Blog, Peace Corps, Recipes / Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

Let’s take a few steps backward and talk about Peace Corps, it’s been a while and I’m feeling nostalgic. If we go back six years, I would be in the summer of my second year in Ukraine. Likely packing for baseball camp in Khmelnitsky or Camp Excite somewhere in Sumska Oblast. My days would be mostly free, and it would be hot. Much of the time would be spent in my apartment with the drapes drawn closed to keep it cool. I didn’t have air conditioning nor a fan. It was far from unbearable. 

On a near daily basis, there would be a moment in the afternoon where I would decide it was time for some exercise to get me out of the apartment. I’d pull on shorts, a shirt, and shoes and head out for the city center, a 25-minute walk on a hot day. Often, I’d catch up to Lyuda or run into her as she was returning from the city center. She had the same thought I did, it was time to get out of the apartment.

Usually what I did was head to the supermarket, Fora, to buy a Snickers or a chocolate dipped pistachio ice-cream cone with caramel in the center, or get some item for dinner. Really, the shopping is how I justified getting out of the apartment more than needing exercise. Don’t expect me to explain my logic. 

Sometimes, on the good days, there would be a trailer pulled off the road to the sidewalk. It would be big and yellow with red lettering on it. The trailer had a big yellow tank on it. The letters would read КВАС. That was a good word on a hot day. It translates to kvass. And what kvass is is hard to translate.

The story I’ve been told is that kvass was made in Ukraine back when it was safer to drink a prepared beverage than water from the ground. It’s a fermented drink with similarities to beer, but far lower alcohol content and a unique brewing process. The story also included all the health benefits of the wondrous drink and how those who drank it became strong as a result. This is typical with something Ukrainians call their own, claiming the amazing health benefits of things a person with an American school system education would raise an eyebrow at. I don’t care how many people say it to me, сало (salo, pig fat) has no health benefits.

Few a few hryvnia, you could get a cold fresh cup of it to drink. 

Kvass is made by fermenting bread alongside some fruit. It creates a complex, sour, sweet, rich, and potent flavor that is very hard to put into words. It is also not one of those drinks you’ll have once and fall in love with. For me, it took a year to find one that made me a convert. In that way, it is much like beer. And like beer, there is good kvass and bad kvass, commercially made and craft brews. If you’re in the position to try some kvass, I highly recommend it but do not make a judgement until you’ve tried a few different ones. 

Since leaving Ukraine for Wisconsin summers, I’ve been drawn back to recreate as much of it as I can every year. I go on deep dives, trying to recreate all the dishes and see the people who were there with me. And a staple of these deep dives is kvass. 

There is a Russian store in town and I can buy kvass from them for a few bucks for a liter and a half but it isn’t worth the money for it. It’s the commercially produced stuff that is more sugar than anything else. So, I resort to making my own. For the past few years I have been using a recipe Lyuda had sent me, originally in Ukrainian but translated to English via Google Translate. In short, it was not an easy to follow recipe and my results showed it.

Then, last year for my birthday, I treated myself to a Slavic cookbook, Kachka. It took me six months to see if there was a recipe for kvass in it and sure enough, there is. I decided this would be the recipe I followed to make kvass this year. Vetted by a chef! Written in a book! English!

Surprisingly, the recipe was far simpler than the one I had been using and was ready far sooner. It involved drying rye bread, soaking it in hot water, straining, soaking again, adding sugar and yeast, let sit, and bottle with some raisins. All of this, in roughly a day. But how did it taste?

Better than I’ve had. Sweeter, richer, creamier than I’ve experienced in kvass and all in a good way (though I’m going to try for a bit drier of a kvass next time I make a batch).

I did make a mistake during the process. I had received some growlers from a coworker before she moved away and I had received an industrial pressure cooker/autoclave from my father-in-law. After sterilizing a growler and letting it cool, I was antsy to fill it up with the kvass. But I filled it too soon and the yeast was still producing significant gas. In the morning, I tried to open the growler to taste only to find out the thing was ready to blow and spray my precious drink all over. After trying to think of a solution for a day of work, I decided the best bet was to freeze the growler so I could open it without the liquids exploding out. Then, the gas could be released slowly as the frozen kvass melted. It mostly worked.

Here’s the thing. Remember the whole health benefits of kvass hooey I talked about above? I buy into it now. Let me back up for a month.

At the end of May, I had some sort of back spasm or related problem that put me on the couch for a couple days and required me to move around with a cane. I saw a few doctors and was prescribed some drugs which helped the immediate pain go away but I still needed to go through a course of physical therapy to retrain my body. But after that first week, it felt like my progress had plateaued. I was working hard to get things back on track but it wasn’t doing it for me.

Then I drank my homemade kvass and I woke up the next morning and felt far less pain. Surely it was not whatever had been done at physical therapy the previous day, no, the only explanation was this miracle elixir. I know I might sound like a sudden crazy person, but I’m not! If anything it has been a long, gradual process.

Go out, find some kvass and drink it! You’ll love it (or maybe not) but you’ll wake up with the strength of ten Ukrainian men.

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