy to build themselves an identity, and the Central Asian trade routes.
It is no wonder that this country became a melting pot of culinary traditions from all over the continents. The Slavic heritage of the country gave us one of our staple ingredient: the borscht.
I am saying ‘ingredient’ because it’s not the actual beetroot soup that we all know. In Romania, borsch (without the ’t’) is an ingredient used in clear soups called ‘ciorba’ and in stews. Therefore, a ‘ciorba’ made with ‘borsch’ can be a meatball soup, a vegetarian soup or a fish soup. The important thing is the addition of borsch.
Basically, borsch is the fermented juice of wheat bran. In Moldova, like Olia says, they use maize. In cities, where millions of people were packed in blocs of apartments, not every household made their own. Word of mouth went around about certain women with magical ‘powers’ who made the perfect borsch: not too sour, with just the right hint of sweetness, pale green in colour and with golden reflections.
As children, we used to be sent by our mums to buy ‘borsh’ from these talented women, if you were lucky enough to have one in the neighbourhood. You took an empty milk glass bottle (always glass, not plastic), knock on the door, go in and wait patiently to be poured 1l of borsch. You didn’t even have to explain why you were there. In the hallway, you could see huge jars of fermented wheat bran waiting to reach the right fermentation level and to be strained. The left over bran was used to start a new fermentation process. A bit like we do with the sourdough starter.
250g wheat bran
2 slices of white bread
1 bunch of parsley
Prepare the starter, 1 day ahead: soak 100g of the wheat bran together with the slices of bread in 200ml of cold water. Cover with clingfilm and set aside at room temperature for 24 hours. You will see a slight fermentation at the top, which is perfect for the net stage.
In a 5l jar (ceramic or glass) put the fermented mix and add the rest of the ingredients as listed above. Keep at room temperature for 2-3 days. You will need to stir it every day and let some air in.
After the 3rd day, you should see a separation of the bran layers and the borsch- a pale yellow-green watery layer that tastes sweet and sour. At this stage you don’t need to stir it, just strain the borsch into bottles, and keep in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.
Use it to flavour soups and stews, and when making the borsch with meatballs here.