Last month, after one of our daughters graduated from college and another from high school, we decided to take a family trip to Russia. Why Russia? It was on our bucket list, and my grandparents were Russian immigrants.
We didn’t have a lot of time, so we only stayed in St. Petersburg and Moscow, with a couple of day trips. While food and dining wasn’t as much of a priority as museums and sights, it was very interesting for me to try and make sense of the product in the markets and the culture of the restaurants.
In Moscow we rented an apartment not far from Dorogomilovsky Market – a huge indoor market surrounded by street stalls and vendors.
Vendors invite you to try a sample of any kind of fruit, vegetable, nut, dried fruit, pickle or condiment. I loved sampling my way through the fruit stands, which had the most incredible selection of cherries, plums and apricots, which I believe were coming in from the Caucasus. The sheer variety blew me away. There were glossy-skinned, fuzzy-skinned and red-blush apricots, and they were all small, with concentrated, sweet, bursty juices. The cherries were sweet and sour, firm and soft, white and red. All the fruit stands had plastic cups filled with sweet wild strawberries no bigger than pencil erasers. Raspberries were small, fragile and maroon, with crazy good flavor. (I felt like I had the taste equivalent of déjà vu; my mind somehow already knew this flavor.) Gooseberries, black raspberries, greengage plums and sea buckthorn also made me happy.
Medlars were in season, and all the markets and fruit stands (including the one in the courtyard of our building complex, pictured at left) offered these stone fruits that have three pits and taste like a cross between an apricot and a persimmon. If you’re an amateur botanist, you know that some varieties of medlar need to age (or undergo bletting) before they’re edible. These ones, called mooshmula in Russian, are bred to eat out of hand.
Also of great interest in the market: caviar. A lot of the smoked fish vendors sell an ersatz product that is clearly labeled “caviar substitute.” But I did find a vendor of real Beluga and Osetra, and he let me taste both. I found the larger Beluga a bit softer than the poppy Osetra, and while both were only lightly salted, neither had quite that lingering sea flavor I wanted. I almost bought a $270/250 g tin. But it wasn’t for export, and that would have been a lot of caviar for my family to shovel down.
I also considered the overfishing of Caspian sturgeon, though the fishmongers seemed to have plenty on ice. The kitchen in our apartment had the kind of bad equipment that would make your typical beach rental seem like a Food Network test kitchen. So I wasn’t going to be making anything elaborate.
Green and blue crayfish were in season, so I did pick up a mess to boil and eat at home with melted butter and dark bread. If you look closely at the picture on right you can see that many of these crawdads have external egg sacks. The eggs don’t taste like much, but the flesh is sweet with a velvety texture.
There were also great pickle vendors, and dried fruit and nut stands manned by sweet ladies from the Black Sea. One became so fond of my daughter that she kept sending her home with sample bags of things for us to try.
The vegetable vendor had the sweetest red beefsteak tomatoes, which proved to be the one vegetable he wouldn’t bargain down.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog