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Food and Drink

Food: From rotten pears to Dublin Bay prawns: In Moscow, dollars will get you the best food money can buy; armed with roubles, ordinary Russians must hunt for grimey basics.

'SHOP till you drop' takes on a new meaning when describing stocking up with food in Russia. Suppose I was a schoolteacher. In Britain, if I picked the right time, I could whizz round the supermarket in about 40 minutes. One cheque or credit card transaction later, a swift exit from the custom-built car park and I would have broken the back of the weekly shop.

But, as I discovered in Moscow this month, a Russian schoolteacher needs to invest as much time and energy in food shopping as going to work. It demands an anxious and never-ending quest. It rests on astute prediction of what might be on offer, a network of carefully fostered private supply lines, and a squirrel's dedication to foraging and hoarding. I would have to live with the fact that my rouble salary was worth so little that a kilo of bananas would cost me a tenth of my monthly earnings; a loaf of bread would be nine times more expensive, in relation to real income, as its British equivalent.

All this I would find hard to swallow when I saw the dazzling dollar market - available only to those with access to foreign currency. In this market, the food world is your oyster. If you want anything from fresh Chilean blueberries through Italian balsamic vinegar to Haagen-Dazs ice-cream, you got it.

But for starters, the rouble market: we had already cast an eye over a few smaller food shops and seen that most carried a fairly small stock of only one or two lines. You do not have to visit too many to imagine what endlessly trailing around them in the snow must feel like. So my food shopping trip proper began at Moscow's Central Market on Tsvetnoi Boulevard where, I had been assured by my guides, it was possible to see the best fresh food to be bought with roubles in the city.

Outside, we had picked our way past the freelance vendors who preside over up-

ended cardboard boxes selling sad little assortments of food: a tub of margarine, two cans of Coke, some spam and a carton of kephir (soured milk). Inside the market proper, chipped terrazzo floors, rickety DIY shopfittings draped with Fablon and plastic sheeting and museum-piece weights and measures form the infrastructure which supports the food. This decaying custom-built market would instantly be condemned in Britain by any number of public agencies.

The entrance hall, run by swarthy moustached Armenians from Nagorny Karabakh, has a jolly bazaar-like atmosphere - despite the fact that the fresh fruit and vegetables vary from just about OK to seriously clapped out. Shrivelled clementines, blackened pears and blue-tinged cauliflowers do little to tempt, and prices are nowhere in evidence. Rising inflation makes routine pricing fairly futile, and anyway you are meant to bargain. But paying in roubles, even an overripe pineapple would cost a Muscovite a day's pay.

The preserved food is a lot better. There are piles of dried melon, apricots and currants next to almost enticing displays of nuts, seeds of all kinds and an impressive array of spices. Rickety camping tables support heavily salted smoked raw fish: salmon, sturgeon, halibut. Huge fresh sturgeon are being sliced into thick wedges and wrapped in newspaper, only to disappear into the cloth carrier bags which Russians carry permanently on the off-chance of finding food they want and can afford.

There are stands dedicated to caviare, where huge kilo tins sit open, ready to be spooned into jam-jars and plastic disposables redeemed from food packaging. To a Russian, it is prohibitively expensive. For a tourist paying in roubles, it costs a pittance.

The main hall is the territory of the babushkas, the tough and sturdy brigade of old ladies, wrapped up as round as Russian dolls. The peripatetic lot who work the stairs are reselling anything they can get their hands on: loaves that have already been queued for, plastic carrier bags, even government privatisation vouchers.

The fixed stallholders are heavily into pickles, which they will dredge up for you from chipped enamel pails. Some of it, like the staple cabbage salad, is dull, but much is quite delicious: whole pickled heads of garlic, ridge cucumbers with dill and mustard seed and silky spring onions. There is an astonishingly good choice of fresh herbs and leaves, spanning robust coriander and young ruby chard. Pulses such as limas are big sellers, their splatter-dash colourings brightening up the whole place.

All in all, Moscow's Central Market does not do a lot for the appetite. According to Konstantin, my guide, Muscovites consider it very expensive and poor quality. Russians know what freshness and quality is, he pointed out, because many of them grow their own food.

The majority of Russians, it appears, have their dacha, or little place in the country, often not more than a garden hut or an allotment used to grow food. It is a tradition that stretches way back, but nowadays has become a vital means of getting control over your food supply.

Russians, it seems, are very serious about growing and preserving their own food. In spring and summer, people are busy sowing and harvesting in their dachas. The autumn is taken up with pickling, preserving and bottling enough to swap for other foods to get through the winter. 'In the mushroom or berry seasons, busloads of Muscovites head out of town to pick everything they can. It isn't a leisure outing for fun. It is work,' said Konstantin.

There has been a development on the self-sufficiency front. Moscow flat dwellers are turning their homes into urban dachas with livestock. Stink or no stink, goats and small suckling pigs are being raised in straw boxes on the balcony or under the kitchen table before being sold at the Central Market.

By contrast to all this hard slog, the food in the hard currency food stores seems almost obscene. We moved on to the

M Leader, an Italian-run supermarket on the outskirts of the city. Even with its concrete bunker-like exterior, there is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the place which makes the Central Market feel like a punitive tale from the Brothers Grimm. M Leader is clean, functional and loaded with a range of food which I would expect to get only in Harrods. Prices are keen.

There is a chill counter with fresh cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches and corn on the cob, flown in from the southern hemisphere. Prices are Marks & Spencer level or slightly less. You can buy organic pasta flavoured with nettles or paprika, superior capers packed in sea salt, acres of pasta sauces and litre bottles of balsamic vinegar. On the American couch-potato front there is Ben & Jerry's ice-cream (one flavour aptly named 'Moscow Snow'), Haagen-Dazs, frozen key lime and chiffon pies, with turkey nuggets and cutesy pizza to throw at the kids. I have never seen a better selection of American-style mayonnaise or relishes.

Fresh Dublin Bay prawns and lobster look quite lively if you do not fancy a whole sturgeon. The Japanese range is pretty comprehensive and take your pick from Thai Fragrant or Basmati rice. You will not want for dairy items, either. Just pick up some Danone live yoghurt or a block of unsalted Normandy butter. Do not be surprised if it costs less than in France. Who shops here? I asked Konstantin. Answer - diplomats, resident foreigners and, of course, Russians with good contacts and a foothold in the hard currency markets.

Perhaps the armed security guards give the place its edgy quality. But although supermarkets such as M Leader represent conspicuous plenty in the midst of hardship, there have been no demonstrations or protests around it. And yet, for the average Russian schoolteacher outside the privileged circle it would be like watching the last decadent excesses of the Tsars.

(Photograph omitted)