Fort Ross Bicentennial Pie


Ilya Voznesensky. ‘Fort Ross Colony, 1841’. Watercolor on Paper.

Few people realize that a portion of the northern California coast was once a part of the Russian empire, controlled directly by a trading entity called The Russian American Company, but ruled of course ultimately, given Russia’s autocratic system of government, by Tsar Alexander I and then his successor, Nicholas I, in their faraway capital, St. Petersburg. Between 1812, when the colony was begun in hopes that it would prove useful in supplying the more northern Russian possessions in Alaska with food and other necessities, and 1841, when it was sold to Captain John Sutter, the Fort Ross Colony, as it became known, was a rather precarious but determined little outpost of Russia on the Pacific coast of North America.

Travelers along that section of coastline today little suspect that some of the more important road signs they see would today bear their older Russian names had the Russians not withdrawn from the area in 1841. Because Bodega Bay was once Zaliv Rumyantseva (Rumyantsev Bay), for example, and the Russian River was once the Slavyanka (the Slav). Fort Ross itself (Krepost Ross in Russian) was named not after a person but after the Motherland itself, ‘Ross’ being a variation of an ancient name for Russia which many believe derives ultimately from the red-haired Scandinavian or Varangarian Vikings who passed from the Baltic deep into the Russian interior in long ago centuries and played such an important role in the history of that era. The section of the California coast which was once part of the empire of the Tsar stretched from present day Bodega Bay to Point Arena, and included a few isolated ranchos in some of the adjacent interior valleys.

In honor of the Fort Ross bicentennial, celebrated this year with all manner of colorful pageantry, religious and secular, at Fort Ross itself, which has for several decades now been a very picturesque state park, I have created what I have decided to call the Fort Ross Bicentennial Pie. It is really a variation of a very traditional Russian dessert, very reminiscent of the days when Russian cooking came directly from peasant kitchens and had not yet been influenced by the French chefs whose arrival in aristocratic and imperial households after the time of Peter the Great brought about so many changes in the national cuisine. In Russia this pie would be called a ‘vatrushka’, an open-faced tart to be found at any festive gathering in that country, from the humblest peasant table to the most exalted palace banquet. The filling is distinctively Russian, and in Russia would be made with ‘tvorog’, what we might find sold as ‘farmer cheese’ or ‘quark’ in the United States. Since the latter will be difficult to find for those who don’t live near significant communities of emigré Russians, Germans or Eastern Europeans, I’ve adapted my recipe here to American conditions. I’m not sure even a Russian could tell the difference. 

Fort Ross Bicentennial Pie

1 unbaked pie shell 

16 oz. thick Greek-style yoghurt, quark, farmer cheese or Russian tvorog
4 oz. sour cream
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 cube) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/4 cup white flour

Mix filling ingredients until thoroughly blended. If you use farmer cheese or tvorog and there are lumps, you will want to use an electric blender to make the filling smooth. Pour into pie shell and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, or until filling is golden in color and just set. Watch carefully to make sure edges of pie shell don’t burn. Remove from oven and allow to cool thoroughly.

1 can sour cherries, drained (reserve juice)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch or arrowroot
dash of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract

Cook cherry juice, sugar, corn starch and salt together until mixture thickens, remove from heat and add almond extract. Add reserved cherries. Use as sauce for pie when serving. 


Julio Herrera y Reissig: The Garden


Here is my English translation of a sonnet by the Uruguayan poet Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910). The Spanish original first appeared in the journal ‘El Diario Español’, Buenos Aires, on April 2, 1905, with the title ‘La huerta’ (‘The Garden’). The photograph above was taken in our hillside garden here in San Francisco.

The Garden

The hours fall in silence down the slant of tiles
Of reddish roofs…The sultry weather
Perfumes more richly than ever the haughty environs
With bucolic fragrances of showy vegetation.

Diligent Hecuba goes to light the lamps…
Songs of return waft in from the road.
Iris, barely seeing, abandons her staff
And respires in the evening, freed from cares.

It darkens. A mystical majesty anoints the pensive finger
On the lips of the night without fear…
Not an echo is heard of what astounds the world

On the pillow of roses where the garden sleeps…
And in their wholesome dwelling the shadows marvel
At a pride which growls like a dog at the gate.


Anna Akhmatova: ‘The Reader’


Anna Akhmatova and Her Son in 1925


Here is my English translation of the last part of Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘Tricks of the Trade’. The Russian original was written in the summer of 1959.


The Reader

One must never be very unhappy,
Or secretive, least of all!
To be clear to those of her age
The poet flings all open wide.

And the footlights come up from below,
All is deathly, empty and bright,
While the limelight’s chilling flame
Has forever stamped her brow.

But each reader resembles a mystery,
A treasure deep in the earth,
Even he, most recent, unexpected,
Who keeps silence for all of his days.

There nature hides everything from us
When it pleases her alone.
There someone is helplessly weeping
At some predetermined hour.

And so many twilights and evenings
And shadows and chills are there;
There so many unknown eyes
Converse with me up until dawn.

For some things they all reproach me,
In others we all agree,
So flows the mute confession,
The warm conversation between.

Our time on the earth is fleeting
And tight the determined round,
But he is unchanging, eternal,
The poet’s still unknown friend.


Anna Akhmatova: ‘The Poet’


Helene Mass (German, born 1871). Woodblock Print. Private Collection.


Here is my English translation of Part 4 of Anna Akhmatova’s Russian poem ‘Tricks of the Trade’, which she composed at various times between 1936 and 1959. This section, entitled ‘The Poet’, was written in the summer of 1959. The poem as a whole deals with different aspects of the process of creation. My translations of the first three parts of the poem appear elsewhere on this blog.


The Poet

You may think this is work
But it’s a carefree life:
To overhear someone’s song
And pass it off as your own.

To take someone’s joyful scherzo
And lay it out in lines,
To swear that a pitiful heart
Groans amid the shining corn.

And then to listen in the forest
To the silent, nun-like pines
While everywhere the fog stands thickly
Like a screen, a curtain of smoke.

I take from left and right
And, even without feeling of shame,
A little from cunning life
And all from the silence of night.