Let the people eat Borodinski: In the first of two pieces from Russia, Joanna Blythman reports on how M & S is putting its stamp on Moscow bread distribution

Not being Russian, it took me a minute to realise that behind the dimly lit windows at number 20 Galushkein Street, in the northern Mevedkovsky district of Moscow, lay a bread shop, formerly known only as 'Number 669'.

I could just about make out the peeling sign which says 'khleb' (bread) behind the steamy double windows draped with faded curtains. Inside, well-worn melamine shop-fittings and a couple of flickering strip lights form the brutal Stalinist setting which feeds all our stereotypes about the deprivations Russians routinely suffer.

But there is one inescapable irony: the bread. Despite the grimness of the environment in which it is sold, the bread is awesomely good. In Britain, we need never queue for bread or feel insecure about finding it as the Russians do. Our challenge is different - finding a loaf worth eating.

The range on offer at the renamed Shudarushka, typical of the best Russian bakeries, shows that 70 years of state control and collectivism have not knocked the spirit out of the pre-revolutionary traditions of Russian breadmaking.

Lidia Tarassova, Shudarushka's assistant director, began slicing and explaining. As little as 15 or 20 years ago, she says, Russia had about 80 different types of bread. Now the average Russian bread shop has two or three, usually variations on the Nareznoy Baton, a slightly chewy, fairly undistinguished oval white loaf. And that is when they have supplies. In her shop, by contrast, on any given day, there are likely to be six to 10 rye breads and as many as 15 types of wheat bread on offer.

The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Borodinski, a square rye loaf with that characteristic sour note which comes from a long fermentation of the dough. Ms Tarassova says that there are 36 variations on it, but this one was spiced gloriously with cumin. All Russians I met talked about Borodinski in almost reverential tones, with absolute justification. Next in line is Aromatny, a wheatier mix spiced with ground caraway and coriander. There is the Gorchichniy, a long, thin, black bread, and endless paler or darker ryes, substantial whites . . . they all tasted wholesome and good.

But Shudarushka is special. Backed by the know-how of Marks & Spencer and Ranks Hovis McDougall, the business is a forerunner of the type the new Russia must develop if it is to sell its way out of bankruptcy.

In 1990, the Moscow government called in Andersen Consulting to come up with a strategy to improve the supply of bread in the city and tackle the problem of queueing. With money from the British government's Know-How Fund, Andersen's Stephen Zatland led a review of the bread- supply system in Moscow.

'We found that there were 24 large state-owned factories serving 14,000 bread outlets, all identified only by a number, for example, Factory 9. Most of the factories were built in the Twenties and Thirties. There had been no planned maintenance, so many were unhygienic and dangerous,' Mr Zatland says.

'We found that it was the suppliers who were dictating what the shops received. And the shops were not particularly interested in selling it since they were compensated centrally for any waste. There was a prevailing cynicism and lack of motivation. But the most urgent problem was distribution, which was haphazard. Bread was often stale by the time it arrived on the shelves,' he says.

Mr Zatland's first move was to set up a British team with experience of bread production and retailing. Initial visits to factories and mills were made by representatives of Ranks Hovis McDougall and the APV baking machinery group. Should your heart be sinking at the prospect of the Anglo-American Mighty White and the pappy Chorleywood Process annihilating the great Russian Borodinski, rest easy.

Mr Zatland says that the aim was never to advise on the breadmaking recipe. 'The bakers were interested in hearing about new types of equipment and machinery, but when it came to the recipes, and additives in particular, they would only discuss natural ones such as salt. One factory manager said to us, 'I'm not going to be the person who changes Russian bread for the worse'.'

Because it contains less air and no chemical additives, Russian bread loses its freshness more quickly. The team came up with the idea of wrapping the bread in plastic bags. They found that the Russian packaging industry was almost non-existent, however, so bags were donated by BP.

It is questionable whether packaging can solve the problem. The quality and sheer range of Russian bread makes it more like a French system where bread is purchased fresh each day, mainly unwrapped. More small bakeries are springing up with privatisation, and it seems misguided and futile to try to persuade Russians to buy wrapped bread that lasts five days.

The British retailer with the greatest expertise in efficient supply of 'specialist' breads is Marks & Spencer. Andersen asked the company's bread-buyers to help to solve the freshness problem. Colin Maclean and Paul Liptrot, both buyers, set up a training course for managers such as Ms Tarassova, aimed at changing attitudes. They followed it up with on-site support.

'We tried to get managers to recognise that they have buying power and that it should be the final consumer, not the supplier, who calls the shots. They were just not prepared for working in a demand-led system where there is competition. We suggested, for example, that managers visited their supplying factories to explain what they wanted. Many managers were utterly amazed. Taking the initiative had never crossed their minds,' Mr Maclean says.

The Marks & Spencer Moscow training course covers ground that would be regarded as basic in Britain: getting the best out of your suppliers, managing the people working for you, keeping proper financial and performance records, and pleasing the customer. 'In a system that is in flux, like Russia is now, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the global problems. We decided on a 'concentrate on what you can do today' approach,' Mr Maclean says.

The results are limited, but significant. More shops, inspired by the course, are making simple and inexpensive improvements. 'It might be something as obvious as switching the lights on or washing the windows. Many shops hesitate to improve their drab appearance because they fear organised crime. The local mafia might say, 'Oh, that shop is obviously doing well, let's sting it for a 10 per cent cut of the takings'. It's not easy,' he says.

At shops like Shudarushka however, managers such as Ms Tarassova have shown that Moscow's archaic bread supply system can be made to work in the consumer's favour. 'We have started dealing only with one newly privatised factory. They are flexible and responsive and we are getting a wide assortment of bread and rolls. We don't run out, we don't have queues, and the bread is always fresh,' she says. Assistants in her shop have pride in what they are selling. They smile. And after prodding their purchases to check that they are soft and fresh, many of the customers smile back. Now that is an improvement.

(Photograph omitted)

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