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BBC TwoCooking in the Danger Zone

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 May 2007, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Stefan's diary: Chernobyl
Anna cooking
Despite the risk, Anna and her partner live in the exclusion zone
I love old ladies.

Especially Russian babushkas called Anna.

They just don't stop talking, and their conversation swerves wildly between subjects and moods almost as rapidly as their little legs swerve wildly around their kitchens while they gather obscene amounts of food to cram into your mouth.

One minute they're laughing and teasing and the next they are wailing, with tears pouring from their eyes.

The trouble with Anna was that she was a babushka living inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and all of her food had been grown on the toxic soil that received the fallout from the world's worst nuclear accident back in 1986.

And she was busy cooking me lunch.

I had been expressly forbidden to eat anything here by the Health and Safety team at the BBC, who didn't fancy the prospect of me suing them for radioactivity poisoning.

My producer Marc Perkins constantly reminded me - you see how I refrained from using the word 'nagged' - of this fact, but then he didn't have to deal with Anna.

Starting over

We visited Anna to find out how she managed to survive in almost total isolation, and to live amidst all the radioactivity.

If the authorities really wanted to remove her again, I suspect that blood would be shed
She and her partner - I never quite found out exactly what the relationship was, but they certainly argued like they were married - had been moved away from Chernobyl with everyone else in the days following the nuclear accident.

She burst into tears when she remembered that day, and all that she'd left behind.

But the place they moved to was awful, depressing and alien. And it had "black earth, your feet got stuck in it!"

So she moved back to her devastated farm, started all over again and carried on farming in the dead land.

The legality of her return is unclear, but if the authorities really wanted to remove her again, I suspect that blood would be shed. Anna was ferocious.

Temptation

Anna eating some soup
Anna and her partner grow and eat their own food
She allowed me to ask her questions about the accident while she made her lard borsht with potato noodles.

But all she really wanted to know was why I wouldn't eat her food. "What's wrong with you?", she asked. "There's nothing to fear from my food - God will protect you." Needless to say, Marc wasn't convinced.

The woman was incorrigible.

It was hard enough trying to deal with the bizarre circumstances that I found myself in: I was a food writer making a TV series about food in places going through crisis, and I was watching a meal being cooked for me by a wonderful - if a little scary - woman who was treating me as if I were her own son...yet I was supposed to turn it down.

Added to that, it was lunchtime and I was famished.

Then Anna started to use every trick in the babushka's book to try to get me to tuck in: humiliation, wheedling, bullying, crying, laughing and shouting.

Did I resist? Did I heck.

'Delicious' food

In the end I was defeated by simple means: all she had to do was put the food on the table with a pat of her home-made butter and the smell rose up to my nostrils.

Like a lamb to the slaughter I went straight for a spoon and dived in. Marc was moaning away behind me - although I noted that during all of this he never stopped filming - the man's a producer, for crying out loud.

Stefan holds a Geiger counter next to Anna who is eating some locally grown food
I have an inkling that my tastebuds were conquered by Anna herself
It was utterly delicious, even if it was just a thin watery soup.

Perhaps it was her home-reared pork fat that made it taste so good. Perhaps it was the home-churned butter, or perhaps it was the plum brandy that Anna fair shoved down my throat.

But I have an inkling that my tastebuds were conquered by Anna herself, by her wildly swinging moods and by the tears that she shed into her soup.

Radiation worries

A week later in Kiev I had a comprehensive radiation scan and there was, indeed, a raised level of radioactivity in my stomach.

Apparently it was common for someone who'd been to Chernobyl to be affected like this and it probably wasn't high enough to worry about - as long as it only happens once.

It would return to normal, the specialist told me.

I thought about Anna and worried that if she were constantly exposed to these levels, she would experience lasting damage.

She'd thought about this, though, and said 'I'm old - I'll die soon anyway'.

I hope not. I love old ladies.



SEE ALSO
Cooking in the Danger Zone: Food that kills
01 May 07 |  Cooking in the Danger Zone
Country profile: Ukraine
07 Mar 07 |  Country profiles

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