Anna and I were invited to travel to Russia over this past weekend to attend Taste of Moscow in the capital on behalf of Scripps International, the UK broadcaster that is responsible for showing her shows Fresh and Bake in Russia and many other countries. Like usual, we already had a lot on the go but relied on our failsafe “why not?” rule, where we look for a logical answer that outweighs any potential benefit. In the end, we could have played the “no time, too hard” card but the idea of visiting Moscow was so appealing and off our radar that we simply had to go. And what an education. I now plead ignorance, empty of basic historical knowledge outside of a few facts around Tsars, ergot ridden armies of Alexander, the revolution and of course Soviet regime images. I was too influenced by movies showing a dreary, dark Russia, with lineups for bread, babushkas on bundled old ladies and lots of scary officials. Okay, I did see some of those things but I truly did not expect the stunning architecture and general beauty of the city that presented itself to us. Bear in mind that rose coloured glasses are especially rosy when you are in town for a brief stay and on someone else’s dime, er, ah ruble.
Anna is currently in studio taping a new season of Bake and I, although on sabbatical from Niagara College, will be going in to Toronto for three weeks to work as a cook at my friend John Bil’s temporary restaurant Le Pavillon as part of the Luminato festival. We hustled to get ready for the long haul, me meeting Anna at the studio and whisking her off to Pearson late Wednesday for a flight to Frankfurt then on to Moscow, nearly missing the connector. The Domodedovo airport is around 45 km outside of the city in a wooded area, very Uncle Vanya, with rolling pastures and lots of signs of country living. The cool part was the sullen driver with our name on a sign waiting with the big stinking Mercedes, oh yeah, Oligarch life. The city of Moscow is like many others, with concentrations of buildings, people and street life compounding as you get closer to the city centre. There aren’t many but old signs of Soviet life make your eyes widen, with super pro-labour, work hard messages. An interesting thing about Moscow is that it is the centre point of the country, not geographically, but if you look at a Google map and zoom in, you will notice that all highways begin in the city centre, near the Kremlin and radiate out like a spider web. And we were staying in the middle of the web. As we approached our hotel, we giggled to catch our first glimpse of St. Basil’s, you know – the onion topped church in Red Square. We met our new friend Kate at the hotel – Kate is British but lived in Ottawa for 8 years before returning to London where she works at Scripps (but will be moving on to a new life in Austalia, yes a boy’s fault). After settling in to our room, spectacular by the way (with a view of St. Basil’s), we were treated to a dinner at Reka – a super glitz, modern club overlooking the Moscow River, with views of the Peter the Great Statue, The Kremlin, and a massive, brightly lit giant white marble building that I believe is the headquarters of Military Intelligence (KGB at one point?), anyway, kinda crazy. The food was great, we shared several starters and a couple of mains, Potato Souffle with Sour Cream and Pike Caviar, Country Cheeses, Pumpkin Goat Cheese Salad and an extremely tasty Beef Stroganoff. We were of course tired so called it an early evening (it is now late Thursday night local time).
Friday was free up until 2 p.m. so after a luxurious breakfast at the hotel, including Syrniki (what looked like thick potato cakes but actually sweet cottage cheese pancakes, omygod, so delicious), we headed over the bridge to check out Red Square. Approaching, you can see the tour buses and line-ups for security to get in. There was also quite a commotion as there was a cultural and literary festival being held in the square. To say we were giddy was an understatement. Being up close to St. Basil’s is like being on the brink of Niagara Falls, where everyone is taking pics and posing, milling around like sharks in a feeding frenzy. And yes, lots of security. This is also the point where I start to realize my lousy understanding of history and geography and other things that I should have been paying attention to – yeesh. I though The Kremlin was going to be a dull, administrative Soviet building but of course it is more of a palace grounds, home to the current president and ancient Tsars, a walled compound housing many churches, museums, Lenin’s Tomb, armoury and yes – government offices. I really did not expect it to be so beautiful. Red Square is the open court in front, the former city marketplace. It is flanked by St. Basil’s, Gum (department store come high end mall) and One Red Square, the State Historical Museum. We were surrounded by live music, performance art and basically a bunch of happy people. A light lunch at a terrace of Borscht was a brief, classy break, great for people watching. The tour into the Kremlin was a blend of punishing lines (people here make an art of cutting in) and breathtaking views. The sentries were very serious young men, in brilliant uniforms and leather boots so shiny and new that they squeaked as they marched by. Like always, seeing soldiers not on television or in print reminds you that those who defend and go to battle are not hardened adults but actually young people just starting their lives, never ceases to make you pause and think. At this point I resolve to study history, not a documentary on Netflix but actually read a big thick book. I promise.
Late afternoon,we meet with Kate and Julia from Food Network UK and head over to a culinary studio so Anna can do a hands-on session with media types and local broadcasters. It never fails to make me laugh when I see her picture and name in a language other than English. I must say that the the studio was a very posh event space in a glitz mall, surrounded by high end home ware stores, designer shoes and fancy schmancy panty shops, you know – the richer you are, the smaller the pricier your underwear. Anyhoo, the attendees rolled in and the Veuve corks were popped (Russians love real Champagne) and the snacks served. We met Katiya – Anna’s interpreter and a lovely, bright blonde bomber. Interesting story, she worked at the UN in NY and spends her time in between Moscow and Los Angeles with her future husband. Later in the weekend, she explained local economics to me in that her father, a noted physician and lecturer was paid a very low wage, a reality check after seeing so many excesses, see oligarch. Anna did her demonstration, a delicious French Canadian Tourtiere and a fruit topped Platz (rich golden cake with seasonal fruit baked over top). Everyone loved it, got their signed cookbook and were on their way. And now for our fun; we had heard of Cafe Pushkin and Kate set up the reservation. This is a traditional Russian restaurant housed in an old noble house and the servers wear (not tacky) period costume and do table side carving and so on. We had a delicious meal featuring wonderful chicken noodle soup, Pelmenis (round dumplings filled with game and mushrooms) and a spectacular dish of Veal Pojarski. This deserves explanation: before food processors and industrialized ingredients (think Chicken McNuggets), the idea of a smooth, tender meat was something only the wealthiest could imagine eating. The veal meat was removed from the chop, minced into a fine hash and bound with egg, butter and cream to make a “mousse” texture, light, smooth and tender. It was reshaped into the chop shape, breaded, the bone re-inserted and pan fried to golden brown and sauced. I have to admit that I made this when I was in culinary school in the 80s and have not ever seen mention of it since. I had to. Instead of bread crumb, the crisp coating was a fine brunoise of bread, allowing for the extra thunder crunch. The meat was spectacularly delicious, slightly spongey and juicy. A sauce of morels in cream from a sauce boat only made in more of the Escoffier era dish that I was pining. Of course, you could not manage to serve this to most people as it would look like “fake meat” – something that came from a Sysco truck box and into the deep fryer. I must say that I ate the whole shebang with a wide grin and Marty Feldman eyes. And then another deep sleep. Hello jet lag fatigue, my old pal.
We slept in a bit and skipped breakfast – how else would you prepare for a food fest? Taste of Moscow is a franchise festival of the same pattern that invades cities around the world. Food Network had a booth and brought Anna in to do a series of demonstrations and appearances, to meet the viewer but of course to handle media interviews to keep the ball rolling. It was held outside a massive soccer stadium being outfitted for the 2017 FIFA World Cup, you can picture it, tons of parking, port a potties, tents, stages, sponsor areas blah blah blah. We met a lot of fun people, the guests were great and of course you don’t eat because it is festival food (I should have figured that out by now). I went looking for Russian ingredients but of course most local restaurants are showing off imports to their clientele. I don’t want to eat Italian food in Moscow. However, I did find a small grill station where a guy was cooking Turkish looking meat kebabs, the ones made with ground meat rather than chunks. He was also grilling what looked like a Pogo/corn dog looking thing. Aha! This is Georgian food, I had heard of this. Khachapuri is a skewered piece of fresh cheese curd (like the size of a sausage) that is wrapped in a thin yeast dough and then grilled, finally glazed with garlic butter and eaten hot, drippy and melting. Jumping Jesus on a Pogo Stick! I wanted to sneak away from view and shove the thing into my mouth, it was so tasty and simple, I had to get one for Anna too. The other item we tasted was a lamb kebab in a tortilla like flatbread (made to order) filled with rich tomato/pepper sauce, yogurt, herb salad and slices of red onion. Truly tasty and wonderful food, makes me want to learn more about Georgian cooking.
After a short break and change at the hotel, we went over to White Rabbit, the highly touted and uber cool modern power seat. And you know that I wanted to see the oligarchs, those ridiculously rich business men with their mistresses, their Bentleys, the many body guards and excesses. This was the Bond movie part of Moscow that I had hope to witness (from a distance). We arrived to the front of a shopping plaza in a fairly nondescript building, guided through the department store to an elevator, up to the 5th floor then switch over to a second elevator to the, um, maybe 30th or 40th floor, very spy like, or secret speak easy club or something. will continue tomorrow