Mushrooms, Chocolate and Vodka
Blow-up mushroom at the entrance to the festival
It has now been two months since our arrival in the Venice of the North, and it hasn’t been without its culinary surprises. Perhaps the most surprising was the Mushroom Festival in Yuisupovskii Park in early October… We were greeted by a blow-up mushroom, a real camel (of which we, to this day, cannot fathom the meaning) and the sound of the traditional Russian song ‘Katuisha’.There were stalls selling anything from breadboards with Putin painted on them, slippers and cheap books to cooking pots. A competition was held for children to name an edible mushroom (which many did without any problem) and display boards proudly boasted Russia’s numerous varieties of mushroom.
The sheer existence of such a festival was astonishing to us, since, as mostly English students, we would never consider the humble mushroom to be an important enough part of cuisine to warrant its own festival. It is, however, obvious to me now that mushrooms occupy a large space in the Russian soul; they’re in salads, pies, sauces or even eaten pickled by themselves. It may be said that the typical Russian student must love dill in order to survive in Russia, but I wager that mushrooms, too, must be a favourite!
Further to the theme of unexpected culinary discoveries are the hot chocolates of Piter. These hot chocolates are more a pudding than a drink, a delicious mélange of pure, melted chocolate and luxurious excess. As such, a glass of water is always served ‘on the side’! It seems they are a proudly proclaimed feature of every café and restaurant and deserve a mention now comfort and warmth is on the minds of most Russian students!
The following photos are hot chocolates from 3 different cafés. Classing these as Russian might perhaps be taking it too far, but these hot chocolates have certainly become part of my Saint Petersburg.
(Right) ‘Happiness’ café near Vladimirskaya. The chain ‘Happiness’ is all over Saint Petersburg and can be rather more expensive, but is worth visiting if you’re homesick and in need of ‘familiar’ surroundings; the café boasts Italian statues, tasteful lounge music and European culinary delicacies.
(Left) Kafima café, near the Conservatory. Conservatory students come here to relax and sometimes even practice on the piano!
(Below) Abrikosov on Nevskiy Prospekt. This was the original St Petersburg branch of the Moscow Confectionary firm ‘A. Abrikosov & Sons’ now part of the firm ‘Babaevskii’.
If hot chocolate isn’t your thing and you’re looking for a more stereotypically Russian drink, look no further than the Vodka Museum. Situated on Konnogvardeiskii Boulevard, just past Blagovishenskii Bridge, the Vodka Museum is hard to miss with its cheerful (stereotypically red) sign. There are different options for tickets- one can either have an unguided tour, a guided tour (in Russian or English), a guided tour with a vodka tasting, or simply skip to the tasting! Being a student and alone, I opted for an unguided tour, and spent a fascinating hour and a half learning the history of vodka from the legend of the Moscow monks who went to Constantinople and sampled ‘grape spirit’, to the industrialization and privatization of famous modern-day vodka companies.
The museum itself is rather small (it was joked that ‘if a Russian wants to learn about vodka, he goes and buys himself a bottle not go to a museum’), but, I feel, one of the most interesting museums I’ve visited in Petersburg to date.
There were many bottles from old factories where vodka was distilled and even humorous bottle stoppers collected by the museum from all over Russia.
Worn-out pamphlets trying to educate the Russian people on ‘Drunkenness’ and ‘The Correct Consumption of Alcohol’ were also on display, and gave an interesting insight into the long-standing fight against alcoholism in Russia.
I recommend the museum highly, since it shows the less-glamorous side to Russian vodka and has many charming exhibits, such as the many comically shaped vodka bottles (Left).
Soon it will be Christmas, and if Maliy Prospekt on Vasilevskii Island is anything to go by, preparations are likely to be starting very soon in Petersburg! I look forward to updating you with more culinary surprises from Piter and inspiring you to come here and try it for yourselves!