A recent New Yorker article described the panic that erupted when Brooklyn’s hipster coffee shops ran out of oat milk for their patrons’ coffee. “Oatly,” the journalist reported, “the small and unabashedly quirky Swedish company that invented oat milk, couldn’t keep up with demand.”
Invented oat milk? I was stunned. The Russians have been “milking” oats for over a thousand years, often as a first step in making the porridge known as kissel (kisel’). They steep oats in water to soften them before draining off the starch-rich liquid, which they leave to ferment for several hours, a process often accelerated by adding a chunk of rye bread. The “milk” can either be drunk as a beverage or heated in a barely warm oven until it sets into porridge.
Though this starchy dish is still enjoyed today, it was a mainstay of the early Slav diet. In fact, if we’re to believe the 12th-century “Tale of Bygone Years,” it was kissel that defeated the fierce Pechenegs who laid siege to Belgorod in 997. The inhabitants of the town, although weakened by hunger, stubbornly decided they would rather die by their own hand than surrender. But one wise elder had a better idea: He instructed the women to prepare as much oat milk as possible and pour it into a well. He then invited the Pechenegs to negotiate. The enemy, thinking the town was about to surrender, gladly agreed, but when their leaders arrived inside the gates, they met a demonstration of defiance. The Russians declared they would never have to capitulate because their land was abundant, so abundant that it provided sustenance as readily as water. They proceeded to draw endless buckets of oat milk from the well and boil it up into kissel. The astonished Pechenegs retreated, and the town of Belgorod was saved.
Kissel may be the stuff of legends, but oats remain an important source of nourishment. Besides making kissel and regular oatmeal porridge, Russians also prepare a toasted oat flour called tolokno that is mixed with water, cultured milk, sour cream, or berries to make a tasty gruel. The original process of making tolokno was stunningly arduous. First, whole oats had to be soaked for 24 hours, preferably in a sackcloth bag moored to the bottom of a fast-flowing river or stream. When the oats began to germinate, they were slowly steamed in an earthenware pot in the Russian masonry stove to develop their flavor. The temperature was maintained at just over body temperature for a full day. After steaming, the oats were set out to dry, then husked, and only then, after all these steps had been completed, were the oats finally pounded into flour in a mortar, never ground in a mill. The result is a fine flour with a lovely taste, at once nutty and malty, that doesn’t need to be cooked before eating. On standing, the porridge thickens enough to become dessert when drizzled with honey or black currant syrup. Peasant children loved to mold the mass into animal shapes — an early form of Play-Doh!
In the tiny village of Pezhma, in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, I was lucky enough to taste dezhen’, a celebratory dish made from this flour. Having cut my teeth (so to speak) on “Oliver Twist,” I never imagined that gruel could be anything other than thin and impoverished, but dezhen’ was a revelation — sweet and thick enough to hold a spoon upright. Making this dish is simple: The oat flour is stirred with water to the desired consistency, along with a little sugar and salt. Then comes the crowning touch: a generous layer of farmer’s cheese mixed with sour cream. You dig deep into it with your spoon to ensure a complex mouthful of tangy dairy and soft, rich pudding.
In the even smaller village of Kimzha, I feasted on golden blini slathered with butter and generously sprinkled with toasted oat flour — simple, basic ingredients that come together in a dazzling trinity of flavors. Lacking a source for tolokno here in the States, I often dust my blini with Anson Mills’ 18th century-style rustic toasted oat flour. Though coarser in texture, it makes an excellent substitute, especially because it’s a lot easier to obtain.
Much as I dream of soaking a sack full of oats in the clear, fresh water of a seasonal stream, then steaming them in our wood-fired oven, I know I’ll never go to that extreme. Russians no longer need to, either. During the Soviet era, tolokno virtually disappeared, and a whole generation of Russians grew up not knowing its taste. But then, in 2014, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and in one of those accidents of history, some good came out of the bad, at least as far as Russian foodways are concerned. To protest the Russian invasion, Australia, Canada, the European Union, and the U.S. imposed sanctions that meant food from these countries could no longer be imported. So the Russians turned inward, to their own traditions, reviving old culinary practices. Now, tolokno can be bought prepackaged at the grocery store.
Like other oat products, tolokno is considered health food. Rolled oats, and even the toasted oat flour, are often generically referred to as “Hercules,” just as we call facial tissues “Kleenex.” In another curious international twist, the brand name “Russian Hercules” was originally adopted — some would say stolen — to capitalize on the popularity of the Hercules brand of rolled oats in 19th-century America. Like the original Kellogg’s cornflakes, Hercules rolled oats were touted as highly nutritious, especially for invalids and children. After the 1917 Revolution, the new Soviet government nationalized private businesses and did away with nearly all branding. But Hercules, with its promise of health and strength, was too good to purge, and so it survived, in order for all Soviet citizens to feel their oats.
In this recipe from my forthcoming cookbook, “Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore,” lightly fermented oats cook up into a porridge that’s at once chewy and creamy, with an alluring, sour tang. I often brighten it with dried blueberries or cranberries. This oatmeal thickens quickly on standing. To reheat, simply add water or milk and simmer gently until heated through.
1 pound whole oats (groats)
2-inch chunk of any preservative-free bread, including crust
1/8 teaspoon salt
Place the oats in a medium bowl and pour water over them to cover. Leave to soak for 24 hours.
A couple of hours before you’re ready for the next step, bring 3 cups water to a boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to room temperature.
Pour the oats and their liquid into a colander; rinse and drain well. Transfer the oats to the bowl of a food processor and grind until they are broken up into pieces somewhat larger than cracked wheat. Place them in a clean bowl and pour the cooled water over them. Set the chunk of bread on top and cover the bowl with a dish towel. Leave at room temperature for 48 hours, until bubbles start to appear and the oats give off an appealingly sour smell.
Pour the oats and the liquid into a medium saucepan, add the salt, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and cook the oats slowly, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until creamy, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.