OTB World Cup Diary: Russian cuisine, Sleeper trains, Kazan...
I am penning this from Kazan ahead of the brilliant prospect of Brazil v Belgium. I have just watched France comfortably defeat Uruguay 2-0 here in the media centre. Edinson Cavani's absence was a real setback for the South Americans. His replacement, Cristhian Stuani, was beaten to a ball in the box by Raphael Varane for Les Bleus' opening goal. When Fernando Muslera made a faux pas to parry Antoine Griezmann's second half effort into his own net, it was clear Uruguay were going home. A young boy in a light blue jersey bawled in the crowd. A delirious French fan waved a baguette. It must have been fake. Bread isn't one of the strong points in Russia. The French fan may now try and find a way to Saint Petersburg for Tuesday's semi final.
He might be getting a train, because one fantastic gesture in this World Cup of 'hotel' style hospitality are free trains for fans and journalists with appropriate ID that book in advance. I took the 12 hour sleeper to Kazan and I didn't fall out of the top bunk. I don't have brothers so I never had to worry about bunks as a kid. It was a novel way of spending a night. My travel companions were pretty low key, but who knows what I will encounter on the way back from Saint Petersburg next week.
So I survived that and I also survived my trip to an authentic Russian restaurant, 'Cafe Pushkin', in Moscow on Wednesday. There is no point coming here and eating a steak and chips or a McDonald's for five weeks. There are times when that is necessary because you don't have time to think about things, but I wanted to find out what the staple dishes of the natives are at what was a magnificent setting for dining, with staff in traditional Russian costumes and an old world feel. I am also not the most adventurous type with food, but perhaps I am getting better. One thing I have not done on the World Cup beat is drink alcohol. With a lot of written commitments and both digital and radio contributions, a huge amount of travel and the fact you are carrying your life (passport, money, accreditation) on your person, it's just not worth not being in full control of your faculties. It's also important to do one's work justice by being sharp. So partying will have to wait until the day after the final.
Therefore, at Pushkin, I drank a non alcoholic Moscow Mule, which was a ginger mix, lemon juice, honey, apple juice and kvass.
This is kvass, a drink made from rye bread. While the Mule had a sugary kick and was gorgeous, the kvass smelt like belgian brown beer and tasted bland.
Next up was Russian soup, or Borscht. This is from beetroot extract and contains duck. It was heavy enough and I can understand how it would fill someone up during a freezing Moscow winter.
Instead of settling for one main, I asked the waiter for a selection of Russian dishes. It looks like a prison tray, but it did taste better, if once again somewhat heavy.
There was beef stroganoff, which was nice, a veal rissole, which was tasty, meat dumplings, which were fine, but not a patch on the duck dumplings which I sampled at the Hotel Metropol. Dumplings, or 'Pelmeni' as they are known, are a big thing here. There was a mushroom and pickles in pastry which I left untouched. To finish, I asked the waiter what was the most 'Russian' dessert, and he said a 'Napoleon Mille Feulle'. This resembled a custard slice you would get at Cafe Kylemore on O'Connell Street (I don't know if that establishment still exists), but the cream had a more oozing, less fresh quality, slathered between wafers. You see, this is what a lack of booze does to you. It turns you into a bloody food critic.
So I don't think I will be repeating my Russian culinary journey, but it was worth experiencing, like everything else here. I bought another hat today at the Kazan Kremlin, a tubeteika, as I find myself ever closer to the Asian part of Russia. The Qolsarif Mosque (above) was stunning. Re-purposed since the collapse of Communism, this landmark, originally constructed in the 16th century, is a worthy signature of a World Heritage Site.
Kazan is the sport capital of Russia, and it's a vibrant place. Let's see if Brazil and Belgium can serve up some football gastronomy ahead of my trip to Samara tomorrow, to witness if 'Football's coming home', or if England are 'going home'.