Hello my friends,
Just last week, I got to do something really special: I fell asleep at night in a hotel room with my curtains wide open, overlooking the Moskve River. On the other side of the river was Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Each morning I woke to behold the same church, drenched in morning brightness. I have had somewhat of a… crush on Saint Basil’s Cathedral, ever since I decided to create a Russian themed party in our home for Saffron and Scarlett’s eighth and fifth birthdays.
In my mind, the brightly coloured, onion plump domes, bobbing in the Moscow sky, like balloon shaped lollipops were a dream for sugary imitation. Simulating this church became my religious calling of the highest order. At that time, I studied every turret and spire, every octagonal and hexagonal tower, every shade of pink and blue, every zig-zag and stripe, every rounded dome.
I discovered that the vivid colours used by the Russian builders were inspired by a verse from the New Testament’s book of Revelations, which describes the heavenly city as filled with emerald, white, gold and the colours of the rainbow. This was further proof to me that essentially heaven is a candy-land!
At the time of the party, I had wanted to take my girls to Russia for ‘essential party research’…but something held me back. I just felt that they were a little young for communism, Lenin’s mausoleum and the new Russian oligarchy. We put that trip on ice- sans the vodka! Then, this year when Ooh La La was selected as one of the few companies to represent South Africa at World Food Moscow, I mixed business with pilgrimage and prepared to finally ‘meet’ the church of my sweetest and most sacred dreams.
So that is how I found myself in a hotel room on the other side of Red Square with a sublimely magnificent view of those cylindrical turrets and mirror reflections of the church lights blinking on the river. At that moment, I had a sudden flashback: to a most special visit to Euro-Disney with six month old Saffron. We were floating on this winsome little boat on my most favourite Disney ride ever, It’s a Small World and as we turned the corner, Russia with Saint Basil’s Cathedral emerged into view. It had delighted me then, it delighted me when I moulded it out of sugar paste for the party and looking at it now, in reality, my cathedral crush came full circle. As I stared at that magnificent vista, the memories and good feelings of that famed Russian party came flooding back. That first night in Moscow, I met up with a special friend who was central to our Russian party. How we met is quite a story…
While planning our Russian party, as part of my quest for Russian authenticity, I had become a not infrequent visitor at the Russian Orthodox church in Midrand. In between the chorale music and the ex-KGB cum Russian mafia sporting their self-defence moves on the lawn, I mingled with the women discovering all things blini and borsht. As time sped up towards the party, there was one gap in my cohort curation. In planning the party in my mind’s eye, the central image for me was a generous myriad of Russian marionettes which would dangle whimsically over the tables, creating a cascade of dolls floating in the sky. As I assembled a group of skilled artisans who would help me install Moscow in our home, I was yet to find the person to help me realise this most central vision. One Sunday at my favourite Russian church, I glanced at the notice-board to discover an advertisement for beautifully handmade craft. I could see from the photos that this person had some knack with a needle and on meeting her I discovered that my intuition had been spot on: Victoria of the Midrand church used to create the Russian headpieces for none other than the actual Bolshoi ballet!!!! My prayers could not have been more accurately answered! When we were reunited that first night in Moscow, we reminisced and laughed about those nights spent working into the early hours of the morning. First, we created the marionette blueprints together and then Victoria brought those dolls to life: from the magnificent hair pieces with two blonde braids framing hand-painted faces which bore expressions wide-eyed and innocent, down to the feet which boasted black felt boots with fur Russian trim. Once I met Victoria, my ambition for my daughters’ party couture surpassed itself as Victoria made them sarafans and Russian tiaras called kokoshniks, fit for the finest Russian folk princesses.
That first night, we spent at least half an hour hugging and kissing and then ran around Red Square like school girls, embodied incarnations of the dreamy ‘Saffron and Scarlett travel stories’ from our party postcards. Victoria showed me Lenin’s mausoleum which houses his actual body (preserved and all)! We walked past the Bolshoi ballet, its façade a-dazzle with a light show as a promissory note of the dance within. As we wandered through the tall and poetic birch trees Victoria shared with me that its wood is used for the quintessential Russian matryoshka. Even the freezing September night could not dampen our enthusiasm, although the biting cold did give me insight as to how the Russian winter had defeated my favourite army general Napoleon. But arm in arm with Victoria, we were indefatigable and just as the cold was getting a bit much, we entered the cosy warmth of a Russian eatery and I sampled my first warm, Russian borsht with a dollop of sour cream, some pickled forest mushrooms and a glass of red wine. Perhaps, if Napoleon had fed his soldiers warm borsht, they might have beat the Russians after-all.
Moscow today is a mix of things historical and cultural. The sickle and the hammer remain powerful images from its soviet past, while the magnificent buildings have undergone many incarnations. Once the fun houses of the aristocracy, the imposing, czarist high Russian edifices then became the strongholds of the most bureaucratic government in the world and now pay homage to the wonders of capitalism: these same historical buildings house department stores offering every designer label imaginable!! My favourite shop was the Russian gourmet food store, Eliseyevskiy grocery store on Tsverskaya street which bedazzled with sophisticated options from Russia and the world. So elegant and novel, the selection made Harrods look like your local, corner grocery store.
Interior of the department store Gum in Moscow, the video below is the magical street outside Gum
By day I would passionately share my Ooh La La story at the fair while at night, the city became my playground. I wandered the streets of Moscow and discovered its world post-post glasnost. I was blown away by the Russian metro system, each station an architectural feat, each stop housing a sobering, hidden door in case of nuclear attack! I visited the statue of Marshal Georgy Zukhov, the most important Soviet military commander who pushed back the Nazis in WWII. I was in matryoshka heaven!! This maternal image of Russian folklore is now the face of many different food stuffs… But history and culture fade into insignificance when you’ve got caviar!
Most nights centred around an exploration of the gourmet options available (obviously). Let’s put it this way: Moscow has come a long way from the days of queuing for food rations.
My Guide to Food in Moscow
At Pushkin, named after the literary giant, I was treated as somewhat of a noisome tourist until I asked the cocky waiter for a Russian menu. When he realised that we (meaning Victoria) spoke Russian, he softened. Pushkin’s theme is of course… library. As a homage to the writer, the feeling is grand and literary. Books, housed in beautiful book cupboards, climb to the ceiling and touch grand cornices framing frescoes which beam down on happy customers. That night my leg of turkey arrived resting in a charming v-shaped catapult made of savoury pastry. The live, classical music added to the ambience. Booking tip: When you call to book, make sure to specify ‘the library’ and mention ‘Karen the non Russian speaker’ to the waiters for extra special treatment.
A slice of retro Moscow, Mari Vanna is a restaurant in an apartment in Moscow’s trendiest area. If you are lucky, you might catch a sighting of the sleepy, residential cat, Benjamin. I really recommend their borsht and the varieties of salted pickles in brine.
The White Rabbit
Wherever I go in the world, it’s on my bucket list to visit another one of the world’s top fifty restaurants. Moscow boasts The White Rabbit. And what can I say…I had a great night from the scallops (live and served tank to plate), to the waiter (as delightful as Pushkin’s one was surly) to the view, oh my G-d the view.
Located at the top of a department store, the White Rabbit’s design is whimsical, the purple pink lighting on the walls creating a fantasy haze. The restaurant is reputed to have slow service, but once I caught sight of the actual view, a panoramic dazzle of Moscow, I was happy to wait: At some point I wasn’t sure if I was swooning from hunger or from the visual beauty. At the White Rabbit there was something uniquely gastronomical, which really stood out …king crab claws. The crab meat was cooked in a broth and then served in a reduction of crab consommé. Even the bill was brought to me in a matryoshka.
One night, Victoria took us to an authentic Ukranian restaurant where we ate hot borscht and dark, brown Russian pumpernickel bread with braised duck and pickles. That night, after listening to the sounds of Ukranian, plucked string folk instruments, we walked home, past Saint Basil’s, the domes a collection of glowing orbs, in the moonlight.
Why 10 Grams of Beluga
Sometimes a meal is a big portion size, like my whole chicken at Chez L’ami Louis which I can put away by myself with room for fries. Some meals in the world of fine dining are small, miniature portions and a variety of tastes. And then some meals are just one spoonful. In Moscow, I had a date. I had been dreaming about this moment for a long time. One frosty, late afternoon, I left the fair and met my date at a bar just off Red Square. My date was me, a shot of vodka and ten grams of delicate, complex, salty, buttery yet ultimately indescribable Beluga caviar…Let’s just say it’s the best small meal that I have ever had and I decided to name this blog after it.
If my night’s were a swoon of Russian titillation and stimulation, my days at the World Moscow Fair were just as delightful. I tend to make a lot of friends when I travel for Ooh La La. I’d like to say it’s my bubbly, warm personality but everyone knows it’s actually the Pecan Pebbles!! There’s also just something special about connecting with food entrepreneurs. We gather at these conferences, a unique tribe, all visitors from other countries, all passionate about things both fine and food. My first friend at the fair was Sasha the interpreter, a beautiful, bubbly, trendy, intelligent Russian woman with a flair for languages. I was expected to share her with some other food stalls but after she sampled Ooh La La’s marshmallows there was no question which food she felt required most Russian translating. Opposite the Ooh La La stand was the Embassy of Rwanda promoting their country’s coffee. I fell in love with them while they enticed me with their stories of all things jungle and gorilla! All in all, I made my contribution to Russia in its more recent capitalist iteration, promoting our gourmand confectionery with zeal. At the end of the fair, I received the best message I have ever received from none other than the adorable interpreter for the Rwandan Embassy. It made me weak at the knees to read: ‘your sweets are a fairy tale and you are the fairy’ (you can see her in the video below in the beige jersey and glasses, in the front).
Moscow is definitely one of the great cities of the world – it might not be a reflection of the relics of soviet Russia in other parts of the country… but either way, I was so enchanted with my week long visit, the history, the culture, the food, reconnecting with my lifelong friend Victoria and the new friends I made at the food show. I have carried the images of Saint Basil’s back with me to Johannesburg, a true homage to the genius and vision of human creativity, a creation that is mystically wonderful, architecturally complex and youthfully delightful. Mostly, the trip brought me back to that emotionally fulfilling time when we created a snowy Russian wonderland at our home. Keep a look out for the story of how that party unfolded….coming to you soon!