Fragments from a War Diary, Part #65
This Sunday morning I was up early, as always, and I spent an hour watching women wash dishes and chop lettuce. I offered my services to assist but they did not need me. I was invigorated by the determination and hard work they were applying to their daily chores: preparing meals on a massive scale for people on or near to the front line. The food they prepare is fresh, tasty and has a home made feel. It was this sort of diligent industry upon which the rapid advances of the Soviet Union were built. This sort of organised work demonstrates what was best about the Soviet Union, which wasn’t much but it was good at command economy organisation of labour on a massive scale and that is an essential skill in the middle of a war.
Last night it was fish: hundreds of giant fish that were being prepared, chopped, gutted and made ready for inclusion in hundreds of meal parcels to be distributed throughout the Kharkiv and neighbouring region by an army of trucks, vans, cars and lorries. The scale of the operations to deliver food and assistance to people across this region is really monumental, and hugely impressive.
I want to say a few words about Ukrainian food. I am no culinary expert, but I have learned a number of the elements of being a chef during my time as a civilian aid worker in Ukraine. Although I don’t think it would necessarily be the best deployment of my abilities once my time in Ukrainian military theatre comes to an end, I certainly now have the skills to manage a restaurant and in particular its kitchen. Not much is known about Ukrainian food and cuisine outside Ukraine, but Ukraine is (or at least was) one of Europe’s largest exporters of food because the arable economy in Ukraine is very substantial and the country is absolutely huge. The greater majority of the land in economic use is being used for agricultural purposes, and that is why Ukraine was known as the bread basket of the Soviet Union. It still remains the case that Ukraine is responsible for supplying vast quantities of agricultural products across the world, in particular to the Middle East but also even farther afield. It is very likely that if you are a frequent traveller, then somewhere or other you have been eating food sourced in Ukraine without necessarily knowing it.
Because the export of agricultural products is so fundamental a feature of the Ukrainian economy, and in particular of importance to Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, the Russians have been doing everything they can to apply economic pressure upon Ukraine by blockading the principal free Ukrainian port, in Odessa; then Turkey pressed Russia into an agreement to permit Ukrainian grain to leave Odessa port and pass through the Straits of Bosphorus; then Russia reneged on what was essentially a one-sided agreement reached under Turkish diplomatic pressure, complaining that Russian banking sanctions were being applied too vigorously, and started aerial bombardment of Odessa port a few weeks ago. The net result of this is that more of the wonderful Ukrainian food, that is not the product of intensive farming methods, is remaining in Ukraine and this is a pleasure for the culinary amateur such as me in Ukraine to help support the country in a time of crisis even if it is not at all good news for the Ukrainian economy.
Ukraine has superlative fish from her waterways and coastal areas; exceptional meat; fantastic bread and wheat products and delicious fruit and vegetables. Cuisine can be creative, and every major Ukrainian city will have a range of high-quality restaurants at reasonable prices, even in the midst of war. Food is served almost everywhere that alcohol is available, and Ukrainians tend to drink liquor always with food. This Sunday morning, white wine was served with breakfast which was a beautiful borsch but I did not accept the offer of wine. Some Ukrainian habits, such as wine at 10am, are a little too much for me, even acclimatised as I now am to the daily pace of Ukrainian life in wartime.
Eating when you are working hard in a war zone becomes particularly important. Engaged in daily bouts of manual labour; walking substantial distances across cities with a rucksack and luggage; the daily routine of life is far more active, even for a civilian engaged in voluntarily work, than the normal sedentary existence we are used to in the West. Although I am not sure I am losing weight (I have not seen a pair of scales since I entered Ukraine), I am sure that I am becoming physically healthier. My active lifestyle means that I am always hungry, looking out for the latest tasty Ukrainian delicacy - of which there are several. Last night I was so hungry that I actually had dinner twice, with two separate groups of people in two separate restaurants, and I barely noticed. A lot of my muscles ache. I have taken to wearing heavy Wellington boots in a military fatigue style because the daily rain is setting in and this soddens the broken earth and sandy trails that have replaced the tarmac in many parts of Ukrainian cities and towns amidst war damage. As a rule, every part of my body aches all the time, whenever I am doing anything except lying in bed. I am no longer a young man, but I feel as fit as I ever have done here. The key is to stay active and not to get depressed: the most common affliction of those living through war.
Ukraine has a reputation for selling food abroad at the lower end of the financial spectrum. Although her food is distributed globally, it is little known because it is not marketed as a high-end product. Indeed people hardly know they are eating Ukrainian food when they do so because it is not marketed as such. I wonder whether, after the war or even during it, this should be changed. One result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that due to overwhelming international support for Ukrainians’ plight, Ukraine has become trendy. Everybody wants to be associated with the plucky Ukrainian people and to support their cause. Why not trade on that fashionability and sell Ukrainian food abroad as a high-end product? Ukraine is the source of many a culinary delicacy.
Currently Ukraine is embroiled in a dispute with Poland about whether export of Ukrainian grain into the EU across Ukraine’s land borders with Poland would undercut higher Polish grain costs and thereby unfairly damage Polish agricultural exports. Poland has been threatening to disrupt her military supplies to Ukraine in consequence of this dispute, a threat that appears to have been withdrawn but nevertheless it is unfortunate that such an issue appears to be threatening the European alliance against Russian aggression and Russia has scored a propaganda victory simply by the issue arising. One way of defusing such a dispute might be to sell Ukrainian agricultural and food products as premium items, to the luxury food chains and supermarkets across Europe. People might well pay a bit more for the best Ukrainian fish, meat or bread, knowing that their purchases are going to help the Ukrainian people.
The idea needs some thought. It is one potential way of reviving Ukraine’s acutely contracted economy, an essential precursor to enabling Ukraine to survive and thrive in this painfully extended war of attrition with Russia.