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Food and Drink

Food: Old salt in Moscow

FIRST DAY in Moscow and I have been asked to find that scarce but vital commodity, a packet of salt. Equipped with the Russian for yes and no, please and thank you, I do not understand and salt, this errand will force me to enter establishments I might otherwise have avoided.

Outside the apartment block, up the road from one of Stalin's towering five fingers (the Leningradskaya Hotel), a black Cadillac with Californian number plates has been left in a heap of filthy snow. Its nearside wing is creased and three youths are peering furtively through its windows.

I negotiate the rutted ice to the Komsomolskaya Metro, and slowly decipher my route from the signs. Between Biblioteka, where I get off, and the tourist trap of the Arbat, the kiosks of nascent capitalism are thick on the ground.

Want a game of poker, Black Bear 'whisky', flick-knife, Y-fronts?

Niet. Got any sol?

The main roads are speckled with BMWs, Volvos and Mercedes speeding among their clumsy Russian brethren, and the Arbat pedestrian precinct resounds to the crisp clackety-clack of the well-heeled.

Two or three grocery shops look promising, but they want dollars or marks. I have only roubles and, anyway, they have no salt.

On Kalinina Boulevard - actually it is Novy Arbat but I have a 'Soviet' map - I look around a few former department stores, now split into dozens of co-operative units. One hard currency outfit is displaying a lawnmower that looks like a small tractor: perhaps some millionaire speculator will have enough grass for it to cut in the spring. But the food section says sorry, it has no salt and, anyway, I have only roubles.

Back in the street, a Mercedes skids out of control and on to the pavement a couple of yards from me. Further on, a great slab of ice slides off a roof, missing me by inches. But in the snow-laden twilight I can make out another of Stalin's fingers: a hotel, and - to hell with the salt - most hotels sell English-language newspapers and coffee.

Eyes fixed on this beacon, I nervously follow a Muscovite across the 100-yard-wide Novinsky Boulevard, when the little green Russian turns to red, stranding us for two horrifying minutes in a maelstrom of ill-lit, steel projectiles. As I near the hotel, I begin to see that it is the Russian state-run equivalent of four supermarkets topped, I learn later, by huge spires-ful of apartments, formerly the tied cottages of Stalin's favourites.

I stumble into the first shop, a gilded, dimly chandelier-lit hall whose large congregation has worn pathways in its marble floor, and at a counter covered with great slabs of butter, I almost shout, 'Sol?'

'Niet,' the woman assistant says succinctly. 'Sol?' I ask one of her colleagues in a white coat, who at least points thataway.

The next two shops are no help but there, on a shelf of the fourth, lie six packets of precious sodium chloride. I remember I must first get a receipt for my purchase, but I do not know the Russian for 74 (roubles). 'Sol,' I murmur, sheepishly, desperately.

'Ne problem. Salt,' says the till-keeper, pointing to the figure she has rung up. 'My English not good.'