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It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating soup made of wallpaper, with the occasional luxury of a dead rat. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could now provide a safe haven, provided Mikhail can navigate the perils of a portrait commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.

Nearly forty years later, Galina herself is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Academy. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she embarks upon that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and Galina’s familiar world changes out of all recognition.

Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist world, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the glitz and bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is at once a compelling page-turner and an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia.

E-book available worldwide.

Paperback available in the USA and UK.

*I receive a small percentage of the profits on purchases made on my page.

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Updated: May 25, 2020

Borscht is a dish that features several times in The Girl from the Hermitage and is one of my favourite Russian recipes. I regularly make borscht and never tire of the taste. In fact, in the very early days of lockdown when I was riddled with anxiety and fuzzy-headed from sleepless nights, I made borscht. I found comfort in the slicing and chopping and appreciated a distraction from 2020.

Over the past week, I struggled to find beetroot. But then a neighbour offered on our street’s WhatsApp group to add items to her Ocado delivery. I asked her to get some beetroot and it arrived as ordered. Hurrah! The soup could be made. All of these strange lockdown grocery challenges remind me a bit of my time in Russia in the late Nineties. Products were sometimes unpredictable, you didn’t always know when or where you would find an item. One of the first things I learnt when I moved to Moscow-if you come across something you want to buy, get it. Don’t wait.

Borscht has hundreds of variations and you can find many different recipes online. Today I used a recipe on Epicurious. I didn’t have carrots or parsnips so I substituted potato and leek. And I didn’t have red wine vinegar so I used sherry vinegar instead. You can use whatever veg you have, that is the beauty of borscht. I also used homemade chicken stock which is always better than cubes or store-bought. Borscht is best served with soured cream and fresh dill. (My poor dill plants really need recovery time now!) This batch turned out great and has been enjoyed by the whole family, except my son isn’t keen on any type of soup.

I have a few beetroot leftover so I am going to make another of my Russian favourites, Beet and Walnut Salad.

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  • mollygartland

Updated: May 25, 2020

Sometime in the tail end of the Nineties, I remember being on a train coming back to Moscow after a weekend at a friend’s dacha. I was with two girlfriends, Lena and Natasha, and the weekend had been...rather jolly. The train was crowded and everyone was sweaty and hot. Each passenger was surrounded by their parcels, bags and baskets. A babushka entered the wagon holding a basket covered in a cloth. “Piroshki, pirozhki, gariochi (hot) piroshki,” she called out, selling them as she navigated the obstacle course aisle. Lena, who could be quite obnoxious at the best of times and even worse if she had a couple of drinks in her, joined in. She was a radio DJ so she understood how to properly project her voice. The babushka was not amused and no matter how much we scolded Lena, she persisted, carrying on long after the babushka disappeared into the next wagon. “Piroshki, piroshki, gariochi piroshki.” I can’t imagine we were very popular with our fellow travellers. It is impossible for me to think of piroshki and not recall that silly train ride.

Piroshki are commonly found in cafeterias and are sold on the street. They come with many different fillings both sweet and savoury: minced beef or pork, cabbage, egg, and (rather oddly) mashed potato. My favourite is mushroom filling so when I realised I had some mushrooms from my weekly Riverford vegbox I scoured the internet to find a good recipe.

The recipe I followed is on Prepared Pantry. To be honest, I remember piroshki to have a much more bread-like bun rather than a pastry dough like this but I went ahead and made these anyway. I followed the recipe, making no big substitutions. Although I did add a bit of dried dill to the fresh as my little dill plants are taking a lot of snipping with all this Russian food! The filling is divine. How could the combination of mushrooms and soured cream ever go wrong?.

My flour stocks have suffered from all this Russian cooking. The next dish will definitely not involve flour. And given the alliteration of priyaniki, pelmeni, and piroshki the next dish will not start with the letter P.

The virtual book launch celebration continues...

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  • mollygartland

Updated: May 25, 2020

Today I put on my favourite Russian band, DDT, and we had a go at cooking pelmeni. I used the recipe on Olga’s Flavour Factory but I did cut it in half. We didn’t have the patience to make her full batch. I followed most of the recipe but I did not have any cabbage so I simply had a pork filling.

While editing The Girl from the Hermitage there was quite a bit of debate between me, my editor and copy editor about how to describe pelmeni. Olga describes them as a Russian dumpling on the recipe. I have also heard them described as a Russian ravioli. The dough is a bit more rubbery than a ravioli.

Pelmeni are a standard item in any Russian freezer. It is a go-to easy meal like fish fingers in the UK. When I was in Moscow, I’ll be honest and say I was never a huge fan of pelmeni. But a couple of months ago I went to a friend’s house and she had some fabulous homemade pelmeni that were delicious.

The pelmeni turned out fabulous and the whole family enjoyed a nice pelmeni dinner tonight. And then they all ordered an absurd quantity of Russian chocolate online. And the virtual e-book celebration continues!

Taking a break from the blog over the weekend. More Russian treats to follow next week.

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Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.

The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.

She is currently working on her second novel, Mrs. Jordan's Final Act, which has been shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society First Chapters Competition.

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