At Taste to Eat, a contemporary restaurant with a distinctly SEO-unfriendly name in St Petersburg, I am about to plunge into a chicken kiev, its heart bursting with garlic. Over the past five days I have eaten hot pyshki doughnuts covered in sugar, scarfed down herring under fur coats, and gobbled barley porridge with blood sausage. I have looked askance at beef wobbling in grey-brown aspic. I’ve tasted mead and pickled mushrooms where you can practically taste the mud on the fingernails of the people who made them. I have had borscht (exceptional) and borscht (execrable) and borscht (middling). In tearing the pizza-like crust of a katchapuri and dipping it in its central egg and molten cheese vat, I have learned the joys of Georgian cuisine. Despite all this, I worry I am no closer to answering the question I set out to answer: what’s Russian food actually like?
This is a culinary immersion into Russia organised by Intrepid, a travel company that likes its visitors to get under the skin of the destination. Clearly it is not without a sense of irony. After all, a Russian culinary tour sounds about as paradoxical as an English weather tour or, I suppose, an English culinary tour.
“Part of the inspiration for this trip was knowing that Russia had so much more to offer,” says Neil Coletta, a trained food anthropologist who oversees Intrepid’s food tours. “But home cooking is so important here and it can be difficult to discover if you don’t know where to look.” In many countries, what and how people eat is changing quickly, but Russian food finds itself in the grip of recent specific political circumstances, as is made clear when a man offers me a cheese sample under the domed concrete roof of Moscow’s Danilovsky Market, near the Moskva river.
This used to be one of the city’s busiest farmers’ markets, where Muscovites would come for their weekly shop. Like so many across Europe it has evolved into something more hipster. There are craft ales, smoothies, sushi and plenty of other concessions that would not feel out of place in Lisbon or London, but others are more specific to the region: meats from Dagestan; cloudberry and dogwood jams from Karelia, on the border with Finland; dried apricots and nuts from Tajikistan; Armenian stuffed vine leaves; chafing dishes piled high with Uzbek plov, rice cooked with carrot, onion, raisin and tender chunks of mutton.
“What is it?” I ask the cheesemonger.
“Gorgonzola,” he replies, with a grin. I eat it and raise an eyebrow. There’s a bluishness to it, but it has none of gorgonzola’s creaminess or texture.
“Not gorgonzola,” I say.
Our guide, Xsenia, steps in to explain. “The EU embargo was a positive kick for our farmers to do something different,” she says. “Before 2014, we would import cheeses, but now local providers and ordinary people are doing their own.” In other words, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea has been an unexpected boon for Russia’s artisan food producers. Russian authorities are said to have destroyed 20,000 tonnes of banned produce, so the locals are making do. There aren’t any naming restrictions, either, when you have nothing more to fear from EU regulation. Those planning to make their own Brexit brie may find this heartening.
There’s more to life than sour cream, beetroot and dill, in other words, which is not the same as saying those things don’t feature at all. As wonderfully haute as cuisine Russe can be, much of what we eat is obviously informed by Russia’s size, its climate and its history of economic hardship.
The trip involves several definitions of “home cooking”, and dill, the spindly green monster of a national herb, is never far away. The first night in Moscow we visit Mari Vanna, a smart restaurant done up like a babushka’s living room, a haven of purest chintz, with doilies, floral wallpaper and a snoozing cat. Waiters bring out pickles and potato-and-mayo-based Olivier salad, herring ”under a fur coat” with its Instagrammable rainbow layers of grated beetroot, onion and mayonnaise, and various sorts of pelmeni dumping. The meal is jolly right up to the moment I discover there is a branch in Knightsbridge.
Next morning we head out to Suzdal, a holy town a short train ride from Moscow, in the Golden Ring of similar sites that surrounds the capital. Its remoteness saved it during the Soviet industrialisation, as nobody could be bothered to knock the churches down, and now its many bell towers endure as a lure to tourists. A couple of bored-looking men were selling mushrooms and pine-cone jam in irregular jars. A different kind of attraction is the house of Helen Polezhaeva, a charismatic former chef who now offers at-home classes to Intrepid’s visitors. She teaches us the secrets of borscht, which she prepares using ingredients from her sprawling kitchen garden, where the bearded irises are in flower between the rows of vegetables. “Women must learn to cook borscht before they get married,” she explains. For some borscht is shorthand for dodgy former Soviet-bloc cooking, dour purple gruel. In Helen’s hands it becomes something else entirely, rich and sour and sweet and perfectly balanced, which is lucky, as she gives the impression she, and many others, still eat a lot of it.
While Moscow might have the more dynamic restaurant culture, it is in St Petersburg that the clashing forces in Russian cuisine are clearest. On opposite sides of Nevsky Prospect, the city’s most famous road, which has more than 140 restaurants, are two types of canteen. Stolovaya No 1 Kopeika is a traditional Soviet-era spot, where anyone can come for a cheap lunch of average soups and dumplings. If you picture “Soviet canteen”, you’re right. Down the street is Marketplace, an international version of the same concept, where for three times the prices you can eat blackened cod and sushi and pasta and drink flat whites and international beers.
Back at Taste to Eat, as I consider the kiev, I wonder if there’s a lesson to be drawn from the contradictions of Russian cooking. How it is fiercely protective of its traditions, but open to certain kinds of innovation; how it is susceptible to the forces of globalisation even as embargos make trade impossible; how its politicians project a froideur at odds with the hospitality of its people. About how genuinely weird its attachment to dill is. But then I am offered another toast, the same as last night’s: to new friends, and so I drink up.
Intrepid Travel’s 10-day Russia Real Food Adventure starts at £1,520pp, including accommodation, ground transport, most meals and activities but not flights
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