On Scents, Memories, and Borsch

Last night I dreamt of making borsch with my late grandmother Valentina. It’s been three years since I last made it, but in my dream everything was as precise as it was in real life, down to the smells of vegetables and the rough texture of Valentina’s cutting board. My dreams of Ukraine recur frequently, but this particular one was especially vivid.

I have been writing about scents and memories for many years, and yet it always strikes me as remarkable how strong the recollections can be. I also noticed that the more I studied aromas, as part of my perfumery training and later during my practice, the more I could evoke scented memories. For this reason, I encourage everyone to practice simple exercises, such as selecting a couple of simple scents (black pepper, lemon, orange, or black tea,) and smelling them every morning for a few days in a row. As you smell, try to describe the associations that the smells conjure up for you. If you write them down, even better. Once you put something into words, it becomes easier to remember, even if it’s as intangible as a smell.

If you’re curious about my grandmother’s borsch, I have a Ukrainian Borscht Poltava Style recipe available on Bois de Jasmin. I know that some of you made it and liked its combination of flavors. I find it to be the ultimate comfort food, and this weekend I will be in the kitchen making it and reliving my Ukrainian moments.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Marsha Smith: Victoria: I love it when you post about your grandmother November 18, 2022 at 9:13am Reply

  • Zazie: Me too!!! 🙂
    I also love when she posts recipes (I must have missed this one when it was first published), so double treat for me!
    I’m very curious about Borsch, I think I’ve never tasted it, but it does look like a real comfort food – therefore, delicious. November 18, 2022 at 11:23am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s like minestrone, full of vegetables, rich and delicious. November 21, 2022 at 4:08am Reply

  • Leila: Smells belong to a world beyond me. I feel that I have never been ordered to enter such a world. But this does not mean that smells do not flow in my life. And maybe now is the time for me to try my luck. Your advice is helpful to me. I have a black tea that I brought to remind me of the tea plantations of Tonekabon. I have to invite myself to the smell of this tea in the morning. And I would really like to try Ukrainian borscht. November 18, 2022 at 11:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Black tea is a good way to introduce yourself to scents, especially if you drink it every day. Just take a moment to smell it, trying to observe its different nuances. Soon you will be doing it automatically. November 21, 2022 at 4:09am Reply

  • AndreaR: I’m so happy you had such a wonderful dream.
    Happy you will continue your sensory adventure by making borsch this weekend.
    I’ve had great fun sitting with a group of Ukrainian ladies pinching varenyky (pyrohy in my family) and listening to them share their borsch recipes. Of course no one pays any attention because their family’s borsch is the best. One lady I know simply will not eat anyone’s borsch except her own.
    One of my Baba’s made borsch with pork ribs. My other Baba made it with center cut beef shank and an aunt used her mother’s recipe using chicken broth. November 18, 2022 at 12:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s true that the recipe you grew up with is the most delicious one. Plus, every family has their own rendition. November 21, 2022 at 4:10am Reply

  • Emily: A ballerina friend who dances across Europe for ABT selects a new fragrance when rehearsals begin for every show, then at the end of the show stores that fragrance away.

    Adore that notion of a systematic smell archive. She can revisit those perfumes whenever she wants to relive any show she’s been in & be flooded with memories particular to it. November 18, 2022 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also like that idea. Your personal roaster of memories. November 21, 2022 at 4:11am Reply

  • Shelly Rubinstein: Such an evocative post. I remember making Borscht with my Grandma Cissie her family were from Grodno Belarus I still cook all the recipes handed down. The smells in the kitchen remind me of happy times hearing about stories of life before the 2nd world war. I am inspired to try a variation on the usual recipe. She also used to make stretched strudel pastry and the smell of the cinnamon apples brown sugar and pastry is another happy smell. Thanks Victoria you always move me with your posts. We have everyone in Ukraine in our prayers x November 18, 2022 at 12:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also like the smell of apples, cinnamon, and butter. Such an evocative scent of holidays. Thank you for sharing this lovely memory of your grandmother. November 21, 2022 at 4:12am Reply

  • Albi: What a poignant essay. I shall make your borsch recipe this weekend, too. Sounds delicious ☺️ November 18, 2022 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you like it! November 21, 2022 at 4:12am Reply

  • WARA: Queridísima Victoria, thank you for sharing such an intimate experience!!! Your grandmother Valentina lives in your beautiful heart and the lovely memories you made together❤️❤️ We can smell the beautiful sopita!!! Full of love, and a potent/powerful protector against anything and everything that can hurt us. BUEN PROVECHO!!! November 18, 2022 at 2:18pm Reply

  • Jessie: I just made Borscht last night! I fell in love with it just 4 years ago when my BFF’s Polish mother made it for us one night. My husband and I enjoyed it today for lunch with grilled cheese sandwiches, so I sent my friend and her mom pictures of the beautiful ruby-hued soup. Now they’re telling me I need to make mushroom paszteciki to go with it. 🥰 November 18, 2022 at 3:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds wonderful. Mushroom paszteciki go so well with borsch. November 21, 2022 at 4:13am Reply

      • rainboweyes: We always had mushroom paszteciki with beetroot consommé – another wonderful borsch variety. It’s made with fermented beetroot juice (beet kvass). November 21, 2022 at 11:23am Reply

        • Victoria: That’s a great combination. I sometimes use beet kvass when I make borsch and I like its mild flavor. November 23, 2022 at 7:02am Reply

  • connie: Such a lovely story/memory! I too have a great Borscht memory at The Russian Tea Room in NYC in the 70’s. I was so sick and at Guggenheim with friends when I croaked out ” I must go get Borscht!” So I left and went alone on a snowy NYC day trudging through the streets looking so forward to Borscht at the end of my trek. Cozy in a booth alone at this great old spot I had my Borscht. I felt better immediately! Borscht is the best! November 18, 2022 at 7:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such a comfort food. November 21, 2022 at 4:13am Reply

  • Aurora: The power of dreams to evoke lost loved ones never ceases to astonish me. How you must treasure the times spent in Poltava, Aragon wrote ‘On ne meurt pas puisqu’il y a les autres’, your grandmother lives in you. Thank you for reminding us the power of scent on memories. November 19, 2022 at 12:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for this. November 21, 2022 at 4:14am Reply

  • Ewan: A little cold vodka with the Borscht too, perhaps! – Beluga, Zubrowska, Parlement
    Beetroot is good for the liver so that’s probably why it crops up in Eastern cooking – Shuba salad springs to mind too, with a bowl of pelmene and sour cream. November 20, 2022 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Pelmeni is a great winter dish. It’s been ages since I’ve had them. November 21, 2022 at 4:14am Reply

  • Diana: Dear Victoria, What a precious dream; I’m happy you shared it with us. Thank you. Well, looking at the borscht recipe I see that all I need do is to add the beet & sour cream to my mother’s minestrone recipe and I’m there! 🫶🏽💁🏻‍♀️ November 21, 2022 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, you’re right, the idea is similar. November 23, 2022 at 7:03am Reply

  • Sebastian: I have a Polish friend. She gave me her grandmother’s recipe for Barszcz with Uszka. I know grandmothers have a very special place in the hearts of Eastern Europeans. I’ll make that soup at Christmas this year and think of that wonderful, kind and elegant lady, although she’s not MY grandma. November 21, 2022 at 5:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Enjoy it! Grandmothers’ recipes are the best. November 23, 2022 at 7:03am Reply

  • My1stGradeTeacher: Borscht is so good. I used to live near a hole in the wall Russian market/cafe & they made homemade borscht soup. Sour cream on top is the icing on the cake lol. I bet the Ukrainian borsch is even better esp. if Valentina made it:) November 22, 2022 at 6:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: I miss my grandmother. Her borsch was unrivaled. November 23, 2022 at 7:05am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Off topic, I saw your book is available in the Netherlands since a few days. My father is reading Grey Bees at the moment. I am sure he will be delighted to read the Red Sirens afterwards. And me ofcourse!
    Stay strong! November 23, 2022 at 2:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much!
      I also read Grey Bees recently. Andrei Kurkov’s books are always so enjoyable. November 23, 2022 at 7:06am Reply

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