Red dawn

From new ver­sions of age-old recipes to farm-to-ta­ble restau­rants, Moscow is hav­ing a mouth­wa­ter­ing mo­ment

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - EAT IN -

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.

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