Sturgeon in Aspic
'Bland calm' is the phrase Lesley Blanch used to describe one of Russia's most adept generals and one of the country's all-time most powerful people, Count Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov. He fought Napoleon; he was commander of the Russian forces occupying France after Waterloo; he personally settled the debts his officers ran up in Paris from 1815 to 1818; he took on and defeated the countries of the Caucasus. In The Sabres of Paradise (1960), Blanch described Vorontsov as 'the apotheosis' of his family:
It was as if many generations were all embodied or crystallised in this arrogant, astute and ruthless yet high-principled man. He was an enigmatic figure, coldly handsome, a great milord in the English manner, haughty and reserved. He seldom smiled and never lost his air of bland calm. No one knew him well.
Puskhin knew something about him – he was Vorontsov's wife's lover, and based Tatiana in Eugene Onegin on her. He wrote of his rival:
Half-hero and half ignoramus
Let's add half-villain to this toll.
However, there is still a hope
That he will presently be whole.
No cowardly act, that, given Vorontsov's reputation, but some of that legendary bland calm must have kicked in.
Vorontsov built a spectacular palace for himself on the Crimean peninsula. Such was the impressive grandeur of the buildings that years later Alexander II asked for alterations to the palace he had acquired nearby, Livadia, to be made with the same stone, only to be told that it was too expensive even for him. Vorontsov's architect was Edward Blore, who completed Buckingham Palace after John Nash was pushed aside. 'Hybrid' would be one way to describe the style of the place – part Gothic, part Mughal – and because of its strong British association it was where Churchill and his delegation to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 were put up. The Vorontsov palace, along with the Livadia and Yusupov palaces, where the American and Russian delegations were housed, may have been ransacked by the departing Germans – Stalin ordered emergency restoration works.
One of several Times reporters covering the conference wrote: 'All these palaces are set on the high wooded Crimean coast overlooking the sea with snow-capped hills in the background. The return of spring was shown in the appearance of snowdrops and mimosa, but it was overcoat weather most of the time.' As it happens, I have one of those Yalta overcoats; my grandfather, Gladwyn Jebb, was a member of British delegation who had for several years worked on postwar planning and the formation of a United Nations, and he took that coat with him.
There were several daunting banquets at Yalta, and the menu for the last of them, at the Vorontsov palace on 10 February, was as follows:
White and Red Salmon
Sturgeon in Aspic
Suckling Pig with Horseradish Sauce
Vol-au-Vent of Game
Cream of Chicken
White Fish, Champagne Sauce
Shashlik of Mutton
Wild Goat from the Steppes
Pilau of Mutton
There's a nod to Tatar, Russian and French cuisine – nothing of a Ukrainian dimension. (Chicken Kiev, in case you're wondering about that dish, seems to have been a wholly Soviet invention, just as the Ploughman's lunch was the invention of a marketing department.)
Churchill wrote about the banquet in his history of the Second World War, and on this occasion he got on with his host: 'When the Marshal left many of our British party had assembled in the hall of the villa, and I called for three cheers for Marshal Stalin, which were warmly given.'
The Vorontsov palace is set in grounds that were first developed by Grigory Potemkin, who annexed the Crimea in 1783. It's one of the most invaded places on the planet – some parts of the peninsula have even been Venetian. In 1787 Catherine the Great toured the peninsula with Potemkin and planted two cypresses in what are now the Vorontsov gardens to mark her arrival in what was then new Russian territory.