Investigating why Russian people sniff bread while drinking vodka offers a portal into the realities of Russian life at a time when sympathetic cultural insight is sorely lacking.
“Somebody in Bristol started making a vodka called Novichok,” said our host, Natasha Ward, faux-scandalised at the reference to the toxic nerve agent. “And they were immediately told, ‘Stop it at once!’” She laughed as she finished setting the table for the day’s gathering in her home in South London, introducing the dishes as one might introduce guests at a party. “We start with herring, salted, not pickled – English people hate beetroot because they’ve only ever met it in this horrible vinegar, and those rollmop herrings that look like corpses, you know?”
Ward is a master of moving between cultures. She’s half-Russian, half-English, and has worked as an interpreter for such diverse parties as the United Nations, Angelina Jolie and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today’s task – explaining exactly why Russian people might sniff bread while drinking vodka – may not be quite so starry, but it does offer a portal into the realities of Russian life at a time when sympathetic cultural insight is sorely lacking.
To armchair observers, relations between Russia and the West currently seem cartoonishly chilly; there was more than a touch of Cold War frost to recent news reports about the Russian and American withdrawal from a nuclear weapons treaty, the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings in the UK and, of course, the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“We were happy when the Russian football team finally lost,” said Anna Ivanov, while her husband Misha shrugged. Anna and Misha are the parents of Ward’s best friend, Helena Bayliss, and the couple moved here from Russia 20 years ago when their daughter married an Englishman. “When the team were winning, there was so much hot air in everything the media said. The mouth didn’t shut for a moment!”
“Now,” Ward said, “which vodka shall we start with?”
The choice was impressive, as it should be. Russia, after all, is the birthplace of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the Periodic Table and is also said to have perfected the recipe for vodka as strictly 40% proof (a popular myth but a fun story). Accordingly, Ward offered fiery pertsovka vodka made with chillies, plain Russian vodka, vodka made in Newfoundland as part of a new venture by Hollywood actor Dan Aykroyd and homemade limonaya (lemon) vodka. “This is actually medical alcohol which is 95% proof,” said Ward matter-of-factly, “which you then water down, half and half, and add lemon.” Moonshine, in other words? “No, if it was moonshine we’d have to have a still.” Bayliss started laughing. “Natasha, you disappoint!”
Our little company was assembled for two reasons: firstly, to have a convivial time; and secondly, to get the bottom of the Russian vodka ritual – a time-honoured tradition that has social drinkers sniffing bread in the name of propriety.
To begin, both the vodka and the glasses were retrieved from the freezer, and Bayliss outlined the essentials for drinking vodka, Russian-style. “Vodka should be cold, glass should be tiny and there must be something salty, or rye bread, to follow,” she said. “There’s no point in drinking vodka and following it with an eclair, it doesn’t work”. “Or,” added Ward, “God forbid, following it with nothing!”
The freezing temperature of the drink is a no-brainer; it sends the shot down the throat more comfortably. “It’s not something you sip and savour,” Bayliss said. So why do people drink it? Her mother laughed. “Well, the afterwards, the glow!”
The glow, in fact, is how I first encountered the Russian bread-sniffing ritual. Ward is the mother of my best friend Marsha, and as wayward teenagers, Marsha and I were more than happy to sit in on the gatherings her mother held following her work trips to Russia, the table heaving with exotic booze, salty pickles and black bread. We would watch Ward and her guests laughing, telling tall tales and – crucially – munching on snacks immediately after knocking back shots of vodka. When the guests’ appetite had been amply satisfied – but the toasting continued – they would give the bread a quick sniff after downing their vodka shot, in place of eating it. We were transfixed.
Two decades later I saw the ritual again, this time on primetime television. In an episode of Netflix series House of Cards, the Russian president dines with the US president, and he demonstrates how to drink vodka like a Russian – with sniffs and all. It’s a complicated, theatrical process on the TV show, and not necessarily accurate (“You wouldn’t do that with a posh guest!” Ward exclaimed), but the sharp inhalation is clearly there. Articles were written in response to the episode, suggesting that bread is sniffed to soak up the alcohol and offset the taste of the vodka, while the salt and acid in Russian pickles – like the ones on Ward’s table – help neutralise the alcohol.
But according to Ward and her friends, the ritual is not merely medicinal, it also serves a social function; by eating or sniffing bread after the shot, you’re demonstrating that you’re not just knocking back vodka to get drunk. “If you don’t have something to chase the vodka with, like a piece of salty bread or some herring, or, even better, caviar, then you do the sniffing,” Bayliss said. “It’s symbolic.”
Ward agreed: “The sniffing only happens if you’re too poor to have proper food.” Or, of course, too full. Indeed, if you only had a small amount of bread at a gathering, you’d pass it around the table so that each guest could smell the bread in turn.
And if you don’t have any bread at all? “You sniff your sleeve!”
Accordingly, we took the first shot of the party: Misha made a gracious toast, the ice-cold vodka slipped down smoothly and we followed it with a big bite of black bread and butter. Several drinks later, and quite merry, we each tore off a piece of bread and gave it a good sniff.
There are firm rules, then, regarding how one drinks vodka in Russia. But equally important is why one drinks vodka. In Russia, it’s a supremely social activity; Russian parties take place around the table, and drinking should be a group activity, never a private pleasure. The zakuski (snacks) are there to be shared, and you must help yourself, not wait to be offered. Ward even shared an apocryphal Russian story about two American spies drinking vodka; their cover was blown by the fact that they were not chomping zakuski as they drank.
Then there’s the act of toasting itself. Misha was animated and emphatic about its significance. “If you drink, you need to say something!” he said. “It’s not like [in England], where everybody sits in his corner. We are together! So there needs to be something for everybody. It helps people to feel that they’re united.”
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, toasts are such elaborate affairs that professional toasters may be hired for special functions. Russian toasts, by contrast, are simple – at least, that’s the idea. That day, enthusiastic toasts were made for our meeting together, for the beautiful women at the table and to the health of the Queen. Misha led the toasts and everyone followed with a hearty ‘Poyekhali!’ (‘Let’s go!’), as popularised by the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who exclaimed it when his spacecraft took off in 1961.
Clearly, Russians have a deep affection for vodka. Even the name of the drink is endearing – ‘voda’ means water, and ‘vodka’, its diminutive, translates to ‘little water’. But there is a dark side to drinking vodka in Russia, too. Historically, alcoholism has been rife in Russia, and vodka (or whatever you could get your hands on) offered an escape from the harshness of everyday life. “It could be such hell in the Soviet Union,” Ward said.
Indeed, before Bayliss married an Englishman and Misha and Anna moved to the UK to join her, Misha’s ‘classified’ job meant that he couldn’t leave the country. “We were accustomed to this way of life, but of course it wasn’t normal,” said Misha, of their life in Soviet-era Russia. “We regularly listened to the BBC, Voice of America, and we know there is a different life. But, you’re born in this, so you know you can’t go anywhere.” Anna nodded in agreement. “That was like dreaming of the impossible.”
The Ivanovs recounted stories of privation and party privilege without so much as a shred of drama or self-pity. “You had access to things, or didn’t have access,” Anna said. “You need to go and pay for something? You find a party function. You go to the shop and you can’t buy any shoes, but there is a special department for party bosses and KGB bosses.” But despite these memories, there was a great warmth to the Russian traditions we shared at the table that day, from the act of toasting to recounting old Russian stories and jokes.
“Somebody brought sardines to dinner,” Ward said, “and when the hostess opened them they were so old that they were no longer edible. And the person who brought them said, ‘I’m so sorry you misunderstood – those weren’t eating sardines, those were gifting sardines!’”
It was time for another toast, and Misha had now taken to standing to deliver his words – these ones to absent friends. The vodka was knocked back, chunks of bread were seized and forks were plunged into salty fish. Everyone around the table was pink-cheeked and satisfied. As the afternoon melted into evening, Misha observed, stoically, “Vodka is like a knife. It’s not good, it’s not bad. You can do anything with a knife. Cut meat, cut bread – with a special knife you can make operation. But another knife can kill a person; the knife is not to be blamed.”
He paused. “So, the same with vodka. It’s a drink, it’s not bad, it’s not good. If you know, you know. Everything is okay.”
The Ritual of Eating is a BBC Travel series that explores interesting culinary rituals and food etiquette around the world.