Setting a Russian table is a challenge, because there is no single model. British, French and German fads invaded the Russian upper classes during the 18th century. St. Petersburg had little connection with Russia proper, but was on the border of Finland, and hence took many Central European fashions. Peasants ate differently from the upper classes; Old Believers differently from the Orthodox. Ukrainians and Belorussians had their own fashions, usually from either Poland or Germany.
The table should be large, square and at the centre of the room. It should have a bright white table cloth, with some, but not excessive, embroidery. For formal, upper class-style dinners, there should be a large centrepiece with flowers, candies and fruit. Leave out the fruit if you are not trying to create an upper-class atmosphere, because fruit had to be imported from Georgia and hence, was available to the few. Use one plate with the minimum of silverware. Plates and silverware should be changed after every course. The drink selection can include vodka, kvass---a malted rye drink---beers and wines, almost always red and heavy. There should be a separate, small cup for each type, and the drinks should be on the table in jugs.
On feast days and in normal times of the year, the basic meats are "cold cuts" and sausages, served with various types of double cream. Cucumbers are important, as are carrots. Beets are omnipresent, and all sugars should be beet sugars. Salted herring is a staple, as are sturgeon and caviar on occasion. Plum brandy is occasionally served after dinner. Make sure strong, black tea is available. Rye bread is a must for all classes. Each place, for the more formal dinner, should have its own salt and pepper shaker.
During Lent, formal dinners are not served. Russians follow the normal Lenten fast in the late winter, then another after Pentecost, the Apostle's fast, which varies in length. Two other fasts are observed: The brief Dormition fast in the middle of August and the Nativity fast, which begins at the end of November and lasts until Christmas on Jan. 7. The fasting diet is without meat, alcohol or dairy. There are no parties or entertaining of any kind.
Before guests arrive, tuck a white napkin under each plate, and let it hang down to the guest's lap. In certain parts of southern Russia or the Balkans, hosts do not sit during the feast, but are constantly at the guests' service. Always have an icon on the wall near the table, normally with an oil lamp in front to illuminate it. In southern Russia, this would also have an embroidered cloth framing the image. In general, northern Russian colours are warm and deep, such as dark green and burgundy, reflecting forest life. Southern Russian and Ukrainian colours are lighter, centring around light blue and yellow. These colours are normally for the accents and general background, but you need not be particularly strict about these. Russian peasant fashion is very colourful, almost wildly so.
No one is turned away from the table. It is customary in pious households to invite the poor to eat with you, whether you know them or not. The table is never a place for argument --- the table itself is an ancient symbol of unity and family, regardless of the people around it. The household itself is a small church, and is a sacred space of unity. If it is an Orthodox household, then the home would have an icon corner. This should be venerated by Orthodox guests prior to greeting the hosts. If you are not Orthodox, make no comment about it. Anything left over is given to the poor by the hosts. Grace is always said both before and after meals by the father of the family.
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