By Clara Delcroix
Eastern European cultures are somehow intertwined, and that’s also true for their Christmas meal. In Paris expats find most of their food in supermarkets, but also in Eastern European groceries.
On the front of the building, the printed matryoshka and golden and red Slavic ornaments make no doubt: here is the Eastern European grocery of Paris 11th arrondissement. Pushing open the door, it’s entering of whole different world of flavors. The space is cramped; It’s hard to walk between the racks of canned food, biscuits and vodka, around freezers filled with dumplings and ice cream. On the wall, a glittery garland surrounds a winter scene. It’s already Christmas here, although Orthodox celebrate Christmas three weeks away, on January 7.
Irina enters the shop with her child, Anton. She is wrapped in a long grey plush coat. She’s been living in France for 16 years, and for her, Christmas here is no more different than Christmas back home, in the Saint Petersburg area: “We don’t lack anything. We find everything.” Another client, Elvira, agrees with her, she explains that traditional Russian dishes are made “with simple ingredients: cabbage, potatoes, meat, sour cream, fish (salted herring), honey, black tea, and so on.” All of which you can find in normal grocery shops. And that’s also true for other Eastern European cuisines, which tend to overlap as many of those countries were part of the USSR, or under soviet influence. Gabrielė comes from Vilnius, Lithuania. The 28-year-old learning support officer at the OECD states: “It’s possible to find everything you need in Paris. For instance, beetroots – super easy to find.”
Nevertheless, not all the food is available in French supermarkets. That’s why Irina needs to come to Slavmarket, the Eastern European grocery. She points to the pelmeni (Russian dumplings) in the freezer: “This, for example, we don’t find in big supermarkets.” She turns back, looking in the fridge: “Mayonnaise is different too.” In Russia, this mayonnaise is an essential ingredient for Christmas salads, like the Olivier, a mixed vegetables and sausage salad named after a French cook, or Shuba, also called “fur coat salad”, as the herring is hidden under grated vegetables “furs”, such as beetroot, potato or carrot.
Looking at the clients strolling in the narrow alleys, Marina stands behind the cash desk. She opened this shop seven years ago. Eastern European countries’ history is somehow intertwined, and during soviet time it was very easy to travel between them. Originally Marina comes from Belarus, near the Polish border. Her mom is still living there. But her grandparents were Polish, therefore she has Polish origins and her family celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December. She explains that some of the traditional delicacies are sold in cans. Leaving the cash, she walks to a hidden corner of the shop and takes one can out of the rack: “That’s for makowiec for example.” This Polish cake consists of rolled brioche dough filled with poppy seed.
Yesterday the shop-owner received a letter from Belarus: Christmas wafers sent by her mother.“We call it oplatka. It’s flour and water. When the first star appears in the night sky on Christmas Eve, the Christmas meal can start, and the first thing to be shared is this wafer”, she says. In Paris, oplatka are not sold in Eastern European groceries. According to her, the only place where you can find it is the Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, a catholic church near Concorde subway station.
But some of it doesn’t exist at all in Paris. In Lithuania, the tradition is to put 12 plates on the Christmas Eve table. Each of them contains a different dish. Like Polish, Lithuanians don’t eat meat on that day, and they try to avoid dairy products if they want to stick to the old traditions. The 12 meals differ from family to family, but one of the meals is usually kūčiukai. Gabrielė would miss it here. The small poppy seed pastries are sold in all groceries in Lithuania during Advent. But for the two years she’s been living in Paris, Gabrielė has “never seen them anywhere”. Another tricky one would be silkė (herring), the traditional fish eaten on Christmas Eve, as the meal has to be meatless.“My French is limited, I’m not sure I can find this exact fish. Moreover, in Lithuanian shops, it’s prepared, ready to put on the table. Here you can surely find the fish, but then you have to prepare it yourself”, she says.
Another common dish for Christmas in Eastern Europe is kissel, a kind of soup made with fruits or grains. Marina’s mother makes one with oat and dried mushrooms. But Marina doesn’t know how to do it herself. She also remembers sushki from home, crunchy sweet bread rings. “We sell them here. Traditionally you soak them in a sweet water and poppy seed mixture. My mom makes this mixture herself, I don’t.” The same liquid is usually served with Lithuanian kūčiukai. Even if Eastern European cuisines are similar in some ways, Marina tells: “Traditional Christmas meal differs… Each country, each region, it’s different.” They differ, for sure, but the Eastern European grocery seem to reunite them all.