An extract from this book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.
The Mongols created the world’s second largest empire. Their cavalry were a fearsome sight as they headed westwards to invade Russia and eastern Europe. What most impressed the peasants around Kazan was the soldier’s dexterity on horseback both with bows and arrows and with swords.
One day a peasant discovered a discarded Mongol sword and quickly found out how sharp it was. Once he stopped the bleeding his practical streak emerged and he realized that he could cut most of the vegetables from his garden very easily with the sharp blade. Only the larger potatoes were still difficult to cut – however, the peasant then had a brainwave – if he were sitting on a horse then he would be able to swing a lot harder and with more force and cut the potato in two.
He borrowed his neighbour’s carthorse and sure enough the extra height allowed the sword to cut through the largest potatoes with relative ease – the only problem now was ensuring that the sword didn’t become embedded in the table. As is the way of these things, the neighbour saw the peasant’s technique for cutting the vegetables and thought he could improve upon it. Thus a competition was born that has lasted until the modern day.
The first contest in 1263 was held amongst the citizens of Kazan. In turn, each contestant had to ride up to the table on their own horse and slice ten beetroot and ten potatoes in half making sure that their steed was always moving in a forwards direction. The results of the first few contests have been lost but the winner in 1273 was Alexis Yashin who not only sliced all the vegetables in half but did so the most accurately according to the Slicing Judges.
The contest was made more difficult in 1309 when a second table of vegetables was introduced meaning that 20 beetroots and 20 potatoes had to be sliced. In 1458 carrots and courgettes were added in a second contest where the winner was the person who cut the carrot and courgettes into the most separate pieces. In 1684 cucumbers and tomatoes were added in a third contest where not only did the vegetables have to be cut from top to bottom but also lengthwise too. These extra contests still required the cutter to be riding a horse.
In 1923 the judges decided that a precision element should be introduced into the contest so peas and red beans were added. Again riding a horse the contestants had to split the ten peas and ten red beans into two separate pieces with their swords.
By now the Kazan contest was known throughout the world and was popular with chefs who were keen to gain extra publicity for their food preparation exploits. One particular 3-star Michelin restaurant chef holds the record for cutting a courgette into 45 separate pieces while riding a horse. Unfortunately he was disqualified because he used his own brand of kitchen knife and not the Mongol sword as stipulated in the rules.
In 1987 fruit were added into the festival beginning with apples, pears, and bananas. 50 Apples and 50 pears had to be sliced into four separate pieces and thirty bananas into at least six. For the fruit contests a timing element was introduced as the fruit were laid out on a table fifty yards long and the contestants were allowed to stop their horse if necessary, but not to dismount.
The record for slicing all the fruit into the correct number of segments is 2 minutes and 6 seconds by Lev Bushkin from Novgorod in 1998. Lev started out by trying to slice tomatoes but found this difficult : “For slicing tomatoes you need to strike quickly as they are very soft and I wasn’t quick enough and the tomatoes turned to mushiness rather than separate pieces – I became depressed and almost gave up the sport but then apples were introduced and I was saved as they are harder and suit my slicing style.”
There have been a few disqualifications and injuries over the years. In 1652 a particularly heavy-handed competitor embedded his sword in the table and was pulled off his mount scattering the remaining vegetables on the ground. In 1993 a French competitor, Rene Laveque, was disqualified when his horse started to eat the apples on the table before he’d had a chance to cut them.
Once the contest is over all the vegetables and fruit are used to provide a sumptuous meal for the citizens of Kazan – a way of thanking them for creating and preserving this most entertaining of horseback sports.