Filled with a rich, creamy blend of butter, sugar, eggs and the juice of three freshly squeezed lemons, Anke Pie was Russian author Leo Tolstoj’s favourite dessert. His wife, Sofya, named it after Dr Nikolai Anke, a friend of her mother’s who had passed the recipe on to her family. “Ever since I can remember, on all festive occasions, big holidays and name days were always and invariably celebrated with Anke Pie. Without it, a meal wouldn't have been a meal, and a feast wouldn't have been a feast,” wrote Tolstoy’s son Ilya in his memoirs.
Later in life, the grandfather of literary realism would find himself struggling with his love of luxury. In an 1891 edition of The Atlantic magazine, the American writer Isabel P Hapgood recalled a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate south of Moscow, during which the 63-year-old count gestured at the long dining table set by servants beneath the birch trees: “You perceive the sinful luxury in which I live,” he told his guest, waving his hand towards the furniture, and saving what Hapgood saw as “special bitterness for the silver forks and spoons”.
Although he continued to be waited upon into his 80s, both by his staff and the frustrated wife who typed up all his manuscripts, Tolstoj had come to despise the extreme inequalities of the Russian class structure. When crops failed in 1873, he stopped writing Anna Karenina for a year to organise aid for the starving, telling a relative: "I cannot tear myself away from living creatures to bother about imaginary ones."
This interest in social justice came late to the novelist, whose early life has been described as “raucous, debauched and violent”. Born in 1828 to a noble family who owned hundreds of serfs, Tolstoj had cause for some anger. His mother died when he was two, and his father died when he was nine, having gambled away much of the family fortune. “I killed men in wars and challenged men to duels in order to kill them,” he wrote. “I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely and deceived people…”
Both Tolstoy’s youthful excesses and mature hopes for a simple, honest life are expressed through two characters in Anna Karenina. Anna’s lover, Count Vronsky, has the values of the young Tolstoj: a man who was “on familiar terms with everybody with whom he drank champagne, and he drank champagne with everybody”. While the character of Konstantin Levin is more comfortable working with the peasants on his estate and achieving “blissful moments” through the simple scything of grass, refreshing himself with earthy “green brew with bits floating in it”.
Tolstoy’s deep connection to nature began during his childhood. In his diaries he records idyllic afternoons spent fishing for tench, bream, carp, perch and sterlet, in a deep pool near his grandmother’s house. He liked to sit with the local cattlewoman and share heavy, black rye bread and milk fresh from the cows with the peasant children. On another occasion he recalls foraging for hazelnuts: “I remember how the nuts cracked on all sides under the teeth of the girls who were with us, and how we, without ceasing, chewed the fresh, full white kernels.”
By the age of 30 Tolstoj resolved never to marry, but changed his mind by 34, when he wed 18-year-old physician’s daughter Sofya, who would bear him 13 children. She also copied out all his literary works – no mean feat as she claimed that he only published a small fraction of his output, and the mammoth War and Peace was originally “seven times as long”.
Arriving at Yasnaya Polyana, the teenage Sofya was shocked by the rough, rustic furnishings but formed an immediate alliance with the cook, Nikolai Mikhailovich: a former flautist from the orchestra of the old prince Volkonsky. “And why did you become a cook?” she records asking him in her diary. ‘“I lost my mouthpiece, your eminence,” he replied, with a sly smile. Sofia would take over the cooking herself on the regular occasions when Nikolai was drunk.
Tolstoj himself would eventually renounce alcohol and embrace pacifism and vegetarianism. "It is not the suffering and the death of the animals that is horrible,” he wrote, “but the fact that the man without any need for so doing crushes his lofty feeling of sympathy and mercy for living creatures and does violence to himself that he may be cruel.”
On her visit, Isabel P Hapgood confirmed that: “At no meal did the count ever eat a mouthful of meat, despite urgent persuasion. Boiled buckwheat groats, salted cucumbers, black bread, eggs with spinach, tea and coffee, sour levas (beer made from black bread), and cabbage soup formed the staple of his diet.” His daughters followed him in his vegetarianism, but Sofya and their sons resisted. Sofya would also smuggle beef bouillon into his mushroom soup when he was ill.
Tolstoj’s most quoted line is the one about all happy families being alike, while the unhappy are unique in their misery. There was much to distinguish the peculiar clashes between him and his wife towards the end of his life – and they disagreed over more than the menu. Struggling to understand why a man who had written his female characters with such insight and compassion could treat his own wife with insensitivity, Sofya believed her husband was sumasshedshiy: “going out of his mind”, and fought furiously against the “lunatic” disciples with whom the aging count surrounded himself. She argued in vain as he gave up the publishing rights to his work.
Tolstoj is buried in an unmarked grave on the green hill at Yasnaya Polyana, where he played as a child. Today, tourists visiting the estate they can enjoy a special gastronomic tour of the author’s ramshackle home, concluding with a slice of rich Anke Pie.