Maslenitsa is an ancient Slavic celebration still popular in Russia. It’s a lively, joyous occasion, symbolizing the departure of winter and the coming of spring. Each day has its name and traditions. For example, Tuesday is called "zaigrysh," when people ride on sleighs and sing songs. Long ago on this day, people walked around town dressed up and wearing masks, and had concerts at home. On Friday, it was customary to visit your mother-in-law for bliny.

The weeklong celebration saw merry-making, people sledding down hills, and mock battles. Everywhere you could see lavish tables with marvelous foods and delights. It was thought that everyone had to eat as much as possible because the somber and austere period of Lent followed Maslenitsa

You could light a big, wood-burning samovar right on the street, and all around people made pies and bliny with all sorts of snacks and flavorings, served on colorful plates. Sure, bliny were the main treat, but there were many other tasty dishes.

The festive table

During Maslenitsa it was customary to prepare fish in all forms: baked, boiled, stewed, and even as jelly. To make the jelly the fish's head and fins are used to make a strong, aromatic broth. Then the fish pulp is placed onto a glass dish (perch, pike or sturgeon will do) along with the broth, fresh herbs and boiled carrots. The jelly is cooled for several hours, and is served with horseradish and kvas.

Traditional Maslenitsa pies had a wide range of stuffing: a honey-nut mixture, salted mushrooms, viziga (a string extracted from a sturgeon's spine), sugarless cottage cheese pasta and berries. The table also had to have sour cream, cottage cheese, eggs and cheese. These just happen to be the ideal component for vatrushkas and syrniks

Vatrushka is pastry with quark filling baked in an oven or stove. Syrnik is a type of cheesecake made of flour, cottage cheese, eggs and sugar that are fried in a pan. Since ancient pagan times another culinary tradition and symbol of imminent spring were the delicious buns made from yeast dough in the form of birds, the "larks," which are heralds of winter’s end.

Vzvar and sbiten to keep you warm 

Source: Shutterstock / Vostock-PhotoSource: Shutterstock / Vostock-Photo

People traded in outdoor markets during Maslenitsa, and to stay warm one could try and buy tea infused with herbs. Vzvar is a hot, thick compote made of berries, fruit and honey. It is usually brewed from apples, pears, prunes, cherries and raisins with a small amount of starch and ferment. Sometimes it is infused with honey and medical herbs. In general, in ancient Rus' all thick gravies were called vzvar, but sweet ones were prepared particularly for Maslenitsa.

Maslenitsa merrymaking was usually on the street, which is why besides tea you could buy other types of warm drinks. One such popular drink was sbiten, which is similar to mulled wine. The name derived from the word "sbivat'" (to churn). The drink was prepared in two different containers — in one honey was infused, and in the other herbs. Then they would be mixed together.

Sbiten is brewed with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and bay leaf, and then boil the water and honey with the spices for 10-15 minutes. Finally, let it cool for 30 minutes. It is customary to drink sbiten hot. Not only does it warm you up, but it’s also an excellent means for preventing colds. 

In the old times sbitenschiki would walk around the streets selling hot sbiten from a special container called the sbitennik, which resembled a samovar. There were also "sbiten booths" where one could buy the drink. The booth had a big window that served as a counter, and each vendor had his own recipe. Some added St. John's wort or sage; while others added black pepper or mint.