It's Saturday morning.
We enjoyed another one of the rice porridges that Dona Irina Zakharova had prepared for us for breakfast.
We had been massacring Russian guide Alexey Kravschenko with early awakenings for several days. That morning we left him alone in his seventh sleep. We left on foot.
We had arrived on the day of the Suzdal International Cucumber Festival. The date had long conditioned our itinerary in those parts of Russia. And we were more intrigued than ever by what such an eccentric celebration would turn out to be.
We crossed a long path through a sodden moor, with vegetation up to the neck or higher. When we leave the trail, we approach the city kremlin and the wooden bridge that connects to a street called Pushkarskaya.
Shortly after, we came across a fair installed on the slope that leads to the entrance to the local Museum of Architecture wooden.
Snack stall owners grill and promote shashliks tasty, others, dried and wild fruits, cotton candy, caramelized apples and a myriad of Russian or international gastronomic specialties typical of those popular events.
In addition, small entrepreneurs in the recreational sector impose appealing pastimes.
At the entrance to the museum, old ladies, who had passed by dozens of times, announce the most emblematic souvenirs of Suzdal and its abundant handicrafts, but also cucumbers.
Cucumber's Food Protagonism in Russia
In Russia, common everyday vegetables are onions, cabbage, carrots and cucumbers. Russians consider the latter to be the most nutritious and important. They use them in thousands of dishes and recipes.
They can be consumed in a pickle (or half pickle) with salt, vinegar or eucalyptus leaves, usually accompanied by vodka, pollute (traditional rye vodka) and the like. Also in several soups, such as borsch, the most popular in the country.
Cucumbers are also used in sweets, pastries, in sweetened meat and in the preparation of various liqueur drinks, but not only that.
Whatever the circumstances, Russians always have cucumbers in their town houses or in the dachas, their country houses.
They are sold in impressive quantities right up to the entrance to the metro stations and markets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
The people of Suzdal, in particular, boast of having the best cucumbers in central Russia. It carries out the most prestigious cucumber festival in the Tsar nation which, like so many others, takes place in the middle of the harvest season, during the summer when the heat is on and the days seem to have no end.
In the Suzdal area, many households earn significant income from growing and selling. Some seriously prosper: “I paid for my two children's school, our house, the car and much more, all with the crops we have.
For us, cucumbers are almost sacred!” So precious that a traditional belief in the area claims that green goblins protect them.
Rompante entry at the Cucumber Festival
When we entered the event area, we quickly confirmed, at least, its obvious protagonism as well. gastronomic In the event.
Dozens of producers and sellers arranged in two slightly straight and divergent lines, display, in small stalls, cucumbers of different types and sizes, raw or prepared. The fruit appears in sandwiches, soups, salads and complete dishes. Preserved in pickle-style jars or generous marcs.
And, less noticeable, in sweets, jams and chutneys. Other merchants have been displaying posters and postcards, magnets, bracelets and other forms of traditional jewelry, as well as works of art that surprise us with their creativity.
We were examining this interior fair when we came face to face with the procession that officially opened the festival.
A philharmonic band plays the dedicated anthem. Hundreds of participants in costumes inspired by or alluding to green cucumbers and holding green fluttering balloons follow it.
Other extras roll an ox cart in a careful country arrangement, featuring a pair of cloth cucumbers sitting back to back on a mound of dry grass.
Nearby, proud citizens of Suzdal wield a Russian and an Italian flag, representing the invited nation.
The band and the chasing parade conquer the gentle slope. At the top, the musicians climb onto a stage and continue the show, now facing an enthusiastic audience that applauds them.
The Inescapable Political Intervention and Thanks to Sponsoring Entities
But, as might be expected, also in Russia – or above all in Russia – events have their political obligations. One of Suzdal's leaders takes the makeshift platform and speaks vigorously. From what he exposes, we only notice the repeated spasibas finals to the entities that supported and made the festival possible.
Soon after, the mayor gives the prominence to a new musical group that is in charge of reanimating the spectators.
By then, there is already fun everywhere, among the museum's churches and traditional houses. We embark on an uncommitted tour to investigate the action.
From an early age, Russian children learn to value the cucumbers they see their parents consume – and help them to eat – in industrial quantities.
The Children's Entertainment at the Suzdal Cucumber Festival
The festival is also for them a special moment in their young existence. A moment that you live with the maximum intensity possible. We choked on straw when we decided to photograph the battles of some golden kids on a pile of dry hay installed for the purpose.
We also follow pillow fights on a raised bar, in which others perfect their warrior skills, under the mediation of an eccentric lady-referee.
Personalized memories are equally disputed. Adults, children and seniors alike put their faces in humorous panels and incorporate cucumbers flown by bees and butterflies.
Or they visit the costume stands dedicated to the theme and disguise themselves as different variants of the fruit, to the delight of family and friends who see them.
We mess with four foreigners who speak English with an Aussie accent. When we explain to them what we do, Miah Gibson is both proud and apprehensive. “Very well, but they don't publish these images in Russia, OK?
I work at the Australian consulate in Moscow. Seriously, diplomatic staff can't see me in these figures.”
In the image of what happened in previous days, the end of the afternoon brings high and dark clouds.
Suzdal's Typical Summer Evening Water Load
Until then, Suzdal had been spared heavy rains but no cucumber grows without water.
The meteorology took care of the irrigation and how. The deluge and the frightening thunderstorm make the enthusiastic public take shelter under the trees with denser canopy, the eaves of churches and houses and mills scattered around there.
Protected by the stage cover, the musicians on duty ignore the elements, intent on livening up the party. It's still hot and stuffy and some of the spectators are already too excited or drunk to care about the wetness.
They remain stoic between the stage and the seats in the audience and improvise a strange rain dance with pre-guaranteed results.
Gradually, the downpour fades away. The event's presenters call the audience back to the stage and inaugurate a hefty awards ceremony. There are rewards for a number of gastronomic categories and sweets.
The Inebriated Winners of the Biggest Cucumbers Contest
How do they win the first place in the cucumber eating test, in which they are supposed to bale as much as possible in a given time. The most prominent competition is, however, that of the biggest cucumber.
The winner and second place competitor receive due recognition and gift bags. We caught them going down to the back of the stage.
When we ask them, they pose for us in a good mood and surprisingly at ease. The winner is visibly drunk.
Once again, the runner-up is not far behind. After a minute or two of ordinary mime with the huge cucumbers, they allow us to take decent pictures. As a reward for the patience they felt they should recognize us, they still offer us the hyperbolic fruits.
All of a sudden, without any warning, we find ourselves grappling with the two huge triumphant cucumbers and we postpone as much as we can the fate we were about to give them.
We leave the museum space with the festival about to end. On the way home, a puzzled crowd tries to understand what two strangers with such contrasting looks are doing carrying cucumbers from Russian Entroncamento.
One after the other, they point us to their phones and ask if they can photograph us or they photograph us without ever asking, as is supposed to be done when spontaneity in the photos is required. We were not used to role reversals, but along the way, we took the lead with the fun and laughter that the dazzling festival deserved.
When we arrive at the inn, Dona Irina can hardly believe what she sees. Soon, he laughs and laughs at the explanation that Alexey translates for him. We offer you the cucumbers and suggest that you serve them in a salad or make pickles.
Much more knowledgeable about the agriculture and cuisine in question, the lady informs us that, from those exaggerated and worn specimens, she could only use the seeds. We remind her that, at least, the genetics were guaranteed, that if she planted them, she would have a strong chance of winning the grand prize at the next festival.
For a moment, Irina Zakharova ponders the suggestion but leaves us with the impression that such glory intimidates her.
Winter would soon claim Suzdal and cover her in white. With or without Irina, as soon as the snows and ices of that Russian interior gave up, several of its competitive farmers would take up the new challenge.
In a July as sultry and verdant as the one in which Alexey Kravschenko introduced us to Suzdal, the townspeople would once again praise their succulent cucumbers.