Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blinis and Caviar on the Baltic-St.Petersburg Russia

Russia’s hauntingly beautiful former imperial capital has been justly described as the Venice of the North. Since Czarist times, its cuisine has combined the simplicity of peasant cooking with the epicurean delights of this vast nation’s rivers. Blinis with caviar are cherished by every Russian as their culinary birthright, whether eaten in a humble café or a fancy restaurant.

Founded by Czar Peter the Great to be a “window on the West” that exposed backward Holy Russia to the European Enlightenment, St. Petersburg is said to have been “built on bones” by forced labor, on a desolate swamp where the Neva River flows into the Baltic Sea. It supplanted Moscow as Russia’s capital and remained so until Lenin returned the seat of power to the Kremlin. As the second city of the Soviet Union – renamed Leningrad – it withstood the epic 900 Days of Nazi siege, when 670,000 citizens perished from starvation, cold, or shelling.

Top : Mounds of caviar with sour cream and a sprig of dill constitutes the classic blini topping
Left : The Church of the Resurrection of Christ, also known as the “Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood,” was built in 1883 in the style of 16th- and 17th-century Russian churches.
Above Once the food of poor villagers living by the Caspian Sea, caviar became the choice of the elite before becoming widely available across Russia.

Although the last czar, Nicholas II, once remarked that “St. Petersburg is Russian – but it is not Russia,” the city is associated with a host of renowned figures.
Here, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich composed; Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky wrote; Rasputin, Lenin, and Trotsky made political history; and Catherine the Great defined decadent living. The city’s historical associations abound, from unbridled autocrats to suicidal poets and ruthless revolutionaries. The city’s layout was determined by Peter the Great, who regulated the size of dwellings for each social class and plotted the great avenues that converge on the golden-spired Admiralty. Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main street, has examples of every style of architecture, from Baroque and Neo-Classical to Art Nouveau and Constructivism. The facades of this harmonious ensemble are painted in cool grays and blues or warm tawny hues, producing luminous reflections in the dark waters of the Neva River, its tributaries, and the numerous canals.
Ever since pagan times – before Russians adopted Christianity – the winter festival of Maslenitsa has been celebrated by gorging on blinis oozing melted butter, symbolizing the sun and hopes of fertile crops for the year ahead. The pancakes are traditionally prepared from buckwheat or wheat flour, mixed with butter, eggs, milk, and yeast; they can be topped with anything, but the classic accompaniment is caviar.
Red caviar (krasnaya ikra) is the plump orange eggs of salmon roe; it is far cheaper than black caviar (chornaya ikra), harvested from four varieties of Caspian sturgeon. The most treasured is the pea-sized, black-to-silvery-grey Beluga, followed by the smaller, golden Sterlet, the brownish Osetra, and lastly the gray Sevruga. Canapé-sized blinis are the perfect foil to their oily saltiness, garnished with lemon slices, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprig of dill. Each one is a delicious testament to the decadence of the czars.
A Day in St. Petersburg
The Neva River defines the city; its majestic bridges link the downtown (on the mainland) to Petrograd Side and Vasilevsky Island. During the mid-summer White Nights, crowds gather to watch the bridges being raised; in winter the Neva freezes over, with spectacular ice floes during the spring thaw.
Tour the State Hermitage Museum, an architectural ensemble that includes the magnificent Winter Palace and houses a collection of artworks that rivals the Louvre’s. Then stroll along the Moyka canal to the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, marking the spot where Alexander II was assassinated.
Visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Romanovs (now buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral) imprisoned generations of revolutionaries. Walk on the cruiser Aurora, whose guns heralded the October Revolution in 1917.
Explore the Haymarket district (the setting of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), before attending a performance at the Mariinsky Theater.
GETTING TO St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg’s international airport, Pulkovo, has buses and taxis to down town, 11 miles (17 km) away. It’s easy to get around by metro, bus, marshrutka (minibus), or on foot.

WHERE TO STAY In St.Petersburg

Randhouse (inexpensive) is a hip B&B chain with good locations.
Casa Leto (moderate) is an elegant mini-hotel near the Hermitage.
Grand Hotel Europe (expensive) is true old-style decadence.

Best Places to Eat Blinis

Caviar Bar & Restaurant
If money’s no object, reserve a table at the Caviar Bar & Restaurant in the Grand Hotel Europe, where Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon. Founded in the 1870s, the Yevropeyskaya (as locals call the hotel) became an orphanage after the 1920s Civil War and was only restored to its previous splendor six decades later. Though there’s no formal dress code, you’ll feel underdressed in casual wear amid the Caviar Bar’s Art Nouveau marble decor, damask upholstery, and tinkling fountain. Its menu offers such delights as Kamchatka crab, Siberian pelmeni (ravioli) in Champagne sauce, sturgeon and salmon mousse – and blinis with caviar. Their blinis are cooked to perfection – thin and crispy – and the caviar is mouthwatering, from the finest Beluga and Sterlet to unsalted (malossol) red caviar (which elsewhere tends to be over-salted). Served with panache, they are best washed down with shots of ice-cold vodka, of which there’s a vast range of different flavored brands available.
Mikhailovskaya ul. 1–7, St. Petersburg; open 5 PM–midnight daily;
Also in St. Petersburg
You needn’t spend a fortune to enjoy blinis with caviar. Provided they’re freshly made, they can be delicious in cafés or as carry-outs from street kiosks serving Russian-style fast food. Some chains serve deep-frozen blinis, defrosted in a microwave, which are truly revolting. If in doubt ask, “Oni svyezhi?” (“Are they fresh?”).
One sure-fire option – that also offers an all-you-can-eat zakuski buffet – is Yolki Palki (inexpensive), a rustic-style chain of Russian tavernas with 24-hour branches at Malaya Konyushennaya 9 and Nevsky Prospekt 88.
Besides a selection of vodkas, they also serve kvas, a delicious beverage made from fermented rye bread. Neither branch takes reservations.
Also in Russia
Yolki Palki (see above) is ubiquitous in Moscow, but Teremok (; inexpensive), a chain with kiosks near metro stations, is a good alternative for a carry-out. For a sit-down meal in Moscow, try the funky Café Margarita (www.; inexpensive), named after the heroine of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita.
Around the World
Blinis are also a feature of Polish, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian cuisine, and feature on the menu in restaurants from Vilnius to Berlin and beyond. In the US, there are many Russian restaurants in Brooklyn; the Baku Palace (; moderate) also has Azerbaijani dishes on its menu.


On restaurant menus, blinis with caviar (or mushrooms or puréed herring) come under the heading of zakuski, or hors d’oeuvres.
Salted sprat or herring, gherkins, pickled garlic, spiced feta, cold meats, gelatins, and salads are also popular, together with the oddly named selyodka pod-shuby – herring “in a fur coat” of beet, carrot, egg, and mayonnaise. Zakuski form the basis of the Russky stol, or “Russian table,” which among the Czarist upper classes was merely the prelude to the main meal of the day. The Russky stol can be enjoyed at restaurants or private parties celebrating New Year, Orthodox Christmas (January 6–7), or “Old New Year” (January 13–14).

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