Ultimately, all things are down to personal choice, but for what it’s worth – I’d definitely recommend the Russian food that I enjoyed in St. Petersburg. This was largely via the Stolovaya (canteen) establishments that are never far away throughout most of the city centre and immediate areas beyond. Most, if not all, are open 24 hours a day – incidentally. The numerous Produkti (product/grocery) stores, equivalent to our 7-11’s are also a boon; offering household supplies and ‘convenience’ groceries with (naturally) a Russian twist.
Fabulous bread rolls infused with sweet poppy-seed paste for instance and those delicious crab-crisps that we just don’t see (or taste) back here at home. Then there was the cosy cafe in a cellar on Nevskiy Prospekt – with fine doughnuts and good strong coffee. You would be right to assume that none of the above is particularly expensive; in fact, by our standards the high quality and decent-sized portions on offer are ridiculously cheap. Also, these are the places that real-people go to; often just a stone’s throw from the high-rent touristy establishments that I largely shunned. Having had a mediocre, expensive experience in one of these, I felt little need to explore them further when high-quality, low-price satisfaction was literally just around the corner.
It was in that little cellar cafe that I first tried Kvas and became instantly hooked. Kvas is a refreshing fermented bread-derived drink that’s sold in abundance in Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and beyond. It also tastes a lot nicer than my short description suggests; something akin to a malty, cold tea that is sweet enough and without any stewed bitterness. Does that sound more appetising? Well, you’ll just have to try it for yourself. I keep thinking of it as a traditional Russian “cola”, although it’s been around since early medieval times, if not before, so I’m doing it a disservice. However, its role as a drink for the ‘commoner’ was similar. Subjectively, I prefer it infinitely more than the chemical & caffeine infused sugar-water that comprises most of our canned western refreshment, though if the latter’s your thing, -then Kvas may take a little getting used to.
Lidenz and Denz relate a Russian saying, “Bad Kvas is better than good water”. Well that’s probably an exaggeration! But it gives you an idea of the depth in which it is embedded within Russian culture.
It certainly filled the market role that the later colas replaced (to some degree), although, with a surge of patriotism -and perhaps some disillusionment with all things western- considerable market share has been regained in recent years. Once a summer-only drink, made with hand-me-down recipes; it is now manufactured en-masse across Russia and eastern Europe and sold all year round. Some of the cheaper brands suffer by offering “pop” variations with extra sugar and additives, so it’s really worth buying the good stuff that is often manufactured by dedicated breweries. Bear in mind that by our standards: it’s all cheap (!) whichever you go for, so you may as well go for quality. That’s literally a few pounds or dollars for a 2 Litre bottle of the good-stuff and only slightly less for the lightweight “pop”.
Whilst being sold as a “soft” drink within Russia, it’s worth remembering that it has been brewed (especially quality Kvas) via a fermentation process that renders it slightly alcoholic; typically 0.5% – 1%. By Russian standards this is tap-water, of course, although you should never drink Russian tap water – whilst we are on the subject!
Kvas is renowned as a “poor man’s” drink throughout history with some truth. The low production costs and ease of availability amongst the peasantry would also see the drink metamorphose into a ‘base’ for home cooking, with ingredients added and prepared as a mixture. This was no big leap as Kvas recipes often feature fruit, herbs and mild spices, even in it’s form as a drinkable, light-refreshment.
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