Food & Drink: Give me the old taste of Russia

I have before me, courtesy of its food correspondent, a copy of the Moscow Times, founded in 1992. It is one of those papers for expatriates - a growing colony wherever there is a buck to be made - that reveal the foreigners' fascination with the absorbing puzzle in which they are supposedly living.

What is particular about the Moscow Times is that Russia is not merely 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma', as Churchill called it; it is distressingly alien, yet pretends to be something like ourselves. We should be able to find our way about it - though I suspect the task was easier when it was a monolith with well established, if horrible, rules. Today it is an impenetrable society.

How, for instance, am I to interpret the advertisement of Moshaisk (TM), a 'Russian-German joint venture'? 'Maintaining the highest standards of service,' its copy runs, 'is of critical importance to hotels . . . Of particular concern is the reliability of supplies . . . Our assortment includes over 3,000 of the finest international . . . products'. What does the picture show? Tins, bottles, boxes. Yes, you too can partake of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes of Corn (dollars 8), Red Raspberry Preserves (dollars 10) and Arizona Pistachios (dollars 25). It is enough to make one weep.

Is this what the new generation of Russian dollar- millionaires is fed on? And have we not a photograph of Tolstoy seated outdoors at Yasnaya Polyana (which the Moscow Times mislabels Krasnaya Polyana) with his stiffly starched family facing a huge array of jams? Are not jams, sickly sweet, from the immense variety of Russian berries, part of the Russian experience?

We should forget nostalgia and see just how exotic we must appear to Russians (penetrate the mysteries of the West - visit an authentic McDonald's).

When it comes to food, the Moscow Times makes it clear - at least to the expats - that Moscow is just like home. The Sadko Arcade ('Eating Out is In') offers Swiss House, Trattoria, Steak House and a Chicken Grill . . .

But do not despair of discovering 'another world'. You can always go to the Praga restaurant. And don't you wish we could have a pair of restaurant reviewers like Tjitske Speckman and Wierd Duk. The former is the paper's distribution and marketing manager, the latter the correspondent for the Dutch weekly Elsevier. They are admirably candid: 'The Praga is sleazy and extremely worn-out. It's much like the other million or so restaurants in the former empire where Soviet service, palm- greasing included, reigns. Among a wide variety of dishes, one was probably meant to be fricassee in aspic but it looked more like bright red meat trifle. The attentive waiter did not forget to serve old bread.'

This is the Moscow I remember, complete with fake gypsies, lugubrious waiters, and much vodka to make you forget where you are.

The point is, as returnees from Moscow tell me, that Russia (by which they mean big-city Russia) is now totally supine. It is not for nothing that the Moscow Times's hotel ads all say 'the best security'. The place belongs to profiteers, native and foreign. Exploitation never helped food. Economic chaos brings the scum to the top. It always has; it always will. What does scum know about food? Let them eat Frosted Flakes of Corn.

In time, all this will (perhaps) sort itself out. Ordinary Russians are hugely hospitable: paradoxically, most so when food was positively scarce. Readers of Gogol's Dead Souls will remember what a true Russian feast is like, and what a panoply of ingredients - from game to fish to mushrooms and berries - that vast country offers.

I only worry that supplies may now belong only to Moshaisk, that Russian- German joint venture; and be tinned; and perpetuate our 'western' idea that Russian food is all caviare.

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