Russia: Out of the 'gastronomic ghetto'

Paella a la Russe is something that would've been unimaginably hard to find in Russian restaurants two decades ago. Photo / Thinkstock
Paella a la Russe is something that would've been unimaginably hard to find in Russian restaurants two decades ago. Photo / Thinkstock

Whether it's learning to make bacon ice cream, sampling lamb from the Kalmyk steppes, or rustling up paella a la russe, Muscovites have embraced all things foodie in a gastronomic revolution.

Hard to find just a few years ago as Russia remained burdened by the Soviet Union's gastronomic legacy, medium-priced restaurants that use locally sourced, seasonal ingredients have now become the hot new trend.

Magazines aimed at the upwardly mobile publish cooking columns, and the middle-classes are discovering the joys of the dinner party.

The monthly Afisha Food magazine has spearheaded the trend, and last weekend it packed crowds into a central Moscow park for a food festival that was the first of its kind in Russia.

Around 10,000 people flocked to the historic riverside Gorky Park, not dissuaded by a 600 ruble ($21) ticket price, as 40 restaurants presented special menus, chefs held master-classes and farmers sold home-grown produce.

Young couples with children in pushchairs and groups of friends happily queued for two hours to buy pork cooked sous-vide (sealed in a vacuum) and charcoal smoked, or chicken ragout with cherries and coriander.

"There has been an evolution in the way the middle classes see food. After 70 years in a gastronomic ghetto, we all tried out exotic dishes. And now we are looking for a happy medium," said Alexei Zimin, the editor of Afisha Food, a food columnist for Kommersant daily and the co-owner of Ragout restaurant.

"Cooking has become a big topic in the media. A huge amount of information has appeared on the subject," he told AFP.

On stage, in front of several hundred spectators, he reveals some tricks of the trade: for example, prawns with rosemary need to be sauted three times to ensure they are cooked through and juicy.

Ragout chef Ilya Shalev demonstrates how to make some unusual desserts, turning bacon into ice cream - as in the famed dish by British celebrity molecular chef Heston Blumenthal - and making salty caramel sauce as an accompaniment.

'Only started 20 years ago'

New Yorker Isaac Correa came to Moscow in 2003 and owns numerous restaurants serving innovative American-style food. He serves his ice cream in a cocktail with Pepsi and mozzarella with watermelon.

"People have become more knowledgeable. People read, people see, people travel," Correa said.

"Now they want to go to the restaurant not just to get a meal. They want to share different experiences."

The chef of Delicatessen restaurant, Ivan Shishkin, shows how to make a paella, Russian style, with spelt - a kind of ancient wheat increasingly back in vogue and only grown in a few Russian regions - and wild chanterelle mushrooms.

He says that he is on a mission to create the savoury flavour of umami, the fifth basic taste identified by the Japanese, using local produce.

"I am looking forward to the time for pickling apples so I can use them to season fish instead of miso," a highly salty Japanese seasoning, he says.

While Shishkin says he tries to use locally grown produce as much as possible, such as the spelt in the paella, he acknowledges that it would be impossible to rely on them entirely.

"That would make the menu too expensive and I want to stay within reasonable limits so that ordinary people like us can come to my restaurant."

The farmers' market displays lamb from the southern Kalmykia region, yellow cherry jam from Dagestan in the Caucasus and natural yoghurt from the Moscow region, at high prices that put off some visitors.

Yulia Fateyeva, a mother of three, stocks up on cheese, saying that she does not even look at the price and "adores farm produce".

But Marina Davydova complains that "everything is unaffordable".

"I would be happy to buy farm produce if it was at the price you see at markets in Paris or Nice," she said.

The founder of Lavkalavka, an internet store that sells fresh farm produce, Boris Akimov, argues that such high prices are unavoidable.

"I would also like this to cost less, but it's not so simple.

"In France, this culture has been around for 500 years. In our country, we only started 20 years ago," he said. "During the Soviet era, farmers were eliminated (in collectivisation) and their land was ravaged with chemicals."

- AFP

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