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A Brief History: Pastila, Russia’s Forgotten Candy

Pastila is the Russian version of pâte de fruits; it was developed in Kolomna as a way to preserve apples through the hard, cold Russian winters, and there are over fifty recipes. It was made in the 15th century as a “medieval preserve” – after it was dried it could be stored for long periods of time without spoiling or losing its flavour. Add boiling water and wait a few minutes and you’d have a fruit puree that could be eaten in the heat of summer or during the long winter.

The Russian word pastila comes from the verb ‘postelit’, as in ‘to lay’; before drying the puree is spread out on paper or a cloth.

The recipe was a closely guarded secret, and once delighted the likes of Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. For all that, pastila was clearly for the rich in Imperial Russia; serfs were hired to make the confection in the kitchens of the rich. It was typically made from sour Russian apples, such as Antonovka, or mashed northern berries such as lingonberries, rowan, or currants; it was then sweetened with sugar or honey and lightened with egg whites. This mixture was then baked in the oven for many hours, after which it was arranged in layers inside an alder box and left to dry in the same oven.

When the Bolsheviks came to power, businesses were expropriated and production was shut down; the recipe which once delighted so many was lost for nearly a century. Then Natalia Nikitina, in a jaunt to her local library, unearthed the recipe from its archives. Amazed that such a classic had been forgotten, she set about rectifying this error with her friend Elena Dmitrieva. Thanks to their efforts Russia’s culinary traditions are being revived in Kolomna’s Museum of Forgotten Flavours. Sweets are being painstakingly recreated from historic recipes and bread is being baked the old-fashioned way.

Kolomna has regained its importance and its culinary status; tourism is up by 250 percent. The two friends run a bakery, two candy-making facilities, and four museums in Kolomna. Their enterprises have created hundreds of jobs, and each museum welcomes over 50,000 visitors annually. Souvenirs being sold in the museum shops range from boxes of Kolomna pastila, jams, herbal teas, and kalach, traditional twisted or braided breads; they are sometimes baked with a “handle” and made from finely sifted white flour.

There are even sweets dedicated to Russian writers. The recipe for Leo Tolstoy’s favourite pastila was found among his wife’s papers; Sophia Andreevna meticulously compiled her own cookbook which she intended to publish. She never did, but the recipes all survive. Similarly, Dostoevsky’s second wife wrote letters to her friends where she talked about his incredible sweet tooth. He always kept raisins, fruit jellies, chocolate, and honey on hand, and always bought red and white pastila, which are now available for people to purchase.

Want to visit? Kolomna is not far from Moscow and you can easily spend a day there, taking in the sights and feasting on delicacies.

1 Comment

  • Brioche – Writing In The Kitchen 31st October 2017 at 10:06 am

    […] food histories and started writing the Food Tales column. Here’s a recent post I wrote about pastila, Russia’s forgotten candy. I’m also writing other columns called Kitchen Loves where […]


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