It is not a good time for Anglo-Russian relations, what with the Salisbury poisoning and various recent attempts to interfere in British democracy. But it’s worth remembering that the essence of Russia isn’t its political machinations but rather its people and their culture.
Food may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Tolstoy, Tarkovsky, Rodchenko, perhaps, but when it comes to culinary prowess, Russia’s repute stands some way off the celebrity of its epic novels, its grand ballets and its operas. If asked to name a Russian dish, most people will look blank for a moment before replying, ‘borscht’ — which happens, in fact, to be Ukrainian.
Yet Russia has one of the finest cuisines in Europe. It has the good fortune to be able to rely on both a wide range of natural produce (thanks to its vast tracts of arable land) and the varied influences of its near neighbours, who were formerly either regions or republics of the Soviet Union — hence the borscht confusion.
The Russian diet still reflects the peasant food ordinary Russians have eaten for centuries. Pastries and breads are abundant, while root vegetables, hearty soups and broths, dumplings, stews and cereal grains form the basis of most meals. All of which can be very tasty. These dishes are most often served in the home, with the samovar heating up on the sideboard and the vodka chilling in the ice cooler. Which is to say that Russia does not have a thriving restaurant culture. The restaurants that do exist cater only for the very wealthiest customers.
Happily for Londoners, though, the past ten years have seen a trickle of Russian eateries set up shop in the capital, catering to the native tastes of a small but growing band of expats, as well as to those of non–Russians discovering a cuisine quite unlike others on offer.
Russian bakery Stolle, just off Camden High Street, sells authentic thick-crusted latticed pies with fillings that range from fish to sweet fruits. The Stolle restaurant serves up no-nonsense dishes that you would be likely to find in any Russian home. These include the Soviet salad ‘herring under fur coat’ (the fur coat being several varicoloured layers of beetroot, mayonnaise, potatoes and pickles), and my own favourite, pelmeni — Siberian dumplings served in a broth, usually with a dollop of sour cream.
If the idea of Baltic herrings muffled in beetroot sounds a little too authentic, there are places which straddle the East-West divide. Bob Bob Ricard in Soho is one of them. Bob Bob Ricard rolls with a much loucher crowd than Stolle and on the inside looks a little like Baz Luhrmann’s Deco rendering of Gatsby Manor. The food, which seeks to find common ground between Russian and western European cooking, is nice if not spectacular. What you pay for is the trimmings, which include a personal champagne button at every table. You might say it’s gauche. In certain quarters of Moscow’s richest districts, it’s the new authentic. Across town, on the edge of London Fields, is Zakuski, which on Saturdays sells a range of flavoursome and reworked Russian salads from a stall in Broadway Market, as well as catering for events. The word zakuski is normally translated into English as ‘starter’, but for Russians it is something closer to the Swedish idea of a smorgasbord, whereby one takes a little from a range of hot and cold dishes. Salads play a starring role in many Russian smorgasbords and the stall serves the best of them, along with a few fusion variants. On a recent visit I had a salad with beetroot, walnut and prune and another with aubergine, tahini and garlic.
A stone’s throw from Zakuski is Little Georgia. In a culinary context, Georgia is to Russia as India is Britain. These former colonies bring the exoticism of warm southern climes to the drizzly north of their former rulers; but Georgian food hasn’t been bastardised nearly to the same extent as Indian food in Britain has. In a Russian town, Georgian food is often the best and most reasonably priced fare you will find.
Dishes tend to be a little more complex than earthy Russian ones. Walnut paste and pomegranate molasses feature heavily, but the standard of any Georgian establishment worth its salt should be based on the quality of its khachapuri, the national dish. The word in Georgian literally means ‘cheese’ (or ‘curds’) and ‘bread’ — and that’s really all it is. The dish is so popular in Georgia that the price of it is used as an index to measure inflation across the country.
Little Georgia does an excellent khachapuri and though I haven’t eaten every dish on the menu, you can make a fair guess that, judging by the cheese bread, they’re all pretty good.