What are Oblonsky & Levin eating? | Anna Karenina

One winter evening in Moscow, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin drove to Hotel Anglia for dinner. While Levin replayed his encounter with the woman he loved just now on an ice rink, Oblonsky meditated on the dinner menu. “You do like turbot?” “What? Turbot? Yes I’m terribly fond of turbot”, says the absentminded Levin. However the dinner plan had to be adjusted to the news from the waiter, “Fresh oysters have come in.”

Now let’s be a fly on the wall and watch Oblonsky and Levin eating their magnificent dinner.

  • three dozen Flensburg oysters served with champagne
  • vegetable soup
  • turbot with thick sauce
  • roast beef
  • capon
  • stewed fruit
  • classic Chablis as the table wine
  • parmesan

Let’s go back to the first course.

three dozen Flensburg oysters

A dozen is twelve. Would two people be able to eat 36 oysters? When Oblonsky made the order, there was a hesitation, “bring us two – no, make it three dozen oysters…” Was that extravagance for extravagance’s sake? Possibly. Earlier the author gives the reason that Oblonsky chose this particular hotel for the occasion, “because he owed more in the Anglia than in the Hermitage. He therefore considered it not nice to avoid that hotel”. I’m not sure I follow the logic, but the oysters probably just enlarged his debt a tad more.

The oysters were from Flensburg and not Ostend. Before we find out the location of these two places, see what you think of this exchange between Oblonsky and the waiter:

“Are they good oysters? Mind yourself!”

“Flensburg, your highness, we have no Ostend oysters.”

“Flensburg, yes, but are they fresh?”

“Came in yesterday, sir.”

Which town’s oysters are superior, judging by the waiter’s reply? Does it mean, ‘of course they’re good oysters, the mere fact that they’re from Flensburg should be a proof enough, it goes without saying. Our restaurant only serves the best, not the ones from Ostend’? Or does it mean, ‘we don’t have Ostend oysters today but we have Flensburg ones, which are almost as good’? I think it’s the first interpretation because the waiter didn’t apologise. I’d expect him to apologise if it’s the second interpretation. Oblonsky’s reply seems to confirm it, “Flensburg, yes”, meaning yes I get what you mean by labelling them with the town’s name and I’m satisfied.

Flensburg today is a town in Germany right on the northern border with Denmark; a Baltic Sea port. It has been a home for oyster farming for centuries. Ostend is a city on the Belgian coast. According to the internet, at the end of the 19th century, Ostend’s flat oysters were hugely popular with the rich and famous, and were served in the best restaurants throughout Europe.

Ostend is the star in Belgium; Flensburg is the star in north Germany near Denmark. Looking at the map, Ostend is significantly further to Moscow compared to Flensburg. In an age of no airplane, surely it means Flensburg oysters are always fresher when they arrive Moscow?

vegetable soup

Vegetable soup sounds quite generic. But the waiter repeated the order in French which gives us a clue. He said “printanière”. The french word simply means ‘spring’, but also ‘in classical French cooking terms indicates a side dish of turnips and carrots cooked in a stock, then buttered, along with asparagus tips and green peas’.

Oblonsky refused to use the french names and insisted, “Vegetable soup, you know?”

turbot with thick sauce

Before we find out what turbot is, let’s remember that turbot was Oblonsky’s original plan for the dinner when they were driving. On hearing about the oysters, he suggested to “change the whole plan”. But here it is, turbot. So evidently he didn’t give up on turbot. He’d order everything he fancied – what the deuce, just add to the hopeless debt!

I thought turbot was a root vegetable or something down-to-earth looking. But it’s actually a type of flatfish that’s native to Baltic Sea. According to Mrs Crocombe, it was one of the grandest fish to serve and popular with aristocrat families in England. Apparently Queen Victoria had it on her table regularly. Not sure what kind of thick sauce they were serving in Hotel Anglia but Mrs Crocombe suggested lobster sauce. (What, you don’t know who Mrs Crocombe is?!)

roast beef

Oblonsky didn’t linger long on this item but simply said “roast beef – but mind it’s good”. It sounds like a more ordinary dish that you can get it in any restaurants but Oblonsky’s word seems to indicate he wanted the best of the best as well as ‘don’t you dare cut corners, I can tell the difference’.

capon

Like turbot I was also clueless about capon. A quick search shows that it’s basically a large chicken. According to, again, the internet, capon is a rooster that has been castrated or neutered when young, and fed better, to improve the quality of its flesh for food. It’s larger than a chicken and smaller than a turkey, but tastes better than both.

Caponizing is banned in the UK for animal welfare reasons but that was probably not a concern that Oblonsky or any of the aristocrats had then. Like the turbot and oysters, it was a dish for the rich. The famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It mentions capon as the food for a middle aged successful and wealthy man.

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

stewed fruit

When I searched ‘Russian stewed fruit recipe’, ‘fruit compote’ came up as the results, which was a type of juice drink. But compote juice and compote are apparently different things and compote is a stewed fruit dessert. It seems to be a way of preserving fruit in winter and it can be served hot. For a person who does not eat fruit because it’s too cold even in England, I quite like the idea of eating fruit hot.

At the end of the ordering, the waiter repeated the whole thing in french, “Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poulard à l’estragon, macédoine de fruits…” I was hoping their french names would give us a bit more of a clue, but the only thing it adds is that the chicken is cooked with tarragon. I can’t find out what sauce is ‘Beaumarchais’. And I imagine he would remember the oysters but do you think he missed out the roast beef?

next, the wine list.

wine

During this whole process Levin was mostly silent and didn’t care much what they were eating. He now suggested a little bit champagne. Though Oblonsky’s response makes me think it was an unusual choice, “What? To begin with? Though why not…” Oblonsky ordered the champagne to be served with the oysters and the waiter immediately asked what table wine they wanted. What is table wine?

Table wine, according to the vast knowledge of the internet, seems to be a fairly inexpensive wine you drink with meals. This could be a modern definition. If we run with it and look at Oblonsky again, even for this ordinary wine, he wanted the best, “Bring us the Nuits. No, better still the classic Chablis.” Both are french wines.

parmesan

The last intriguing thing was that the waiter checked about cheese. His exact words are “Would you prefer your cheese?” The emphasis on “your” is original. And Oblonsky replied “Yes, the Parmesan.”

What is the cheese for? The fact that the waiter mentioned it at the very end suggested that it was a standalone item like salt and pepper. I contacted my only friend who knows about Russian food and culture. The gist of his explanation was that Oblonsky ordered parmesan which was from Italy, for the same reason that he ordered oysters from Germany, and the wine from France. The author contrasts him to Levin, who liked “shchi and kasha best” – cabbage soup and cooked grain, two staple foods of Russian peasants according to the notes in the book – and did not care much about cheese and found Oblonsky’s fussiness amusing. Instead of common Russian diary products, Oblonsky appreciated and chose a foreign cheese which showed off to the world his taste and lifestyle of an aristocracy. (Thanks Jerry T!)

bill

The dinner cost just under 28 roubles and the two gentlemen split the bill half-half (note how Levin paid his share, but there was no mention of Oblonsky paying his). Judging by the author’s comment, and not surprisingly, it was a ridiculously expensive meal. I did a rough search and found an academic paper saying that during that historic period, the average income of a male worker was about 100 to 200 roubles per year. That gives you an idea how shocking the meal and Oblonsky’s lifestyle was!

The bill spoilt my feeling towards this magnificent meal. It was magnificent, but in bad taste, almost immoral. How can one indulge in such luxury or even have a longing for it knowing the wealthy diners were able to do it because the system exploited the poor. While swallowing each sloshy oyster, one should think of the farmers – rising before the sun, their hands and feet rough and callous, with a harvest they can feed their children, without one they go hungry – think of their struggle and feel guilty.

But at the same time, how I loved reading about the abundant produce from the land and the sea, and imagining the smell and the taste of each dish masterfully enhanced by the chef, beautifully presented on the table in front of their eyes. Not just for filling an empty stomach, but for the enjoyment of good things. I would love to be part of that meal and the pleasant friendship and conversation on the pages. But in reality though I’m in no way poor, I cannot afford anything like it.

Actually I had a similar experience once. When I was a child, my dad worked in a European company and his boss treated his employees and their families every Christmas to a meal in a restaurant. The waiters brought out dishes course by course, their footfalls muffled by thick carpet and the plates were placed on the white table cloth framed with silver cutlery. The plates were so white in the dim light they looked soft. The conversations around the table was quiet but with excitement. I was drunk on the elegant atmosphere and I still remember it now, twenty years later. That was the last time I had a feast without worrying if I could afford all these good things or feeling guilty about the homeless outside.

The magic never touched me again since then. Would it ever be possible to feast without worry about the cost, eat and drink and be merry without guilt, and enjoy the goodness to the full? Maybe not now, not yet. But yes, one day.

Photography credit. Feature photo by Matt Briney from Unsplash. Oysters and lemons by Garreth Paul from Unsplash. Thank you.

1 thought on “What are Oblonsky & Levin eating? | Anna Karenina

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close