A ‘basin’ of the Olivier salad – the name by which the ubiquitous ‘Russian’ salad mostly known in post-Soviet countries - is a pre-requisite at any celebratory table across many Eastern-European countries. Prior to the required slathering of faces, the ritual proper starts with chopping the day before.
“Why do you dress the salad with a body lotion?”
“Well, the guests’ faces sting from mayonnaise otherwise”:
the old Soviet joke goes referring to a common habit of party guests finding their faces plonking flat in the said salad after a healthy partaking of alcohol.
In fact, my abiding, visceral memory of anticipating a holiday, any holiday, from about the age of 10, as a little girl in Estonia, was, let me call it, a hand feeling: slightly burnt finger tips (from peeling numerous, impatient, hot root vegetables) and numbness (from hours of chopping them).
When Proust talks of the olfactory memory that the lovely French madeleines, for us, many Eastern-Europeans, it’s this the kinaesthetic remembering, of the chopping and the mixing, that takes us back to the times of joy.
Katya's 5th birthday: scoffing, what else, that Olivier salad (and frankfurters!). October 1985, Tallinn, Estonia.
The real history of the ‘Olivier’?
The oft-fold story goes that the Olivier salad was named so after its ‘inventor’, a French chef, Lucien Olivier, who rocked up in Moscow in mid 19th century to make a buck and his name. The move worked in bringing him fame whist working in one of the top restaurants in St Petersburg - ‘Hermitage’. Lucien was said to be first serving the dish, filled with pheasants, cray fish, truffles, capers and potatoes and a small amount of, French of course, mayonnaise sauce ON A SIDE. The restaurant customers liked the dish but would often mix up all the ingredients vigorously once served. The smart chef got the message and, voila, Salade Olivier was born.
But as with all ‘went down in history’ recipes the chef didn’t invent the recipe out of his pure genius. Salads like this were becoming popular all over Europe at the time from the early 19th century. Until then salads didn’t really exist in our modern understanding. A mixture of chopped and dressed vegetables and meat were called …vinaigrettes or mayonnaises, depending on what type of sauce was used. Yelena Molokhovets, Russian Mrs Beeton’s equivalent, has a whole chapter devoted to Mayonezes, often a mix of fish or meat with aspics.
Enormously complicated and time consuming to make, uber decorative, those ‘salads’ were the height of bourgeoisie table prowess.
Russian? Macedonian? or Italian??
Versions of this salad appear in cook books all over Europe at that time. The celebrated French chef Jules Gouffé, suitably nicknamed l'apôtre de la cuisine decorative, the godfather of gastronomic embellish, gives the recipe of Salade Russe in his 1902 Livre de Cuisine with both fish and meat, as well as anchovies and asparagus (curiously, the recipe for Salade Macédoine in the book resembles more the modern day, simplified version of our Olivier. Oh, the penchant for regionalising names of dishes in those days. The context of the emerging national states is hard to overstate).
Eventually after the Soviet revolution, the plush Oliver’s version frankensteined into a melange of cubed vegetables, often with Bologna type (Doktorskaya) sausage and rather a lot of industrially made mayonnaise.
The potato and mayonnaise salad as a celebratory dish in many countries.
I remember my surprise at encountering the ‘Russian salad’ in Italy and Spain for the first time many years ago. The recipe is not that different from our Olivier: potatoes, peas, carrots, and mayo, but normally no meat, which is what we inevitably add (if you can call Bologna sausage meat of course – toilet paper what it was according to the popular Soviet joke). My Italian food anthropologist friend says that they often eat the salad alongside Bollito Misto, a bone broth of sorts with lots of different internal organs. Ha, we too often put cooked ox tongue in our Olivier.
‘Spanish omelette and Insalata Russa, was what I leant of Spanish cuisine first’ my other food writer friend travelling in Spain recalls. In Spain the salad is a norm as part of tapas menus. There’s another version same named, I’m told by Spaniards, a seafood dish with olives and salmon.
The salad seems to feature menus of winter festivities in many countries. In Netherlands for instance, they call a version of the dish ‘Hussar’s salad, a particular favourite on Old New Year’s celebration tables. The Dutch apparently brought ‘Huzaren salade’ to the archipelago of the Netherlands East Indies – Indonesia now, where the combo normally consists of leftover beef stew or tongue, boiled peas, carrots, potatoes, beetroot pickles, and cucumber pickles. ‘Not peas or eggs!’, explains one Dutch food blogger which turns the salad…into Russian.
Olivier has travelled even to Japan. I encountered a version in a ramen place in London where they used crumbly spuds that cooked to almost a mash, with gherkins, wasabi I think, and a bit of mayo. Served looking like an ice-cream ball. Is the dish common in Japan? I asked the waiter in some disbelief, they nodded yes, the recipe’s from over there.
Olivier here, Olivier there.
Only in Iran, it seems, this salad is also called Olivier. There are many food links between Iran and Russia: all the caviars (including vegetable ones) and then this salad. Must be the old trading routes.
Mayonnaise is what binds the ingredients and all the versions of the salad across the world.
I’m both proud of the global fame of ‘our’ salad and want to roll my eyes – no wonder most associate Eastern-European food with something heavy. But the globalisation of the potato salad tracks the story of the world for the last two centuries: from the dominance of French cuisine and culture, the highly class based distinction between what’s cool and worthy at each table, to the increasing industrialisation of food, both under Soviets and in capitalist societies. It’s not surprising that the salad became such a darling, thanks to the wide availability of the core ingredients, the adaptability of the recipe and, of course, mayonnaise becoming the industrialised global Olympian of condiments: so cheap to produce, it masks enhances so many flavours.
From the dead cheap tinned version of the salad, to the chic picnic fare, to the pyramid of the celebratory Olivier in plateresque crystal glass bowls with decoratively cut veggies, the salad oozes grand appeal and utilitarian usefulness. Easy to make and to keep, we say Olivier is the perfect hungover dish. Over the festive period we make double quantities on purpose – the flavours mingle well after a delay and boy oh boy, the carby, pickly flavours are what the body craves after a night of drinking. The potato salad has sort of taken over the world. With or without faces in it.
* PS this piece was written in 2017, when the word Russian didn’t have such difficult connotations. The dark irony of the ‘Russian’ salad taking over the world … How is the salad now called on the menus of so many countries? Or has the dish disappeared? Unlikely, it seems to me. As the history shows above, the story of the salad and its popularity is much, much bigger than Russia. But like many iconic dishes, consumed across large geographies pre-dating national boundaries (think of the hummus in Israel/Palestine/Lebanon or ‘Greek’ or ‘Turkish’ coffee), they tell poignant stories of who we are and who we think we are not. Turbulent, uneasy, warm and nostalgic, one dish can mean different things to so many of us.