Russia is reinventing its culinary traditions


MOSCOW — On New Year’s Eve, dining tables across Russia will be covered with a mosaic of glistening red caviar, piroshki, pickled mushrooms, beet salad and herring. Chilled bottles of vodka and champagne flutes will dominate the dishes, mirroring the TV screens where the president – this year the returning Vladimir Putin – will give his annual toast before the Kremlin bells ring in the new year.

In Russia, no other holiday is so loved or celebrated. For me, New Year’s Eve dinners are the best culinary memory of the 1990s, when Russian stores mainly sold bread, milk, canned sprats and frozen chicken legs imported from the United States and nicknamed ” Bush’s thighs”.

Since then, Moscow and St. Petersburg have grown into expensive, globalized megacities with sushi bars, hookah lounges and pizzerias catering to locals’ thirst for all things foreign after the collapse of the Soviet Union. . For travelers, there has been little chance of finding good local dishes. But now, Russian chefs are starting to tap into their indigenous roots and the country’s geographic diversity to show that there’s more to their country’s cuisine than just potatoes and vodka.

This fall, in search of some high-quality, modern Russian cuisine, I attended the second annual Moscow Food Festival at the newly renovated and suddenly hip Gorky Park, which hosted a who’s who of the culinary revolution from country: food bloggers, celebrity chefs, beards Siberian honey producers and crowds of new foodies in the city come to taste dishes as varied as traditional mushroom pies and arctic sashimi.

I tried Ivan chai, or fermented chamerion tea, which was a major export from pre-Soviet Russia and is making a comeback. Nearby, Siberian farmers were selling lilac-colored flour made from bird cherry, a traditional regional product that gives cakes the color of chocolate and the nutty taste of rum.

It was encouraging. Alexei Zimin, festival organizer and food magazine editor, told me that we are witnessing the revival of Russian culinary tradition.

“Russians have always been very Western-oriented, but we’re starting to see a demand for a new type of Russian restaurant that focuses on a new take on Russian culinary traditions,” he said.

One of them is Schisliva, which opened this summer across from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and a short walk from the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of the Pussy Riot protest show for which three members have been arrested. one of the best vantage points in town.

After a tour of both sites, I had lunch of Schisliva Baked Beet Salad and Siberian Whitefish Dumplings in Morel Sauce. They were unusual, sophisticated and truly Russian. But the real highlight was the dessert: an ice cream with little candied pine cones and toasted pine nuts that made me feel like I had taken a walk in one of Russia’s many forests.

For a real walk the next morning, I headed along the tree-lined boulevards that form a pedestrian circle around central Moscow to the Patriarch’s Pond, home to swans in summer and ice skaters. in winter. There, among the chic boutiques, I found Mari Vanna, a fun restaurant designed like a 1960s apartment that serves Russian home cooking. Quickly becoming an international success, Mari Vanna is about to open a store in Los Angeles in 2013.

After a breakfast of apple pancakes and sea buckthorn tea, I continued along the boulevards towards Arbat, a pedestrian street filled with artist stalls and souvenir shops. My favorite was Arbatskaya Lavitsa, where I found a selection of gifts that reflect Russia’s rich culinary history: traditional wooden Khokhloma spoons, ceramic Gzhel bowls and birch bark spice containers.

My next stop was Vatrushka, award-winning chef Dmitry Shurshakov’s new restaurant. Sitting in the elegant brick dining room of a 200-year-old mansion, Shurshakov told me he wanted to reinvent classic 20th-century Russian recipes using common ingredients and new techniques.

“I call it positive Russian cuisine,” he said. “We want to tap into locals’ childhood memories and introduce foreigners to the top-notch products we now have in Russia.”

He suggested I try the sprat appetizer. Canned oily fish from the store shelves of the 1990s? And then he brought me a mix of sprats, dark rye bread cubes and sautéed eggplant that made a complex and filling dish that made me smile.

“You see what I mean by positive? asked Shurchakov. “If you want to see a mixologist who does with drinks what I do with food, go see Alexander Kan.”

Kan, one of Russia’s top mixologists, just helped open Time Out Bar on the roof of the Peking Hotel, where I found sweeping city views from a spacious 1950s room with marble columns and Soviet frescoes.

Kan served me his famous Isayev, the Russian version of a martini with concentrated birch juice instead of vermouth. I could see myself coming back for a Bloody Masha, with horseradish and honey, or the Samovar Kalinka Malinka, a vodka, cognac and viburnum punch served at tea time in a golden samovar, but I had a train to catch.

Four hours away, romantic St. Petersburg, with its canals, museums and aristocratic history, lay before you.

Contrary to the Moscow trend, St. Petersburg is a preservationist city that values ​​cultural continuity. That means beautifully restored churches, manicured gardens, stately mansions and plenty of museums.

I oriented myself in the Venice of the North on a canal boat tour that glides under a dozen bridges to the windy bay of the Neva River that opens to a fantastic view of the Museum of the Hermitage. Then, after a snack of roasted cabbage and lingonberry pies from the famous Stolle bakery, I visited the apartments-museums of Alexander Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, two of Russia’s most beloved poets whose dining rooms played a key role in cultural and political changes in the country.

For dinner, I decided to see a different kind of museum and headed to Russian Vodka Room #1, a restaurant that serves 20th-century Russian cuisine complemented by 213 kinds of vodka, a favorite drink whose fascinating history you can learn at the adjacent Russian vodka. Museum.

“The Bolsheviks destroyed a lot of our culinary history, but I hope there will be a renaissance of Russian cuisine,” Leonid Garbar, the restaurant’s owner, told me over an aperitif. “After all, how long can you poison yourself with sushi?

I love sushi, I thought, but he’s right. If Russia is proud of its cultural history, why is it only now rediscovering its culinary history?

I found the answer, of all places, at the Russian Museum, which houses an extensive collection of Russian art, from icons to impressionist paintings. Just as in today’s culinary world, Russian artists have always looked to Western Europe for a model of good art. What they ignored is on display in the museum’s folk art wing: fascinating foam dolls, clay ocarinas, embroidered tablecloths, birch containers and unusual pike-shaped cookie cutters.

One place that proudly preserves traditional Russian cuisine is Russkaya Charka, recommended to me by food historian Maksim Syrnikov. But when I saw the restaurant’s kitsch decor of samovars, peasant shirts and a stuffed wolf, I thought he must have been mistaken.

Then I looked at the menu: bear cutlets, elk stew, veal tongue. These guys were serious about their fare. So I ordered a Pozharsky escalope, a tender chicken fillet wrapped in chunks of crispy white bread that leaves no doubt as to why it was such a hit with 19th century crowds.

For a nightcap, I headed to The Hat, a bar that opened in the summer with no menu and no set hours, but live jazz every night and bespoke cocktails served by legendary bartender Grisha.

My request was simple: “I want something that I can’t find anywhere else.

He looked at me attentively, rubbed his red mustache and made two multicolored strokes topped with a slice of green apple.

“Happy to see you again!” Grisha said, and we downed a liquid that tasted like Plombir, a creamy vanilla ice cream I had as a little girl in what was then still the Soviet Union.

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