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)

News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss