Kolomna: The Russian town built by apple sweets

Women in crinolines and bonnets, carrying trays loaded with treats and dainty teacups, weave their way between white cast-iron tables beneath the boughs of old fruit trees. People chat and enjoy the sunshine as it glints off the golden onion domes of the neighbouring church, while steam from a samovar swirls gently into the air. Along with these other visitors, I came here for a little taste of history.

The setting for this garden cafe is the medieval town of Kolomna, which lies 113km south-east of Moscow in a picturesque location at the confluence of three rivers. Kolomna has been renowned for its gardens and orchards since the 15th Century. In spring, a froth of apple and cherry blossom spills over into the streets from behind pastel-painted wooden palisades – a short-lived but spectacular display. Fruit has always been grown here, and it is no accident that the name of this town has become synonymous with an apple-based delicacy: pastila.

Pastila, pronounced with the stress on the final “a”, was first mentioned in the 16th-Century Russian Domostroi (Domestic Order), a codex of household rules and instructions on various religious, social and domestic matters. Originally developed as a means of preserving the apple harvest and providing a sweet treat throughout the winter months, it has nothing to do with the French pastille (another kind of sweet); instead, its name comes from the Russian verb postelit’ (to lay out).

Pastila is often equated with marshmallow, but this comparison does not do justice to its uniquely ethereal quality. It is made by baking apples until they are soft, then blending them into a purée before whipping them “into clouds” with egg whites and sugar. The mixture is spread out onto trays to a depth of about 2cm, then dried in a cool oven before being cut into strips or shapes. It’s an entirely natural product made exclusively from fresh ingredients; no starches, additives, colourings or preservatives are used, and it is low in calories. Pastila production requires firm, sour apple varieties – Russia’s famous Antonovka is the most suitable, being richer in pectin (a natural gelling agent) than other varieties.

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