Those of you who are most versed in Russian culture have probably recognized a little “play on words” with the Russian ptichye moloko (птичье молоко), the name of a popular candy (more on that below).
Albeit not about the famous sweet, this post is also about a very heartfelt national tradition: that of feeding the birds during the cold, long winters of Russia. To help all non-migratory birds survive the winter season, people are used to set up little bird feeders, especially in city parks or in the omni-present little patches of green and trees between apartment buildings in the cities. Sometimes these contain only millet or other cereals or seeds, while other times these are wrapped up in a ball of lard, to provide the animals with much needed extra fat and calories.
Milk (and, like in this case, Kefir, a sort of “Russian yoghurt”) cartons are the perfect bird-feeder to create for those who are not good at wood working or DIY. All you need is a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to cut two large holes on the sides. They are built as containers of a liquid substance, so they don’t suffer from humidity or snow and the plastic spout makes it really easy to pass a rope through and hang it from a tree branch.
Here’s a bit more information about the better known Bird’s milk. In Russia, ptichye moloko was originally a type of candy introduced in 1967 in Vladivostok and in 1968 by the Rot Front factory in Moscow. It became a hit, and mass production was started in 1975 by the Krasny Oktyabr (“Red October”) confectionery factory in Moscow. In 1978, the popular candy was transformed into a cake by Vladimir Guralnik in Moscow’s Praga Restaurant. This was a light sponge cake filled with an airy soufflé and topped with chocolate glaze. A distinct feature of the Russian recipe is the usage of agar-agar instead of gelatin as a thickening agent which withstands the high temperature needed to reach the optimum soufflé consistency. The recipe was quickly copied by other restaurants in Moscow. In the 1980s, a special factory for ptichye moloko cakes was built in the Novye Cheryomushky district in the south of Moscow. Both the cake and the candy versions of ptichye moloko are widely available to this date in supermarkets and specialty stores all over Russia.
And if you are also curious about the origin of the name, here it goes! One would be tempted to think that “bird’s milk” or crop milk, literally derives from the milk, produced by certain birds to feed their young. However, this is not the origin of the name. The concept of avian milk (Ancient Greek: ὀρνίθων γάλα, ornithon gala) stretches back over two thousand years. Aristophanes uses “the milk of the birds” in the plays The Birds and The Wasps as a proverbial rarity. The expression is also found in Strabo‘s Geographica where the island of Samos is described as a blest country to which those who praise it do not hesitate to apply the proverb that “it produces even bird’s milk” (φέρει καί ὀρνίθων γάλα). A similar expression lac gallinaceum (Latin for “chicken’s milk”) was also later used by Petronius (38.1) and Pliny the Elder (Plin. Nat. pr. 24) as a term for a great rarity. The idiom became later common in many languages and appeared in Slavic folk tales. In one such tale the beautiful princess tests the ardor and resourcefulness of her suitor by sending him out into the wilderness to find and bring back the one fantastical luxury she does not have: bird’s milk. In the fairy tale Little Hare by Aleksey Remizov (who wrote many imitations of traditional Slavic folk tales) the magic bird Gagana produces milk.
Would you like to discover the Russia that foreigners rarely, if ever, get to see, with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!