Sunday, 14 November 2010

Moving on..

Dear readers,

I have long realised that my blog has moved on from being mainly about farmers markets and that visually the site needs a bit of an uplift. Hence I am very pleased to announce that my new blog is now up and running:

The Gastronomical Me at

This means that 'Around the world in 80 markets' is now closed for business, and I hope to see all of you again at the new address.


Saturday, 30 October 2010

Grand things are coming...

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I am very much around and writing judiciously - albeit in my head mainly. The reason - my new website - bigger, better, sexier, more beautiful - is coming. You will like it, I promise.

What do you think the site will be called?;)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Idleness spread on a perfect peanutbutter sandwich

How do you feel about Sunday nights?

They come in different hues, from candy-floss melancholy to damn sticky depression. Oh, you can enjoy them, but only in as much as you are prepared to transgress the sado-masochistic boundary and give in to the fun of endless numbing telly watching, always horizontal, always you'll start afresh, you'll be focused, disciplined and live your life to the full. But for now...for now, you have the full right to be lazy, to be a sloth, to experience that sense of ennui..

The ultimate symbol of laziness - Oblomov: then and now by Boris Kulikov.

Russians have perfected this state of idleness to such an extent that there is even a well-worn term to describe the condition - oblomovshina. Oblomov was a character of the 19th century novel by Ivan Goncharev, whose symbol of the superfluous man staying in bed, unable to make decisions, has become mythical, quoted and used to explain the wrongness of everything from the Russian October revolution to Russians' weakness for vodka. As Lenin famously said:

Russia has made three revolutions, and still the Oblomovs have remained... and he must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge.

( I particularly like the reference to flogging by the way)

Food of course is an exception (provided you have a devoted serf or two, or a local take-away). If I remember correctly Oblomov spent his days languorously moving from breakfast to brunch to dinner, then tea and supper.

For a lazy man,” Goncharov explains, “recumbence” is a “pleasure..

Peanut butter by

Peanut butter, I propose, is the solidified epitome of this state of mindless non-doing. It is smooth, even the crunchy version lets you slip each nut without resistance. It is so intensely savoury and sweet at the same time that all foods go well with it, letting you forget the good and bad: bread, with honey, pieces of fruit, yoghurt, other nuts, biscuits, bananas, salami, gherkins, with bacon or just its fat as I found the night before...a jar can be consumed slowly and exuberantly with just a spoon: so little effort, so much calorie. A perfect Oblomov meal.

How do you like your peanut butter?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Cold war and school dinners

It's not all sex, drugs and roll'n'roll with me and food, you know. Whereas the food I often crave is high octave stuff - not in terms of it complexity (Michelin star plates leave me cold somewhat), but its impact (fat, offal, cream); today I've had the most warm and cuddly lunch possible:

...a school dinner par excellence - the Roast dinner with (many) trimmings.

The bestest school dinner: Roast chicken with stuffing, roast potatoes, steamed broccoli and carrots, with gravy

Not just any old school dinner, a very special dinner of Norfolk free-range chicken with local veg and a beautiful oaty apple crumble with grapes grown in the school's own garden (the M & S ad voice seems somehow inappropriate here due to its overt sexuality, but you get the picture).

You see, I happen to work for a project that aims to 'transform' the food culture of this country. Yes, as grand as this. You probably remember Jamie's attempts a few years back to get kids eating 'proper' food, instead of the infamous turkey twizzlers (although I'm quite intrigued by the latter, actually makes me thing of the 19th century fad to make 'things', fabulous, magical things out of foods)? Well, Food for Life (the name of this grandeurs endeavour) started there with Jamie and school dinners. Then the grand dame of the British food world - the Soil Association - took over, got some funding, and made the whole thing bigger and better.

The most important people in the school: the dinner ladies.

Today over 5000 schools across England ate their Roast Dinner simultaneously, in an attempt to break the Guinness record for the most number of schools serving the same dinner at the same time'! These schools were also making a point, a stand if you like, to 'save the school dinner' in view of all the mortifying budget cuts so thoughtfully put upon us. Go dinners, go!

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to be a little helper for a morning, and boy did the smells and sounds of that bustling school kitchen bring a tear to my sceptical eye. Inevitably, I remembered the days full of buckwheat smells and the looks of the wobbly semolina porridge...

Soviet dinners, sans beer for the little ones.

In those far-away Soviet days of communist cheer and seemingly unspoilt ration feeder I would very often take my obed (a more substantial version of the Western lunch if you may) in the kindengarden where my mum worked as a teacher. In those days Soviet kids used to study in shifts in schools, ie either study from early in the morning and be done by early afternoon, or start at about 1pm and finish at 6. So I would come to visit my mum and be fed after my daily Lenin's 'study, study, study'.

Oh, the sweet memories of those wholesome meals...

I remember getting down to a bowl of watery but brilliantly red and delicious borsh, following it up with a plate of mash potatoes and kotlety (often translated as burgers into English, but really, how can you compare those little dense flat patties of course pork mince and chunks of onion to a mere burger?!) and finish it off perhaps with a bowl of zapekanka with kisel' (a warm baked cheesecake with raisins, served floating in a fruity, thick drink)...

The most quintessential English pud - apple crumble with custard.

I'm not going to go all nostalgic on you and say that the food in all schools and kindergardens were this good, but the food I remember was ordinary and boring, 'real' as we love to call such food these days, made without any pre-packaged sauces (they were none to choose from), totally from scratch on that day. There were no choices ('Vegetarianism does not exist in the USSR'), no allergies (you go a bit red, so what, a normal child reaction), no care for the provenance of your meat (you probably didn't want to know).

...'We have made extraordinary into ordinary' said the head at the school about their school dinners. Sounds damn pompous, but makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

I ate diligently my full plate of the Traditional Roast dinner, finishing it off with some crumble and custard - not far at all from my beloved kotlety and zapekanka, are they, really?

What is your favourite memory of the school dinner?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Yet another autumn, yet another breakfast

Early autumn in the Alexandra Palace park.

I love autumn. In all its disguises: the hellishly changing weather, the wind, the soft sun, the unexpectedly piercing light, the colours, that suit me so much better than the unapologetic brightness of summer, they also seem milder to the world around.

Where summer is brash, adventurous, in your face, like a young girl that just wants to have fun, sleep around, not think, only act. Autumn is melancholic (that most promising of all moods when a sad smile comes together with a thoughtful eye), understated, sensual, akin to a woman who reflects on her pleasures and only allows those who appreciate and take time to come closer...

Ally Pally, once early Saturday morning.

Autumn also means, of course, the gathering of fruits, harvesting - when all the cliche statements about seasonality and the glut keep flooding in. But this is also the time to collect thoughts, to gather up, a kind of slow breathing out before a jump. The fog and dump air, the early nights allow one to wonder around almost unnoticed, to watch people and rain. To put a hood on or snuggle in underneath a big black umbrella - and think...

Perhaps it is a school girl in me that still thinks that a year starts on 1 September (and in Russia it is always this precise date and never a more practical 4 or 5), with hordes of excited kids wearing long, white socks, and a tomato-red pioneer tie, carrying awkwardly the only imaginable flowers - Gladioli - huge, strangely erotic, grown-up. This is when you notice that tick!, the clock changing, you changing - you are deliriously excited and shit scared about the year ahead.

Gladioli by Van Gogh.

...I took the pictures above just this morning, whilst jogging up to Ally Pally. I was rushing, I was on the way to do business, serious, practical stuff, but I had to stop and drink, chew the view. I feel almost embarrassed about being so affected by a few leaves and clouds, but it must be something with that almost physical sense of being part of the cycle - it makes me feel the change, believe that something marvelously exciting is around the corner. I become a little girl, with big wide eyed, holding a strong, warm hand, not yet comprehending but liking it even more for that.

Autumnal (ish) breakfast.

I came back home and marked the arrival of yet another autumn with the tastiest breakfasts I have had in a long time.

Slowly crisped up bacon Salad of lettuce, ripen tomatoes, spring onions, baked beetroot Marinated Polish cucumbers Pain complet (French wholemeal bread) that I let to soak up all the bacony juices A cup of strong, milky coffee

A very simple, nothing to report breakfast. It was tasty above all. It made me believe that there would be many, many more breakfasts like this - and that's what matters.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Taste Awards - Kafka would have had a feast...

Hell with it. I'm going to let go, gorge, indulge myself, over-do it, envelop inside and out with this voluptuous feeling of a total surrender to food. I am going to enjoy every molecule of it, slowly and quickly at the same time, anticipating the guilt to come and saying hell with it.

It's a rainy Monday evening, and even the tube is on strike. I am invited to the finals of the Taste Awards in Fortnum's - that pompous dinosaurs of a store that manages to be both eccentricly archaic and tenderly up to date. I have been a judge before, but on this occasion I am wearing high purple heals and gipsy dangling earrings.

Fortnum and Mason's window displays.

Every time I come to the Awards I promise to myself to network, to 'do rounds', to do deals with useless and useful men. But this time I'm saying fuck with it. This is supposed to be THE emporium of food and I am going to do what the Romans did - eat, lick, goggle, swallow until your eyes feel with a delirium of over-satiation.

This is a psychological vomitorium, with me imagining starving African children on the background. Heck with it. My feelings of nutritious happiness will purvey the world and make everything all right.

Fortnum's know how to do high class and kitsch.

Surrounded by the impossible dream of a fat store, full up to its bream with exquisitely branded goodies and exotic packages, all lying, standing, kneeling, all around you, all having their price tags carefully tucked in. They tempt you to forget that not all of them here is for you delectation. Not them. There is so much that you can put your lips around.

...I start with a pig, of course. A big and curvaceous leg of a pig lounging sensually on a crisp white linen. A man with a thin and sharp knife and knowledgeable hands (this skill requires years of practice and a certificate to proof) smiles innocently and offers a sliver to try.

Iberico ham (an unknown to me painter).
My taster thanks to

I take the warm piece of Iberico ham, burgundy and almond colour, roll it and put my tongue over it. Oh hell. If there is a re-incarnation, I know I want to be an Iberico pig, leaving on acres and acres of free land, feeding myself silly on acorns and occasional grass and roots. So Russian of me really. They say these pigs endure extreme temperatures and survive any weather.

Oh, and the fat.

The woman selling the ham started briskly telling me how this fat is actually good, I glanced back and she stops. I do not need to be told that. This fat is so fucking good. I want to put a thin stack of these warm, grainy, fat slices in my bag - for all its £12 per 100gr price tag - and fish out one by one three times a day, to remind myself of the woodlands, smell of mushrooms and wet soil. And this ludicrous over-indulgence.

...After stall after stall of - the best but expected - cheeses I spot a modest little plate full of warm fishcakes (thanks to Moxon's fishmongers). The fat of the Iberico ham is brush and lush, these cakes of cod, lug (?) and wild garlic, are like old-fashioned, flower-patterned pottery laid out on a sunny day.

The man explains that the lug (apparently a forgotten, back of the ear, part of the fish) gives the cakes a more grainy, salt-cod like texture and flavour. Perhaps. I just think they are good and clever - in that they are the only ones on display tonight that are warm and home-made-like. I keep nagging the man about the unsustainability of the cod (he says that the stocks around the UK have actually 'replenished remarkably' - hmm, who knows), whilst putting a blob after blob in my month. I feel cheery.

Then there are rows and lines and stacks of bacon (maple syrup layered), mini baps with sausage (Northumberland, pure pork), ice-creams and sorbets (Bloody Mary and Bloody oranges), more wine, more looking for more, avoiding the glances of lust around - they are for another sausage, no doubt, not for me.

Oaty Vanilla Crunch Creams www.cobbs.inf0

...My heart rate palpitates, I go up a floor, where sweets are laid out. Brownies always do good at such Awards - chocolate, butter, sugar, the no loose Big 3 - triple chocolate, gluten-free with cranberries, macademia nuts.

Eventually I get to a quiet plate of pale biscuits sandwiching cream. I like these. They are the essence of Englishness (perhaps the way the way tourists see it). 'Honest' all-butter biscuits, holding a naughty centre.

I imagine this is something I could make - or rather put together - at home. Proper, expensive oatcakes, say spread with a mixture of high-volume cream cheese mixed in with icing sugar, or caramel, or dark honey. These on display are not like this at all, but I like the feeling of connection to the guy-producer (I seem to think it's a man) who is at the same biscuit wavelength as me.

...I need to go. Words and gazes slur. People's voices are slightly hysterical (or is it my ears?) and so are they months. They keep chewing, munching, slurping. The displays are cleared but they continue moving their lips and teeth as if in a trance. I feel myself saying a whisper of a goodbye to someone, whilst patting my warm, expanded belly, but maybe I am not saying a thing, maybe I am like them, just keep moving, digesting, consuming.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

On breaking fast and melancholy

I have been feeling rather melancholicly recently. May be because I have just come back from sparkly Morocco into the winds and rains of London; or the realisation that the summer, with all its promise of excitement and adventure, is almost over, never quite delivering; or some quasi-existential, not-quite-middle-life crises feelings all rolled into one. Getting out of bed and putting feet onto cold floor is a chore...

Breakfast is the only thing that has been rescuing me. The second thought after 'oh, God, it's morning again' is that of food. No matter how sad I feel, my appetite never leaves me. The enjoyment comes not just from the physical pleasure of tasting and waking up to flavours, but also from the process of thinking up your morning meal. The mental voyage through your fridge, slowly assessing what your tongue and belly feels like, what would comfort you most, adds just a touch of zing to your day. I love breakfasts and don't need to be told that it is healthy to eat them or that one shouldn't rush them. I wouldn't dare.

So here are a few examples of my morning little feasts. Some happened months ago and I have never quite found a reason to write about them. My humble, mostly solitary (J loves his oats with milk and ooof to work) morning meals are my favourite past time, so in the future I will be posting more, perhaps a collage of breakfasts, changing from season to season, mood to mood...But for now:

Soft-boiled egg, Lithuanian rye bread, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.

This is quite recent, on another melancholic day, crouching on the decking of my garden.

Organic herby sausage, mushrooms fried with garlic and onion, lettuce leaves, with organic tomato ketchup.

Sometime in the spring: I had bought that bottle of ponsy organic ketchup and so made a fry-up to go with it.

Turkish coffee

Some of you, my dear readers, will remember my 'Hot, dark, tempting' post about the making of proper Turkish coffee, in a dzezva. This photo is some 6 months old, but this coffee is a frequent occurrence on my breakfast table (often in this charming butterfly cup).

Smoked mackerel, black bread, cherry tomatoes and salted Polish cucumbers.

Possible one of my most favourite meals any time of the day. You are probably wondering by now about the prevalence of protein and salt in my breakfasts, and lack of dairy and sugar. Yes, my Russo-Ukrainian genes (or habits really) talk here. A bowl of cornflakes (or even good musli) just never has the same soothing or exhilarating effect.

And lastly, but so not listly:

Moroccan breakfast: Ksra (flat bread), beghrir (pancakes), apricot and strawberry jam, watermelon.

From our recent trip to Fez, whilst staying in a beautiful riad, where we were having our breakfast in a courtyard with blue blue skies above us and a melancholy of fading mosaics around us..

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Iftar - the breaking of the Fast

During my recent short trip to Morocco I remember bitterly regretting not having organised a meal in an 'ordinary' family home (not that it's an easy task, but the world of couchsurfing stretching far). We were travelling during Ramadan; when the gruelling test of no eating or drinking (or sex..) is rewarded by the mini-feast of Iftat in the evening. Iftar happens just after the sunset, surrounded by your family, very much akin to our Christmas, and lasts good couple of hours. This is unless you are a single man and then you go to a nearby cafe. I was yearning to experience Iftour in a 'proper' home setting.

Harrira, dates and preserved lemons - a traditional Iftar.
Photo thanks to

It was not until the very last evening, in the small mountain town of Azrou, that I realised that to experience Iftar we did not have to search for an idealic family environment. Finding a simple caf, packed with local Moroccans who for various reasons did not have home to go to, was a great way to see the ritual - and participate in it.

The preparation for the evening meal starts at about 3-4 o'clock in the afternoon when (mainly) women go out shopping for food at numerous markets. Single men go out to buy some ready-made provisions for their solitary evening meals at the market stalls. You can almost touch the anticipation in the air, it increases and speeds up as time approaches the long-awaited break-fast. The atmosphere thickens with people's hunger and smells of cooking.

Counting minutes before Iftour, the meal breaking the fast.

At around 6pm the air turns still, as if in anticipation for a storm. People's bloods starts to run slower, hearts slow down, everyone's eyes are on their watch. The prayer normally takes place about an hour or so before the Iftar, and so you see men leaving the mosques with solemn eyes, perhaps contemplating their spirituality, perhaps their rumbling stomachs. Those dining outside their homes - young unmarried men, businessmen in-between cities, some widowed women - find a place to eat long before the fast is broken. Putting together your meal in such public surroundings is as much of a ritual as making a 3 course meal at home, even if it only means shelling your egg, sprinkling cumin on it, or stirring hot harissa into your soup. You can almost count seconds by the flow of blood pressure running through your ears...

And then it happens, a loud whisper floats through and above the punters in the cafe - you can eat.

The humble Iftar offering: a boiled egg, dates and Chbakiyya.

The traditional Iftar meal almost always consists of Harirra, a thick soup of chickpeas, tomatoes, sometimes lamb and vermicelli. Guidebooks all claim that accompanying the soup with dates is authentic, perhaps, but I have not seen anyone eating their soup with dates. A splash of green olive oil, a chunk of flat bread is all the bowl of very hot soup needs.

Most people actually start off by a drink - a yoghurt drink sold in recycled plastic bottles by women from villages. Or just a can of coke. Then goes a hard-boiled egg, seasoned with cumin. Then the soup. The meal is finished by a glass of very sweet mint tea (which is made with black or green tea leaves by the way, not just hot water and herb) and Chbakiyya, a 'tressed' pastry - a coil of flaky pastry soaked in sugar syrup.

Finishing off the feast: mint tea and Chbakiyya.

..We started our break-fast together with the others in the cafe, but finished it later than others, enjoying the rare sense of feeling part of the proceedings, this quiet, almost sneaky sharing of the tradition that we would not normally be privy. Infiltration of a different kind.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The labyrynth of smells - fruit and veg market, Fez, Morocco

‘The smells’ – the unforgettable combination of cinnamon, rose water, cumin, dust and dung – disturbing and enticing at the same time.

‘The smells’ is what I tell people when asked why I fell in love with Morocco. If you are looking for dust-free streets and hassle-spared promenades, then Morocco may not be for you. But if you are turned on by the idea of snatching the last glimpses of the Middle Ages, go now and you’ll be forever haunted by the aroma of the leathery broad beans stewed with cumin and sold in shadowy corners; by the smell of old waters collected in the cobbled, no-wider-than-a-donkey’s-arse, streets; by just boiled potato sandwiches sold by a local gang of boys; by dusty but mind-blowingly delicate carpets; by the odour of freshly made leather goods, combined with intensely sugary mint tea poured from dizzy heights…

The streets of old Medina (Fez)

...We came back to Morocco almost five years after out initial olfactory affair with the place, choosing Fez, this ancient city with over 9000 streets hidden in its Medina, for a fleeting breather from London staleness.

The labyrinth of streets and smells

August is a low season in Morocco because of the unbearable heat (40C is normal). This year in addition it is the month of Ramadan, with its soul-testing fasting demands, making travelling a particular challenge. We decided to go on a whim, wanting to experience Morocco in its most uncomfortable.

But once landed, we were taken back by the smell of soil freshly impregnated with rain - the land felt fresh, enlivened. It was pleasant - too pleasant for those looking for the exotic 'otherness'. It was not until we reached the eerily empty walls of Medina (8pm is when everyone rests at home, having broken their fast, before 'hitting the town') that the memories - the smells - started to creep back in. No traveller can escape Fez Medina without getting lost. I wonder whether local inhabitants find their way by nose, as each corner, crook and cranny has its own smell, an olfactory labyrinth of a kind...

Souqs of Fez (and J with a yellow umbrella)

Fez Medina is broken down into sections, souqs, markets, each specialising in a particular trade, each with its unique combination of smells. Thus there is a spice souq, henna souq (now more famous for its pottery), tanneries with their revolting stench of leather treated with dung and chemical dies, the meat market with a whiff of coagulated blood and fresh innards…

Chicken on sale. Tesco 'fresh' carries a different meaning here

The fruit and veg market in the Western part of Medina is unsurprisingly most aromatic and fresh. Mid August is the time of figs - heavy, lilac ones and less sweet, lemony ones. All quite small compared to the perfect giants sold in London. Bursting with flavour quite literally, so ripen that they get slightly sticky on the outside. We couldn't hold ourselves and greedily bought a couple of kilos of each kind from a women who had just come down from a village in mountains.


Some believe the ultimate Eden fruit was this aromatic, suggestive-looking fruit, rather than a cool and firm apple

Yellow melons are on the other hand a lot bigger - and needless to say so much more perfumed - than those sold in Green Lanes. We had the pale-green flesh cut up and served with warm bread for breakfast each morning.

Fruit and veg market in Fez

I have read odes to prickly pears which carry a semi-iconic status on Greek islands, but I had myself been disappointed in the past with their undistinguishable flavour. In Fez these hedgehogs of fruits are sold in big wooden carts, with the seller swiftly and miraculously transforming each fruit into a round pink softness, refreshing to no end and only a few un-prickly seeds to deal with. I can't say the prickly thing is my favourite fruit, but I see what those hot-blooded Greeks might like about them.

Prickly pears sold across Medina to clench thirst

Then there were huge pink onions everywhere, almost translucent in colour, sweeter than the standard white variety. We bought just one and brought it all the way to London, where I've been slicing it carefully and enjoying bit by bit with a tomato salad.

Pink onions and very red tomatoes

And of course - tomatoes. Real stuff, with a smell and colour, fully ripen. Most on sale in Fez were not of a particularly fancy variety, but the patience of a farmer who left the fruit on its vine for long enough makes the whole difference. Those who know me know that tomato is what I live for in culinary terms. I hunt them down and buy in bags every time I'm in a county with a suitable climate.

...We came back tired to our hotel, smiling silly, happily, minutes before another thunderstorm poured down, shutting down most aromas of the city, quietening the sounds....We sneaked in our bags of fruit and bread - eating or drinking is not allowed until darkness, remember - and had our mini feast. In bed. Divine. Blasphemous. All the better for it.

Lunch in riad: tomatoes, figs, bread

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Napoleon cake - the most Russian French cake

If you have ever been invited to a celebration party in (or around) Russia, you would have most probably tasted the omnipresent Napoleon cake. Essentially a French Mille-Feuille - a 'thousand layer' cake, often known as a Custard slice elsewhere, it has been adapted, adopted and fully nationalised by Russians, as THE Russian cake.

Napoleon - THE Russian cake

Most Russians will reassure you that the name has a direct link to a certain French Emperor, and was invented in his honour (perhaps in line with another Russian treasure with a French name - salad Olivier). I admit, I have not done a lot of research into the origin of the name (perhaps a topic for my future Phd in Anthropology), but the wise Wikipedia suggests that the recipe is of 'ancient origin' (read, no one really knows) and the name comes from napolitain, ie in French, originated in Naples. the word later got miraculously changed to Napoleon, perhaps by a simple linguist association.

In Russia the most iconic version - or the most Soviet, depending on how you look at it - is made with condensed milk cream, that cloyingly sweet and terrifyingly addictive substance. Unlike the 'proper' French Mill-feuille, where the top is often covered by patterned icing, the Russian version is topped with crumbled pastry. The budget version if you like, which I in fact prefer to the teeth-gnawing icing.

Condensed milk, favourite sweet treat of Soviet children, and the ingredient in Napoleon cake.

I have numerous memories of my mother making Napoleons for me, often in preparation for various school events, such as the ceremony of becoming a Pioneer, or my birthday when it was expected that you'd bring a cake to your school. The memory of the smell - warm, soft butter and baked pastry - aways made me weep the other night, remembering my childhood, my mother's hands, frosted with snow windows in our little wooden house...*clearing away melodramatic tears*.

I have made the Napoleon last night for our big house warming party, challenged to it by Amy, whose 'Soviet Kitchen' I have recently reviewed. The process was surprisingly straight-forward, the result head-spinningly good. I was proud - and stuffed - to my eye balls.

My Napoleon cake

Amy's given a recipe to follow, which I'm relaying here with comments and alternations:

"Наполеон" cake (adopted from Zhenya's recipe)

For the pastry:
1 egg
250g soft butter (but not so much so that it disintegrates, perhaps an hour's out of fridge)
540g flour
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
125 ml water (cold)

For the cream:
300g of soft butter
405g tin condensed milk

1. Mix flour and butter with fingertips, till they form breadcrumbs.

2. Mix the water, egg, lemon juice and salt.

3. Pour into the breadcrumbs and mix again. The result will be quite hard to kneed, because of all the butter, so just try to put everything in one neat piece, as much as possible.

4. Divide the mixture into 7 balls and leave in the fridge for an hour (or longer).

Pastry balls before going into fridge for chilling

5. Turn on your oven to 220C (or 200C if fan-assisted).

6. Prepare clean, open kitchen surface. Have a little bit of flour to dust the surface and the pastry whilst working on it. Take out one ball at a time (the colder the pasty, the easier it is to work with), flatten it first with your hands, then roll it out carefully with a rolling pin to shape a thin (about 3 mms) circle, square or a rectangle (depending on what shape you want your finished cake to be). The shapes are going to be all over the place, so you can try to use a plate to cut out your circle, or trim the rough edges later. Don't panic.

7. Using your rolling pin, lift each circle and carefully place onto a baking sheet (no need to smear with butter, as there's so much of it in the dough already). Something I didn't do - prick each circle with a fork in several places, to stop bubbles forming whilst baking; or place another baking sheet on top for the first few minutes of baking it to flatten it.

Making Napoleon's layers

8. Bake 2-3 layers at a time in your oven for about 15 minutes - until they are lightly browned.

9. While they are cooking, mix the butter and condensed milk together, beat to form a cream.

10. Once the circles are cooked, allow to cool. At this stage you can carefully cut out the imperfections with a sharp knife (but be prepared that bigger pieces of pastry may fall off as it is so crumbly - don't worry, it will all be yummy). Take the least perfect circle, crumble it and set aside (you'll need the crumbs to sprinkle on top of the cake for decoration).

11. Start layering your Napoleon: one circle, spread some cream generously (I'd say good 4 tbs), put another circle and so on, finishing with cream. Smear more cream onto the sides - tricky, but persevere.

12. Sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the crumbs you set aside, and leave to stand in room temperature for 2-3 hours, then transfer into a fridge overnight or even whole day. Napoleon is best on day 2-3, as all the layers will 'soak up' the cream.

Napoleon - the imperfect, yet deliriously delicious result

13. Serve with hot black tea or Turkish coffee.

...My guests ravenously ate the whole cake in some 20 minutes, greedily licking up crumbs and drops of cream. I had to restraint some of them..Nostalgia combined with sugar and fat - the most powerful mix in the world.

Friday, 13 August 2010

'Moon' - Estonian food with a (hi)story

What is the typical Estonian cuisine? I often get asked upon accidentally dropping my place of origin, a tiny country an hour's ferry drive from Helsinki, with history and pride that stretch its petite body. Most Europeans these days have the vague notion that Estonia is an Eastern-European county, and so associations with dumplings (true), borsch (true) and lots of vodka (sort of true) follow. Ask a Russian, and he'll probably say it is mulgikapsad, an Estonia version of Polish bigos, a stew of sauerkraut and meat (sort of true) and a curious combination of herring and cottage cheese (I am yet to sample).

'The essence of Estonian cuisine is in its numerous, small islands, which, because of their remoteness have been less affected by centuries of occupation: sturdy vegetables, plentiful fish, forest goods:

Roman Zaštšerinski explains to me, an award-winning chef who has recently opened his own restaurant 'Moon' (pronounced as mo-hon, meaning a poppy in Estonian) in a humble but hip area of Kalamaja, right next to Tallinn harbour. This 'family' kohvik (a cafe that serves food, not just snacks), follows the mantra so often overused in the UK - fresh, local, seasonal - but that seems so refreshingly novel in Tallinn, especially when combined with Roman's restraint creativity.

Recently opened Moon restaurant:
(from left to right) Igor Andrejev (chef), Roman (chef and owner) and Jana Zaštšerinski (owner and sommelier)

Roman and I, together with his wife, Jana Zaštšerinski, the co-owner and the laid-back sommelier, are sitting in one of Moon's rooms, a few minutes before it opens for a busy lunch service. It is hot and blindly sunny outside, and the airy room full of light wood feels even lighter; in fact, the place feels like a good gastro-pub, with its sturdy furniture and un-fussy cutlery. Both owners are impossibly young, already with an impressive track record (Roman's been named the best Chef by Gastronomy Society of Estonia, and is a chef-de-cuisine of one of the top Tallinn restaurants Ö). They are relaxed, confident with firm hand-shakes. Roman smiles sincerely and asks straight away to address them informally with 'ty' (an informal version of 'you'). Even if only for 10 minutes, their attention was undividedly mine.

I am curious what they think about the 'real' Estonian food - is it disappearing with Estonian burgeoning encounter with the EU and people's slow but steady financial independence?

Jana animatedly reassures me that on the contrary, a lot of young people are increasingly interested in grow-your-own, dachas, shopping at farmers' markets. In fact, she half-smiles, it is more her mother's generation that scorned the markets - those caught in between the Soviet collectivism and modern-day yearning to return to 'one's roots'. Jana dreamily tells me how she remembers having to collect podorozniki (weed with lots of healing properties, growing in abundance by the side of roads) as part of her summer school tasks. She is planning to get Moon's staff to do similar things whilst the restaurant is closed in July...

Estonian forests - full of edible goodies, used in Moon's kitchen

What did they want to achieve with opening their own place, I wonder, after all it is so much simpler than Roman's previous haute-couture ventures.

'It's all about the ingredients and simplicity':

Roman explains. Moon uses a heck of a lot of semi-obscure Estonian berries (such as chokeberry, lingonberry) and they work with several local producers on sourcing produce. Fish comes from the fish market literally down the road. To a foodie Brit this sounds so familiar, but at the same time my heart was melting under Estonian's curiously hot sun - re-connecting people with food that has history does a better job than any commission on ethnic diversity...

Inside of Moon

Who comes here? Roman explains that at the very beginning it was mainly Estonians who were frequenting Moon, but these days it is both Russians and Estonians, as well a few wondering Finns and Swedes.

As the restaurant started to fill in for lunch, I saw quite a few robust young men, on their own or accompanied by pretty but professional looking young women.

Men who earn enough to afford a nice lunch out, but not too much to have to bear a suit and a tie.
The class is a better unifier in modern Estonia it seems, which is soothing to my battered Russian heart; and at Moon it is the young, professional, well-educated.

To me Roman and Jana are the symbols of this who-gives- the fuck- about-your-'nationality' attitude: Roman being a Rus, Jana being Estonian, speaking effortlessly both languages (and English of course), transcending any seeming language and nationality barriers blindly - in a good way. The banter in the restaurant amongst the owners, their funky young stuff and the punters is an intermingle of languages. Estonia is finally embracing rather than stuffing its cosmopolitanism. I left hopeful – and very full.

So what about the food?

It is wholesome, inventive, young-spirited. It's good.

Home-made bread at Moon

Roman with his worldy experience, manages to combine European influences with Estonian eccentricities, resulting in such dishes such as Orsotto (risotto made out of barley, grown widely in Estonia) with roasted beetroot and goat cheese. Hating barley from my Soviet kindergarden days, the grain has been resurrected with the addition of earthy vegetables, spicy olive oil and a fun addition of garlic breadcrumbs on top. Clever and delicious.

Orsotto with roasted beetroot and goat cheese

There are a few squarely Russian dishes on the menu, with meaningful tweaks; such as these pickled (salted marinade, with just a bit of sugar) cucumbers, served with sourcream and honey. A revelation.

Pickled cucumbers with honey and sour cream

More classic offerings are the Siberian pelmeni, dumplings served in wild mushroom bouillon - delicate (a young pigglet?) pork flavour with intense aroma of mushrooms, and Borsch made with beef stock - that NamiNami specifically recommended to me. I would have loved to try Boeuf a la tartar with spicy Adzika (hot Georgian paste).

Desserts also borrow from native lands, with such creations as Napoleon (classic Soviet mille-feuille cake) with lingonberry's jam. I went for an alcoholic closing - home-made liqueur from black chokeberry (Aronia). Dark, strong, yet refreshing.


Moon Kohvik. address Võrgu 3, Tallinn 10415. Tel: + 372 6 314 575.

A 3-course dinner for two, including drinks and service is around EEK600-700, or £35.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

'My Soviet Kitchen'

I banged the jar of salted cucumbers sideways on the table covered with patterned kleyonka - the lid easily came off. He cut off three thick slices of servelat, dense with fat and a memory of pig, and placed them sparingly onto oblongs of black bread. Vodka glasses were ready, all warm, bitter and heaven-promising. We threw back our heads - not too far, mind you, the space didn't allow - and gulped in one go...

'Soviet kitchen', photo by Andriy Bychay

Good old, old days, eh? Done by millions of (ex) Soviet people, in tiny spaces of their kitchens, shared by neighbours, friends, families, passer-bys..

Never, however, shared with crowds of gallery visitors, whilst sitting on a taburetka, on and as a display, in an alcove of the church crypt!

This is exactly what happened to me the other day at the launch of Amy Spurling's book 'My Soviet Kitchen. Ivy's guide to life in the ex-USSR' published by Roastbooks.

Amy's newly-published book

Described by some as a 'neo chick lit with a darker side, a vodka twist, recipe’s galore and a generous slice of post-Soviet living', the book (and its companion guide as a free bonus) is, from what I can make, a fictionalised story of the author's journey as a Phd student in Russia (as well as Georgia, Estonia, Uzbekistan) in the years soon after the collapse of the USSR.

Having only read a few pages so far, I can say that Amy's writing style is snappy, light, and witty, with the most dead pan English understatement you can imagine. This combined with Russian over-flowing love for drama and exaggeration, makes for a rather entertaining read (note, am practising English understatement). Some compared the book to Bridget Jones's dairy - Soviet style - and I can imagine why (especially with Amy's weakness for omitting pronouns at the beginning of sentences - am liking the style;)).

'The book cover', photo by Andriy Bychay

Amorous adventures, cultural clashes, awkward encounters with foreigners - the book you can easily swallow up in a few hours whilst lying on a beach (or in bed, whilst nursing vodka-induced hang-over). However, 'My soviet Kitchen' is so well-researched and full of such precise - and hilarious - description of all the kitsch Soviet detail, such as the composition of komunalkas (communal flats, housing several families, and one kitchen) and how to shop in a ex-USSR supermarket (queue 1 to choose, queue 2 to pay, queue 3 to pick up), that it will be fun to read for the most macho of us.

I would give out copies of the accompanying little book 'The guide to life, post-soviet style' to any non-Soviet person who is either:

a) married to a Rus
b) interested in being married to a Rus
c) or ever finds oneself in a company of Russians.

The guide has recipes (such as Estonian Kama drink or Georgian feast), Mayakovsky's Lilya Brik muse and their menage a trois, Properties of Soviet Snow (slyakot, parosha, purga, etcetc), and even the band DDT and Viktor Tsoi!

...Back to the launch.

As in Amy's book, we were taken on the journey through the Estonian banya, sauna, complete with Estonian beers and beech venik:

'Estonian sauna', photo by Andriy Bychay

A proper Georgian feast (thanks to Iberia, a Georgian restaurant in North London and the Georgian wine society), which later served as a real-life snack table, all eaten to the bone:

'Georgian feast' , photo by Andriy Bychay

A Soviet train, with real train-y chukh-chuch sounds (i-pod, behind the red curtain) and vodka:

'Soviet train' , photo by Andriy Bychay

...3 hours later, we were dancing to DDT jauntily, doing khorovods (holding hands in circles) and were very, very drunk.

From Amy's 'companion guide to life':

'Soviet-man stages of drunkenness:

Man disappears to the toilet and comes back with wet hair. At attempt to revive himself and regain lost ground.

Man slumped against the wall.

Man slumped against the front door when you open it.'