A very long article for a
very small recipe… It is probably because I have Russian and Lithuanian origins that the trivia of the Olivier salad fascinated me so much. As a personal reward, I found out by diving into the newspapers of the time that my great-great-uncle had dined at the Hermitage! (But too late to have tasted this famous salad).
The name of this now world famous recipe does not betray its Russian origins. And, to be honest, there were relatively similar salads elsewhere before. Yet the name "Оlіѵіеr ѕаlаԁ" is synonymous with "Russian salad". When I wanted to find out the history of this anonymous dish that has become famous, I did not expect to find so many mysteries. Because we don't know the exact taste and recipe that made it famous…
Diving into the history of this recipe also allowed me to understand what made it unique and how one can try to recreate an equivalent recipe.
The mysterious Mister Olivier
In the end, little is known about Nicolas Lucien Olivier, who simply called himself Lucien Olivier, to have a name that sounded even more French, Nicolas being a very common first name in Russian.
He was born in 1838 in Moscow, trained as a great French cook, hе ԁіеԁ іn 1885 at the age of forty-five, following heart problems, in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Black Sea, the Russian Riviera.
His body was repatriated to Moscow for burial under an extremely simple headstone, which bears only his name, dates of birth and death and the words "Отъ друзей и знакомыхъ" which means "of friends and acquaintances". This suggests that he was ѕіnglе and childless.
His grave is in the Presentation Cemetery, reserved at the time for non-Orthodox Christians.
The Hermitage restaurant
( Эрмитаж in Russian, and so Hermitage in English and Ermitage in French).
The beautiful corner house located in an upscale area of Moscow had been built in 1816, on a wide avenue. Indeed, after the great fire of 1812, at the time of the French occupation, the Tsar decided to clean up and aerate the layout of Moscow, as Haussmann would do for Paris half a century later. It does not yet have all the neo-classical characteristics of the time, and its current version, with its light blue painted façade and white decorations, dates from after 1885.
In 1864, Lucien Olivier jоіnеԁ fоrсеѕ wіth а mеrсhаnt, Jacob Pegow, to found this famous restaurant. They called on a great architect of the time, Dmitri Tschitschagow, to completely redo the exterior and interior of the house, keeping only the walls.
The restaurant is luxurious, with Limoges porcelain imported directly from France, a Sèvres service that would have been Napoleon III's, private rooms for parties, a gypsy orchestra…
The Hermitage was one of the first chic restaurants in Moscow, which until then had more taverns. Today, it would be the equivalent of a three-star restaurant with the addition of a VIP square… Its reputation extends throughout Russia, people come there in the evening, after the theatre, to finish the night in great parties where wine and vodka accompany the refined dishes of Lucien Olivier. Like the "Grands Boulevards" of Paris in the 19th century or Drury Lane in London, the Hermitage is in a district of pleasure, and the quality of the houses is enhanced by its proximity.
In the summer of 1885, a fire destroyed the restaurant, of which nothing remains. Its new owner, Lucien Poncet, rebuilt and took over the management of the restaurant. The current building is not the one that saw the birth of the Olivier salad and all the photos date from after the fire (the first photographic postcards were taken around 1890).
During the 1905 Revolution, the restaurant was taken over by revolutionaries who held numerous meetings there… and were captured by the Russian police, who were happy to pull off a great coup.
The Hermitage closed for good with the Russian revolution (and the Russian cooks returned to France). Lucien Poncet was a former food officer of the Tsar, from a family of French cooks in Russia.
A rich and gastronomic cuisine
At the time, the Russians forgave Napoleon in order to enjoy French gastronomy, and this is what Olivier offers them, in a "fusion" mode, as we would say today.
He brings in his olive oil from Provence, his ducks from Normandy, his partridges from Switzerland (and his porcelain from Limoges)… but he also uses local products and revisits traditional dishes.
One of which is the Russian salad, which has been known for "quite some time": a description of it can be found in Urbain Dubois, in 1856, eight years before the Hermitage was founded.
Russian salad revisited
Urbain Dubois' recipe includes an assortment of meats and fish, malossols (or ogoursis, then called agoursis), carrots, potatoes, green beans, anchovies, marinated in a vinaigrette, then seasoned with mayonnaise and served with beets. Another version mentions capers, anchovies, and specifies that the mayonnaise includes mustard and grated horseradish.
Lucien Olivier takes this principle, which is simply that of a salpicon, but sublimates it by using luxurious ingredients, smoked duck, grouse, crayfish, truffles, саѵіаr, of course, etc. Potatoes, the food of muzhiks, have disappeared.
The secret of the Olivier salad: the sauce, a "kind of mayonnaise".
In fact, what differentiates the original Olivier salad from all its competitors is its sauce, a "kind of mayonnaise" with secret ingredients that the chef will never reveal. When Lucien Olivier created his recipe, the mayonnaise as we know it was quite recent, the first published recipe dates from 1815…
Like many great restaurant dishes (Waldorff salad, Ceasar's Salador rigatoni democratici) the exact recipe was a very well kept secret. So well kept that it disappeared with the chef. Lucien Olivier locked himself away to prepare the ingredients and never wrote anything down.
Of course, one of his sous-chefs managed to guess a large part of the recipe, but he didn't get to the secret of the sauce, and everyone said that his own salad was not as good as the chef's.
What could this secret be? Urbain Dubois speaks of a mustard and horseradish mayonnaise. A Russian cooking magazine from the end of the 19th century mentions a kind of soya sauce. As the Russian Empire extended to the borders of China, it is quite possible that this secret is the umami of soy. Possible but totally unverifiable…
Many cookery books have published "the recipe for the Olivier salad" since the 1900s. But these are only guesses. The famous special taste has never been described with any precision.
Des ingrédients moins luxueux, avec le temps
Et enfin, la salade russe a survécu à l'ère soviétique, a pu voyager partout dans le monde en se simplifiant. Aujourd'hui, ses ingrédients sont très classiques, et feraient hausser les sourcils de Lucien Olivier. On y met en général :
- trоіѕ légumеѕ (carottes, pommes de terre, petits pois)
- une viande, souvent du jambon, mais on peut aussi utiliser du poulet, du canard… et donc des restes
- des malossols (dont je vous donnerai la recette pour les faire vous-mêmes, encore un truc presque introuvable au Maroc)
- des oeufs durs
Les autres ingrédients les plus courants, en option sont
- des câpres (et pour moi c'est obligatoire)
- des champignons cuits
Il est donc temps de passer à la recette elle-même !
Less luxurious ingredients, over time
And finally, Russian salad survived the Soviet era, and was able to travel the world by getting simpler. Today, its ingredients are very classic, and would make Lucien Olivier raise his eyebrows. It is usually made with :
- three vegetables (carrots, potatoes, green peas)
- a meat, often ham, but you can also use chicken, duck… and therefore leftovers
- malossols (of which I will give you the recipe to make them yourself, something almost impossible to find in Morocco)
- hard-boiled eggs
The other most common optional ingredients are
- capers (and for me this is mandatory)
- cooked mushrooms
So it's time to get to the recipe itself!