Saturday, October 13, 2012

a riddle wrapped in an enigma (but with better than expected noms)


Some lazy cross-posting for those who don't read my food blog.


“Russia is better to see once, than heard hundreds of times” 

Iceland, Portugal and Brittany headed my list of where to go for a spare week in Europe. Russia was someone else’s idea entirely but somehow it wormed its way to the top and we found ourselves in the most intriguing countries I’ve ever experienced.

From the bowels of the grey, smoky confines of St Petersburg airport, eventually the unsmiling immigration officers spat us out one by one to wait for our luggage. We’d read that taxi drivers were rogues but after a relatively smooth transaction at the kiosk we found ourselves travelling at good speed to our hotel, just in time for the tour briefing. Actually we were two minutes late and the guide let us know of her displeasure (though not as severely as the hapless travellers whose plane got in even later than ours). 

It’s quite possible at that point, after travelling all day from Amsterdam, we wondered why we’d come to Russia. Even more so after an unappetising hotel breakfast that segued into a bus ride in the rain to a large souvenir shop.

Perhaps it was the first shot of vodka that welcomed us to the retail haven, or the break in the clouds that appeared later in the day but  from then on St Petersburg began to shine. Though sadly not in time to illuminate the Church on Spilled Blood, for the iconic photo opportunity. However for a city that reportedly has only 40 sunny days a year we managed to score a number of them. 

And a bit like the weather, the earlier school-mistressy manners of our guide also blossomed, revelling a friendly and amusing soul beneath her initial strictness.

What I dreaded most about Russia was the food. Avoiding meat and dairy I feared this could be the worst culinary week of my life, as all the national dishes are laced with sour cream or cooked in a meat stock. But fortunately it turned out to be quite the opposite.

Too many meals were on a tight deadline, with so much to do and too little time to do it (and large chunks of time gobbled by the unpredictability of some of the worst traffic congestion in the world). Despite the prevalence of global brands everywhere reminding you that urban Russia is a first world country with barely a visual reminder of its communist past, restaurant service can be notoriously slow. If you have less than two hours to eat, self-service cafeterias are the way to go. And they are everywhere we went in the cities. Unlike some of the modern full service restaurants, there is no menu and certainly nothing in English to inform your choices. There are rules around where and how to queue for hot or cold dishes, drinks and what not which we no doubt blundered through. Like all good cafeterias you grab a tray. There was always an amazing array of salads, some even vegan, most vegetarian. On the subject of vegan food, these self-service restaurants will inevitably have more than salads to fill you, with hearty bean dishes and potatoes in some form. But having said that, the salads were good and with a more lavish selection of vegetables than we’d experienced throughout central Europe. Hot food was always presided over by non-communicative servers. Unless you speak the language, there’s no point asking but all my guesses paid off and I managed to find something hot and tasty sans-meat every time. There were chunks of perfectly cooked fish, cooked vegetables, spicy red bean stews and veggie or fish based patties. Then there were the spuds. Fried chunks of potatoes cooked with crispy mushrooms. Not sure if this is a year round dish, or just for autumn with the abundance of wild mushrooms. Every Russian, our guides asserted, knows how to identify edible fungi. Foraging, once a necessity for survival, seems permanently imprinted on the DNA.

While the cafeterias aren’t haute cuisine, they were always tasty and I never had a dud meal. They are also a bargain, which in Russia is rare, filling up for $5-10. I even enjoyed the excitement of not quite knowing what I’d chosen. A simple beetroot salad in Moscow was an unexpected winner (a small dish for about $2). Now I write about this six weeks later, I’m wishing we had a few of these iconic eateries in Melbourne.

However it was a hip, regional restaurant that kidnapped my tastebuds and made me fall in love with the cuisine. It may have cost ten times that of the humble cafeteria but that’s small potatoes for Russia.

Baklazhan (Aubergine in English) is nestled on the top floor of Galleria, a big new shopping centre near the Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg (not unlike Chadstone). The food is Caucasian (Georgian) and Uzbek, with an arresting spiciness and freshness. But I’m getting ahead of myself. From the confines of the shopping centre you enter a different world, met by some, lithe young woman who is surely a model on the verge of her big break and ushered into a large but comfortable restaurant, fitted out by an interior designer with a world-class eye. English menus are available; waiters likewise speak the language and serve efficiently with a smile. With comfortable banquettes and seating that accommodates cozy couples, through to large celebratory groups this restaurant was buzzing with a wide variety of well-heeled diners. A seduction was underway to one side, two professionally attired women caught up over a glass of wine and shared plates on another, a multi-generational family group arrived with presents and flowers and behind me an impeccably dressed gay couple in their thirties sat with their small but well-behaved dog.

And the food was spectacular. Now that I’m home I’ve already begun experimenting with making the starter – a walnut dip with a hint of chili wrapped in sliced of grilled eggplant. The chili beans were the best I’ve ever eaten. While the ubiquitous fried potatoes and mushrooms were studded with chanterelles. Spectacular.





(yet again my desire to eat won, the camera only came out after eating two of these delicious offerings)

Both St Petersburg and Moscow are known for great sushi and it came in handy when wanting a change from the cafeterias. Despite the geography, food seemed amazing fresh in these cities (though much is imported). But what amazed me most was the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially the abundance of seasonal produce like mushrooms and berries.

At a small market just off one of Moscow’s biggest tourist strips, Old Arbat Street, locals picked over some of the best raw ingredients on offer. After trawling through the street markets in Austria and Germany that had such a narrow and boring array of goodies, my heart sang to see the variety of fruit, vegetables, mushrooms and nuts on display. It was just a pity this was our last day in the country, my belly was full (of the aforementioned beetroot salad and fish) and the supermarket beckoned to stock up on vodka.











While I ate no borscht of perogi in Russia, I’m inspired by Georgian food, the humble beetroot and oh, my, all those amazing mushrooms. St Petersburg also fed my soul with other worldly opulence (Catherine Palace, it’s amber room and mirrored ballroom that I plan to revisit in the new Anna Karenina movie) and art to die for (The Hermitage, need I say any more?). It’s the Venice of the north and exceedingly pretty. Moscow had an edginess that thrilled me. I loved the short rides on the subway with it’s opulent Soviet era stations adorned with art and chandeliers but it was the city by night all lit up for a party and a quiet cemetery by day that made me want to come back for more. 

And the food, way much better,and often cheaper, than expected.

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