This post wouldn’t be written if it wasn’t for my mother’s big love of marshmallows. No cookies, chocolates, cakes or pies can compare to marshmallows in my mom’s Universe. She only wishes other people could understand and share her love. So when it comes to sending Russian sweets to beloved daughter who lives across the ocean there’s no question what to choose. Marshmallows it is!
You should know, though, that I am using the word “marshmallow” very loosely here because of marshmallow’s similarity in taste and consistency to Russian sweets called “pastila” and “zephyr”. These two are what really makes my mother’s heart melt, not the American confectionery. Although both pastila and marshmallow are soft and spongy, the former is not as tangy and chewy. Pastila has a rather cloud-like texture, very light and airy inside with a slightly crunchy layer on top caused by crystallized sugar. The biggest difference between the two lies in ingredients: marshmallows consist in large part of sugar mixed with water and gelatin (in my experience in USA most of them also have added colors and flavors) while the main ingredient in pastila is apple puree to which egg whites and some sugar is added. So pastila has a very distinct fruity flavor, plus it is a healthier and more natural option.
Then of course, not any kind of pastila can pass my mother’s high standards. There’s one brand in particular that made the cut and found its way across the Atlantic and straight to my table – Belevsky pastila. Belev is a small town in Tula region of Russia where pastila has been produced since 1888. I even have a fairy-tale-like-story to tell you.
Once upon a time there was a Russian merchant called Amvrosiy Prokhorov (don’t bother trying to pronounce it) who lived in town of Belev. His remote ancestor (some 300 years before) received 5000 in silver coins from Emperor Peter the Great and used the money to buy land along Oka River to grow an apple orchard. Baked apples were a common treat in the house but once the servants left it cooking for too long. While they were deciding what to do with the apple puree somebody suggested to add egg whites and sugar to help keep it longer. The mixture was spread out and dried. The resulting sheets were glued together with leftover apple puree mix. And thus Belevsky pastila was born. Soon Amvrosiy Prokhorov established a commercial line producing pastila and two years later it won its first prize at Saint-Petersburg gardening exhibition. It quickly became a popular treat leading Prokhorov to open shops in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Kiev and Tbilisi. In fact, pastila was invented in Russian town of Kolomna long before Amvrosiy Prokhorov realized the potential behind this simple treat, but it was his Belevsky pastila that became a great success worldwide and even found its way to the royal houses of Russia, France and Spain.
By 1950-s most of Belevsky pastila was exported making it impossible for Soviet people to get the sweet treat, although party officials always had access to the best of the best. Today the factory still produces pastila using traditional recipe. The only 3 ingredients in classic version are apple puree, egg whites and sugar. No colors or artificial flavors are ever added. Since apples are naturally full of pectin no other gelling ingredients are required. Though, it is only one kind of apples, called Antonovka, that can be used in the recipe. Nowadays, berries puree is also added to the mixture to have a variety of flavors.
Now what on Earth is zephyr? Unlike pastila that was created in Russia, zephyr is a French invention made of similar ingredients. It also consists of apple puree with addition of berries puree, egg whites and sugar.
Since the amount of apple puree is less here, gelling agents are added too. The main difference is in preparation process. The mixture for pastila is spread out and left to dry, the sheets are then glued together and cut into pieces that’s why pastila usually comes in shape of logs. Zephyr mixture on the other side, is piped into molds and dried. Each mold is meant for half a piece of zephyr. So once the halves are dry, they are glued together to make one whole piece.
Belev factory continues to make pastila the way it was made over a hundred years back, along with zephyr and marmalade that also became very popular in Russia. On his trip to Austin my brother had 8 (!) boxes of Belevsky pastila, zephyr and marmalade in his suitcase (apart from Russian sweets there was also a bottle of Georgian wine, honey from Altay region of Russia and about 15 books in Russian – that pretty much left no space whatsoever for his belongings). But what happiness it is to receive presents from your Motherland! It was, obviously, my mom’s idea to find Belevsky sweets and send to me. But it was my granny who had to run around Moscow in search of the famous brand – it’s not easily found in smaller towns like the one where my family lives. Plus the treats are quite expensive at 250 rubles a box. For comparison: a loaf of bread costs 20-30 rubles. But it is definitely worth it. So next time you visit, you know what to bring from Russia with love!
Belev factory has 6 signature stores in Moscow. You can also find these Russian sweets in some grocery shops.
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