Russian specialities such as Pelmeni and Pierogi and a local soup called Schi – what was the chef’s verdict?!
Here at The Barn we are always on the the look out for new dishes for our menus.
When we were invited to visit friends in Russia it was the perfect chance to combine a family holiday with an introduction to Russian cuisine, hopefully to find some new ideas.
Our visit was to take in both Moscow and St Petersburg.
In the communist era, Russian food conjured images of watery cabbage soup and long listless queues waiting for bread. Things have changed. The availability of ingredients and the emergence of a new wealthy elite has led to the creation of a vibrant new restaurant culture.
Moscow has a population of 115 million, with 64 billionaires. Many of the best restaurants are pitching themselves at this ultra rich minority. It is a minority within which quality is often associated with price. In essence if something isn’t really expensive then it isn’t really worth getting. To overcome the problem of how to attract the ultra rich whilst still being affordable to a wider audience, many restaurants in Moscow offer a reasonably priced lunchtime menu alongside the eye wateringly expensive à la carte menu.
The unwary tourist can still get caught out. We went to a well known upmarket eatery called Aist. It was stylish and modern – all straight lines and subtly lit gloom. The clientele pencil thin, designer clad, beautifully groomed attractive young women. Or groups of business men gathered around vodka laden, shiny glass tables as their bored looking chauffeurs and body guards waited outside next to equally shiny limousines and sports cars.
We ordered from the lunchtime menu and, refusing to pay any attention to our friend and guide Jacqueline (a Moscow resident for the two previous years) as she attempted to mime a warning to us, we ordered two glasses of Chianti and a bottle of San Pellegrino to accompany our meal. When the bill came these drinks had added sixty five euros to the total.
Although our time and budget was limited and our exploration of Russian cuisine was only part of our touristic itinerary of site-seeing, historical and cultural, we did manage to sample a few classic Russian dishes.
We had excellent Borscht at Café Pushkin, and the Shchisliva café (try saying that after a few shots of vodka), and at Yat in St Petersburg. Interest in borscht waned after Jacqueline pointed out that it is actually a Ukranian dish, as is chicken kiev.
In the same vein what most people take for cheers in Russian “Na zdrowie” is actually Polish. Say this whilst drinking with Russians adn they will mock you. The Russian toast is “Za zdarov’e” which translates to “your good health”. Ironic really, when so many Russian men die prematurely due to over consumption of vodka – the life expectancy for a Russian male born today is just sixty.
The local Moscow soup is called Schi. It is a meat broth based cabbage soup. The ones we tried were hearty and full of flavour.
Pelmeni and Pierogi were staples on the menus of Moscow, in the same way that Tartiflette and Cheese Fondue are on the menus of Morzine.
Pelmeni, which we tried at both Café Pushkin and the Shchisliva Café, are often described as being meat dumplings and similar to Chinese wontons. The ones we encountered were more like ravioli or Nepalese momos. At Café Shchislwa they were filled with minced lamb and came with a blob of swede purée. They were pretty unappealing to look at – rather like mutant fried eggs, but they were full of muttony flavour.
Pierogi are rather like filled pancakes. They are made with a pasta like dough but mashed potato is added to the mix for a smoother texture. The pancake is then filled, folded, sealed, boiled and then fried: quite a process. At Café Pushkin it came as part of a tasting menu. It was rolled into a cigar shape with sealed ends. You broke through a crisp exterior into a sensual meaty interior: flavoursome and comforting.
A more modest café in St Petersburg served us a very different version, probably more in line with what your average non private jet owning Russian is used to. The filling this time was plain fried mince with salt and pepper. It was rather like a flattish deep fried Cornish pasty. No gourmet treat, but just the job for hungry people on the move.
As our Russian trip drew to a close we were left to mull over our experience. Culturally we had seen The Red Square, ballet in The Kremlin, The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, The Moscow State Circus, fantastic art galleries and more.
Our culinary experience was of a cuisine still evolving into a post communist form. The clichés of bland cabbage soups and and shortages of ingredients were gone. Old Russian classics are being rediscovered and reinvented: tempting Russian salads full of colour and texture; creamy beef stroganoff; The pierogi and pelmeni: as familiar to Russians as pizza and pasta are to Italians.
European wines and fizzy waters are out of the price range of most of us, but then you can always do as the Russians do and hit the Vodka. “Zah Vodka Zahraie”