Feb 142019

Today is the birthday (1799) of Walenty Wańkowicz (Lithuanian: Valentinas Vankavičius, Belarusian: Валенты Ваньковіч). Not one of those names that springs to your lips, but I chose him because his name is a cognate of Valentine. He was a Polish painter of Belarusian origin whose paintings are better known in Slavic countries than in Western Europe.

Wańkowicz was born on the family estate near Minsk. He was brought up with Polish culture and Catholic faith, however, also with his Belarusian (Ruthenian) noble ancestry in mind. From 1811 he attended a Jesuit academy in Polotsk, where he was trained in civil and military architecture and drawing. His teacher was Jakub Pesling. Wańkowicz graduated here in 1817 with honors. In 1818 he enrolled at the University of Vilnius and studied there under Jan Rustem and Jan Damel. From 1825 to 1829 he attended the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. In Petersburg he made many friends among the rich and famous. One of these was the young, but already celebrated, poet Adam Mickiewicz, he portrayed him at the turn of the year 1827/1828 (Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz on the Ayu-Dag Cliff).

Around this time, he also painted portraits of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the pianist Maria Szymanowska as well as of the poet and satirist Antoni Gorecki (an uncle of the artist).

In the following years Wańkowicz lived near Minsk in Ślepianka Mała and in Minsk itself, where he had a studio together with Jan Damel.  From here he frequently traveled to Vilnius, whose Malszene exerted a great influence on the painters in Minsk. He painted a number of portraits including the allegorical portrait of Napoleon “Napoleon before the fire.”

In recognition of his artistic achievements, the Senate appointed him in 1832 as a member of the Academy. By the end of 1839 he began traveling. In 1840 he lived for some time in Dresden, followed by short stays in Berlin, Munich, and Strasbourg. In 1841 he reached Paris, where he remained until his death in 1842. Wańkowicz was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre.

Zhurek is a well-loved Polish soup of Belarusian origin, much like Wańkowicz – so it seems fitting. It has kvass at its base, a beverage made from fermented rye flour or rye bread, commonly drunk throughout Slavic territories. It gives a strong sour note to the soup. You will need to begin preparations 5 days in advance.




¾ cup rye flour
2 cups water boiled and cooled to lukewarm


½ lb peeled and chopped soup vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celery root, leeks)
6 cups beef stock
½ lb fresh (white) Polish sausage biały kiełbasa
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups kvass
1 garlic clove crushed with ½ tsp salt to make a paste
3 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled and halved


To make the kvass

In a medium bowl, mix together the rye flour and lukewarm water. Pour into a glass jar or ceramic bowl that is large enough for the mixture to expand. Cover with cheesecloth and let stand in a warm place for 4 to 5 days. This should make 2 cups or enough for the soup. Strain through muslin and store in the refrigerator after it has fermented.

To make the soup

In a large soup pot, bring the soup vegetables and the stock to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the sausage and cook another 30 minutes. Remove the sausage from soup, slice when cool enough to handle, and set aside. Strain the stock through a sieve, pressing on the vegetables to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the vegetables, skim the fat off the stock and return the stock to a clean soup pot.

Add the potatoes and kvass to the stock, adding salt if necessary. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook until the potatoes are al dente. Add the reserved sliced cooked sausage and garlic-salt paste. Bring the soup to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender.

Serve in heated bowls with half a hard-cooked egg in each serving, and rye bread on the side.

Jul 062015


Today is the birthday (1887) of Marc Zakharovich Chagall, Russian-French artist. He is well known as a Jewish artist (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). His paintings reflect his childhood in Vitebsk (now in Belarus), and, among other things, inspired the tragicomic musical Fiddler on the Roof.


Chagall was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. Using stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.


Before World War I, he traveled between St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his memories of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1922.

He had two basic reputations: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris, where he embraced and combined Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, in which his own vision was a major factor in the development of Surrealism.” Most emphatically Chagall’s work is about color – using a limited palate to create startling colorful visions “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is”.

According to art historian Raymond Cogniat, in all Chagall’s work during all stages of his life, it was his colors which attracted and captured the viewer’s attention. During his earlier years his range was limited by his emphasis on form and his pictures never gave the impression of painted drawings. He adds, “The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes… they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones… His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms.” He was able to convey striking images using only two or three colors. Cogniat writes, “Chagall is unrivalled in this ability to give a vivid impression of explosive movement with the simplest use of colors…” Throughout his life his colors created a “vibrant atmosphere” which was based on “his own personal vision.”

Chagall’s work is, indeed, highly personal and idiosyncratic; impossible to classify even though many try. Here’s a gallery – mostly about color. I used to have prints of some of these on my walls.

mc13 mc12 mc10 mc9 mc8 mc6 mc2

Lazanki is a popular dish in Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk, and in Belarus in general (as well as Poland). Lazanki arrived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-16th century when Bona Sforza, Italian wife of King Sigismund I the Old, brought high Italian cuisine to the country. Unlike most Italian dishes in these parts of Europe, lazanki has survived into the 21st century, although the long and cultural history of the dish has been largely forgotten.

Lazanki consists of pieces of dough made from wheat, buckwheat, or rye flour. Basically speaking, Belarusian lazanki and Italian lasagna come from the same roots. Traditionally they are squares or triangles made from flattened tough dough, which are boiled and then served with fried lard and onions on top. During Lent, Belarusians once put ground poppy seeds or mashed berries into the dough. Lazanki were also baked in pots together with meat or cabbage and stewed with sour cream. My preferred method.





rye or wheat flour
salt and sugar to taste
vegetable oil


70g smoked-cooked pork brisket
100g semi-smoked sausages (“hunter’s sausages”)
1 medium-sized onion
vegetable oil
50-70g cream or sour cream
50g grated hard cheese



The dough for lazanki is very much the same as for most pasta (see Hints tab). Sift flour on to a work surface, make a hollow it in, add salt and sugar, and a little bit of vegetable oil for elasticity. Pour water on the flour slowly and mix with your hands until you have a ball that is not sticky and can be kneaded. Knead the dough until it gets hard and flexible.

Roll out the dough to about 1-1.5mm thick, then cut it into triangles or diamonds. Let it dry a bit at room temperature.

Put the lazanki in salted boiling water for 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Dice the pork brisket and sauté it in a dry, heavy skillet until it browns and the fat melts. Add finely chopped onions and keep sautéing them until they brown to a golden color. Add the sausages in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.

When the filling is ready, add the boiled lazanki with a small amount of water from the pan it was cooked in. Add the cream and cheese. Keep stirring the mix constantly while it is cooking. When the cheese becomes thick, remove the pan from the heat. You can serve it on the table straight from the pan, or in a heated serving dish garnished with green herbs. Dill is a good option.

Lazanki can also be baked (a better way, I think, but longer). Take a ceramic pot, put in the boiled lazanki and the filling one layer after another like making lasagna Add the cream and cheese and put it in the oven at 350°F until it is golden on top.