One of the first things I did in my trip to St Petersburg is to try the local Beef Stroganoff. And as my hotel was on the junction of the Moika Embankment and Nevsky Prospekt, I was a stone’s throw away from the Stroganoff Palace itself, pink and sassy, still as exuberant today as it was in the 1750s.
For nearly two centuries the Stroganoff Palace and its interiors were altered several times according to the changing fashion and the needs of the owners. About a dozen architects were involved, among them Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Andrey Voronikhin, Ivan Kolodin and Carlo Rossi, names familiar to anyone with a fleeting knowledge of Russian baroque.
In 1918, the Stroganoff Palace was nationalized and turned into a “People’s House Museum (formerly Stroganoff)“, which was entrusted to the Hermitage. In 1929, the palace housed the Institute of Applied Botany. The Stroganoff art collection was distributed to various museums in the country and some was sold abroad.
Since then, the Stroganoff Palace has been occupied by several tenants, chief among which was the People’s Commissariat of Shipbuilding. Only in 1988 did it revert to a museum and extensive restoration allowed it to re-open in 2003 as one of the few private dwellings still preserved in the historic centre – its exterior in accordance with the original design of Rastrelli.
It’s now, believe it or not, a chocolate museum.
Which brings me back to the dish.
Like many dishes named after personalities, Beef Stroganoff (sliced filet steak in cream and mustard sauce) has a controversial history.
The Stroganoffs were one of Russia’s grandest aristocratic families. They stem from Novgorod, but they acquired their wealth through trade and expansion in Siberia, providing the Russian court and the rest of Europe with furs, precious stones and metals.
In the 17th century the English Ambassador wrote that their estate was equal in area to the US state of Virginia. They built the palace on the Moika when, like all aristocratic families, they were forced by Peter the Great to move to the new capital, St Petersburg.
Wikipedia mentions Count Paul Stroganoff as the originator of the recipe. I must say I felt a frisson of recognition when I saw his portrait in the 1812 room of the Hermitage where portraits of all the Russian commanders during the Napoleonic Wars are displayed. He is the youngest and prettiest of them all and, at eye level, very prominent.
But there lies the rub. There have been two Paul Stroganoffs. Larousse Gastronomique writes that the dish was the creation of chef Charles Briere who was working for the Stroganoffs in St. Petersburg when he submitted the recipe to L ‘Art Culinaire in 1891.
The Art of Russian Cuisine, says that the recipe was included in the 1871 edition of the Molokhovets Cookbook and is credited to Count Paul Stroganoff, who lived in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg. In both cases, the 1870s-90s head-of-the-family Paul Stroganoff is a relative of the 1812 count.
The more likely explanation is that the dish was being cooked by the family chef for decades and, as is usual in that period, it was named after the chef’s patron. It could be that it only became famous during the time of one of the two Paul Stroganoffs.
My big surprise though came when I ate the dish itself in St Petersburg. It was just cream and beef, lacking the distinctive mustard taste.
I had it again in a different restaurant: same thing. And a third time – nope. I asked the only waiter who could speak English well enough to understand linguisti nuances. When I mentioned mustard I got a blank expression.
So maybe Larousse Gastronomique is right after all. It could be a French chef who added the mystery ingredient, lost to the Russians – the mustard powder.