We recently had the good fortune of spending the afternoon with my friend Nataliya’s family in Yanif. Located northwest of L’viv, Yanif (also called Ivano Frankove) sits at the edge of the Roztochya Forest Preserve and on the shores of a sizable lake historically known for the salty, smoked fish produced there.
From the marshrutka stop, we made our way through the village, along the dusty roads and winding alleys, past raggedy dogs and fenced yards filled with chicken coops, roses and potatoes to Nataliya’s grandparents house. Cheerful and generous, Pavlina and Volodymyr Litynski are are in their 70s and maintain an energetic and lively household.
They live in a simple house with a small but bountiful kitchen garden, a little greenhouse made of windows for growing tomatoes and a few fruit trees. It is there that I have learned much about Ukrainian food traditions. In addition to being industrious vegetable gardeners and orchard keepers, three generations of this family, including my friend Nataliya, her mother, Halya, and her grandfather, Volodymyr, are all foresters and are knowledgeable experts on native Ukrainian berries, mushrooms and wild herbs.
It was one of those clear, blue summer afternoons and we found Volodymyr sitting in the grass, sorting just-picked red currants. After surveying the various stages of vegetables and fruits in the garden, as we always do when I visit, Volodymyr carried the kitchen table out into the dappled shade of the yard, much the way my own grandparents would on a summer day.
Under the trees, we nibbled seernik, a light Ukrainian cheesecake, with fresh raspberries and sipped a refreshing herbal tea that Pavlina made. The tea was a local mélange of wild raspberry leaves, wild strawberry leaves, nettles, mint and the delicate fruits of basswood. (For the forestry geeks out there, they are technically nutlets with a thin leafy bract. We often see these marketed for tea in big Ukrainian city markets as well.) All of these were collected around Pavlina and Volodymyr’s garden and, then, hung and dried in the "shadow" of the trees. They store this mixture in a canister in their cool, dry pantry.
Despite the heat, we drank our tea hot and it provided that strange, cooling effect that warm and spicy foods produce. (Actually, I have always wondered about the physiological effects that spicy and hot foods precipitate. According to this 1999 Scientific American article, it has to do with the skin’s pain receptors, which can be stimulated by actual heat or by chemicals such as capsaicin, that simulate heat, to trigger a response from the nervous system.)
As we chatted and sipped, various neighbors passed through the yard, calling out greetings as they strolled by. Some carried borrowed garden tools, others bags of food or children. A few friends and cousins stopped to join us for a cup of tea, conversation and an idle moment during a busy season.