It’s time to round off this three-part series with a sample of the food and drink that is readily available in Russia, and that also combines quality with value. It’s easy to pay over the odds anywhere if you are determined to do so, but also surprisingly easy not to.
Culinary myths, incidentally
Some of our inherited stereotypes about Russian cuisine still appear to be rooted in Soviet times, or even earlier. Are you expecting tables laden with bread, boiled meat, and vegetables? Some forest edibles (mushrooms/berries) and a mug of Kvass on the side? If so, you could be even further out of date; by a century or more. Those are the contents of a Russian peasant’s table; those in such hard times managed as best they could.
A selective written history has limited our knowledge of such things unfortunately. The authors of the time were, of course, not peasants themselves. By definition: educated, monied, and moving in “higher” social circles. As a result, the lives and interests of the lower social order were usually considered mundane, uninteresting and not worth committing to paper – including their recipes.
However, some still survive – along with meals passed down through family tradition: borscht, the aforementioned Kvass and more. They are all readily available and worth trying.
In a word: Stolovaya
It’s tempting to say that this is all you need to know, if you want to eat well but cheaply whilst in tourist-friendly Russia, but that would do a disservice to other treats, still to be discussed. Stolovaya is Russian for “canteen”, which may not sound too appealing as a place to dine out, but it’s a wholly positive leftover from Soviet Russia that’s particularly worth visiting if you are on a budget.
In a bid to provide enough for all members of society (“enough” is point of contention, but that’s another tale) the State provided good, economical Russian food for the proletariat in a functional, workmanlike manner. Food halls where trays were pushed around on rails and loaded-up, school-dinner style were common across Russia and today their polished legacy lives on.
They’ve come a long way in the last 20 years as John O’Mahony’s superb article on ITMO News attests. Here is a glimpse into “then”:-
“My first impression was that I had been transported back in time to a school canteen in the 1950s. Behind the scruffy metal cabinets was a large, intimidating throng of dour female servers — recalling dinner ladies — all glowering barbarously at the row of queuing customers/victims.” “Now”, by contrast is definitely worth a visit, however.
Far from being a greasy workman’s cafe or a school-dinners nightmare, the modern stolovaya is often part of a successful chain providing a clean, efficient and economical service. However, take care because anyone can open a “canteen”, and “Stolovaya” itself is not a brand name. “Stolovaya No1”, however is, and their resplendent red and yellow livery is never far away when strolling around central St. Petersburg and beyond.
Count your Rubles
The food is varied and delicious, the prices by our standards are ridiculously cheap and they are usually open 24 hours. Cheap, in my experience was: one main plate with 2 generous servings, a side plate, a bowl of soup (or another side), coffee, and fruit juice for just over 3GBP inclusive (5 USD). I have fond memories of late night mushroom & veg soup and flavoursome black coffee on the way back to my flat after an evening’s prowl around Nevsky Prospekt. I even miss the place, still, on drab nights back home. I arrived in Russia expecting to shop and cook for myself but frankly with those prices – why bother?
I read good things about the Mu-Mu chain in Moscow incidentally, catering (literally) for a similar market, and I’m look forward to trying them out in turn.
The other 24 hour gems are the ubiquitous “Produkti” stores. These are not necessarily chained but their umbrella title translates to simply: “groceries”. Equivalent to our general food stores: 7 – 11’s, corner shops and the like. Sometimes “groceries” are all that you need of course, if you drink the industrial quantities of Kvass that I enjoy or fancy some sweet poppy-seed bread or crab flavoured crisps. Sensible and obscure things in cans and jars are always available too of course.
Expect the same but different when visiting a Produkti – sometimes broad and long, sometimes tiny, sometimes a warren-like maze; they all feature a similar range of stock, tilted towards food products and household supplies at sensible prices.
And for dessert
Finally, the other budget option requires a little insider knowledge. Perhaps your hotel receptionist or guide can help or perhaps you’ll find it mentioned on Trip Advisor and the like. It’s that little “good” cafe just around the corner that the locals know, but you don’t. Maybe you’ll stumble across it by accident, maybe someone of relatively good standing will clue you in. You won’t of course be following dodgy strangers down dingy side streets regardless though, right?
My tour guide took me for a break in her favourite drop-in: a small, cellar cafe on Nevsky Prospect, just down from Kazan Cathedral. It’s odd to wander into a bargain basement (literally) right in the heart of tourist-central St.Petersburg, but there we were. A simple but effective establishment where I drank my first bottle of Kvass (and started a lifelong addiction).