MOSCOW -- New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Rio has Carnival. Russia? Pancake Week.
Lots and lots of pancakes, for a week. Pancakes with jam, pancakes with mushrooms, pancakes with caviar, and many others.
The "blini," as they're known in Russian, aren't exactly pancakes. They're more like crepes, cooked on a round griddle, spread thin and then folded over several times with the filling inside.
Blini are as Russian as vodka, a pillar of Russian cuisine (a generous term) found everywhere from street stalls to Moscow's poshest restaurants. At no other time of the year does the blin get as much love as during the holiday of Masletnitsa, a weeklong celebration before the Russian Orthodox Lent to say good riddance to Russia's dark, freezing winter.
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"We hope spring will come very quickly because it's very cold," says Marina Dijik, shaking in sub-zero temperatures next to her young daughter, Sophie, at Moscow's main Masletnitsa celebration.
"This year it's too cold to expect it so soon," an older woman quipped.
The blin symbolizes the sun – golden, round and warm – and it is also a convenient way to rid the cupboards of the dairy, meat and fish forbidden during lent. Masletnitsa is also sometimes translated as "butter week," since it got its name from the butter with which the blini are cooked.
On Thursday evening, the line to the Masletnitsa celebration at the base of the Kremlin walls stretched for a block, fur-clad Muscovites jostling to get in. As the gates opened at five o'clock, the 20 or so stands were overwhelmed with customers detailing how they wanted their blini made.
One modern-looking stand had stacks of pre-cooked blini ready for toppings as customers lined up. Zoya, working feverishly behind the counter, said their blini were the best around because they are served "hot, tasty and made with Russian soul."
Blini Everywhere: From the City to the Countryside
A short distance away, Vladimir countered that his ingredients from the countryside couldn't be beaten.
A long line cut down the middle of the square leading up to a white tent where blini were served for free with a dollop of sour cream. Fair-goers sidled up to the tables set up on the cobblestones, devouring their blini in a few bites. Most washed it down with steaming cups of medovuhka tea, slightly alcoholic thanks to the honey-based liquor akin to mead mixed in.
Folk music blared as dancers in traditional garb performed in the shadows of St. Basil's Cathedral. Children linked their hands together and snaked through the crowds. Puppet shows, sleigh rides and sledding are fixtures across the country, along with all sorts of carnival-themed entertainment.
Masletnitsa is one of Russia's oldest holidays, rooted in pagan worship of the sun. Like other religious holidays, it disappeared during the Soviet era but re-emerged in the more liberal 1980s.
As the week draws to a close, everyone fattens up for the leaner days ahead. Forgiveness is asked of friends and family on Forgiveness Sunday so that Lent can be started sin-free. A straw effigy of Lady Masletnitsa, representing winter, is joyfully set ablaze.
To top off Masletnitsa celebrations this year, Orthodox believers in the Ukrainian port town of Sevastopol have announced that they plan to bake the world's biggest blin with honey, according to the Interfax news agency.
"It's a beautiful holiday," beamed Tatiana, serving the hungry at breakneck speed in the free blini tent. "Everyone's happy and smiling. It's a holiday for the masses."