From new versions of age-old recipes to farm-to-table restaurants, Moscow is having a mouthwatering moment
Christmas in Moscow looks like a scene on one of those lacquer boxes for which Russia is famous. The trees in Red Square wear an ermine layer of snow and drip with baubles; canopies of lights twinkle in the streets (walk under them with your head skywards and you could have stumbled into Narnia).
This isn’t the Moscow I visited in 1987, and the food isn’t the same either. Then, it was all ham fritters, bad sauerkraut and cherryade that hadn’t so much as sniffed a cherry. The only good food was in Georgian restaurants and the occasional small market, with mounds of pomegranates, cheeses and huge bouquets of herbs. Ordinary Muscovites didn’t eat or shop in these, though: too expensive.
I’ve returned out of curiosity. When communism ended, foreign food began to arrive and so did foreign restaurants. Moscow fell in love with Italian, then sushi. As a new wealthy class splashed their cash, restaurants were about bling as much as eating. Now, among food lovers, there’s much debate about what Russian food actually is (and where it’s going). Some, like restaurateur Vlad Piskunov, are looking to 19th-century Russia. The menu at his restaurant, Matryoshka, is rich with duck, pike and pies of brioche-like dough filled with wild mushrooms. ‘We have to go back to go forwards,’ he says.
Food historians Olga and Pavel Syutkin, authors of the CCCP Cook Book, feel that the ideologically shaped Soviet cuisine can’t simply be banished. Lunch with them is a roll call of Soviet classics such as salad Olivier, the once ubiquitous diced vegetables and peas in mayonnaise. As food is about memory, they argue, an entire nation isn’t going to throw out decades of Soviet mayonnaise and tinned vegetables if that’s what they grew up with. Some chefs are even making revamped versions of Soviet classics (one referred to it as ‘Soviet ironic’).
Then there are the high-flyers – Vladimir Mukhin of the White Rabbit and the Berezutskiy twins from Twins Garden – young chefs who are creating a ‘new Russian’ cuisine based on old dishes, even folk tales, and great Russian ingredients (the search for these is hard, given that Russia encompasses 11 time zones).
There’s also a ‘farm-to-table’ movement backing small farmers and artisan producers (some of whom are trying to make Russian versions of the nowbanned European cheeses). Add to this dishes from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan – these countries were part of the USSR but their flavours and ingredients are part of modern Russia, too. Who knows where all this is going, but one thing is sure: food in Russia is no longer a joke – it’s blooming.