I did lots of cool things when I went to Russia last year – like staring in awe from the front row of the Bolshoi ballet and being battered (in a good way) with birch leaves during a traditional banya.
But my favourite experience was the Taste of Russia cooking class I took in Moscow. Not just because I got to cook (which I love) and eat (which I love even more), but because I spent the day with real Muscovites who let me drill them about their lives, their diets, their family and their future.
The day didn’t start well. Ever tried to take the Moscow subway? It’s ridiculously intense. I’m no stranger to large rail systems – I can navigate the tube with my eyes closed and have never had any issues in cities like New York and Paris (except when my sister and I went through two at a time and were almost arrested by French police but that’s another story).
Moscow is a different beast. The subway is HUGE and there isn’t a single direction in English, nor did anyone I ask for help speak English. I can read a decent amount of Cyrillic thanks to its likeness to the Greek alphabet but on my first full day in Russia, pre-coffee, I struggled. I’m not usually one to give up but I did and left the metro thinking a cab had to be an easier option.
Wrong. The traffic in Moscow is a disaster. It’s all one way so the layout forces cars to go in unnecessary directions. Plus I couldn’t see a cab rank or a single cab for that matter and I had no wifi to book an uber. So it was a deep breath and back down to the metro for me, where I finally worked out where to go and made it to the cooking class meeting point with just a minute to spare. Phew!
I arrived to find I was the only person there. Was everyone else late too?
No, it transpired that I was the only person in the class. That was music to my ears. A private market tour and cooking class to myself, what a score!
Firstly I was escorted to the Dorogomilovo market, one of Moscow’s largest, with ‘the chief’ Zhukova, her daughter Milena and daughter-in-law Nadia. A family affair!
The market was so fabulous it deserves a post of its own but essentially we picked up all the ingredients for lunch and I got to try tastings of whatever I pointed to. Which was a lot. Quite often I’d point to something and request identification; if Milena, whose English was excellent, didn’t know the word in English she’d whip out her iphone and google translate it for me.
From the market we drove 20 minutes away to the kitchen, a modest size room filled with a big table and cooking accoutrements. Our menu for the day included Siberian pelmeni (dumplings with a beef filling), borsch and syrniki (cottage cheese pancakes) with apricot ‘jam’. Zhukova put me straight to work – chopping onions, working dough and stewing apricots while I quizzed her on the provenance of the dishes and life in Russia.
I learnt that pelmeni are the backbone of Russian home cooking and women are scrutinised on their pelmeni style and output. There’s the proper way to make them and the shortcut route but I got the impression that serious Russian cooks knew exactly which path they should follow. Read More