On the Seasonal Aisle

It’s true about the cheese.

When we lived here in Moscow before, all of ten plus years ago, the shopping was always much more seasonal when it came to fresh fruit and veg than in the UK. I spent years trying to get my head round the infinitesimal changes to the produce in ASDA, and just as I was actually noticing that peas were 2p cheaper in June, I have been wrong footed by the fact the over here we have had the berries glut, we have had the courgette glut, we have had the pointy tomato glut, we have had the blueberry glut, we have had the peaches and nectarines glut, we have had the pepper glut and we are currently coming to the end of the turnip glut, and very little have I made out of any of them.

It looks as though we will be down to the big tomatoes, the small and knobbly cucumbers, the white cabbage, the sour apples, the giant oranges, the conference pears, the mismatched beetroot, the plentiful bananas, the tiny grapes and potatoes for the winter.

Next year I am buying a really BIG freezer and cramming it full, making lots of chutney and investigating the finer art of canning.

And praying to the gods above that someone teaches the Russians how to make blue cheese. What is with a nation that has so many milk products but cannot make its own cheese? Vinegary cheddar does NOT count. Woman cannot survive on fifty seven varieties of cottage cheese alone.

On the upside, peanut butter seems to be a thing. I won’t have to make my own this time round. And they are selling rabbit everywhere.

I wonder how hard it is to mature Stilton in your bathtub?

On Pancake Day 2013

You went a bit overboard on pancake day this year. Six am saw you up and making a breakfast of a stack quick and dirty blini (use self raising flour, don’t bother beating the eggwhites), albeit only because your daughter had woken you up early. Upside? The Star got to take chocolate spread covered crepes to school in his lunchbox, which is one of his favourite things to do. Downside? You did the school run with a smudge of chocolate on your forehead.

Ah well.

Anyway, then you started to think about lunch. Had to be pancakes really. That was what you had promised B. But what to put in them? It turns out that blini are and excellent way to use up all the things you have hanging about in the fridge. Who knew? Not to mention the fact that sorting out 42 different fillings neatly got you out of doing the cleaning.

Here are the savoury ones.

Top left to bottom right: mushrooms in cream, cheddar, spinach, ricotta cheese, leeks, bacon, ham, smoked salmon, brie and goats cheese. Not all at once.

Top left to bottom right: mushrooms in cream, cheddar, spinach, ricotta cheese, leeks, bacon, ham, smoked salmon, brie and goats cheese. Not all at once.

Here are what your family actually prefers. You, on the other hand, like jam and sour cream. Or real cream if you have it, which you did for breakfast this morning, thanks.

That there on the left is condensed milk. No really, try it.

That there on the left is condensed milk. No really, try it.

And here are a few of the 167 pancakes you cooked. Only a few because you all ate the rest. You had them for tea too.



The good news is in precisely a month you get to do it all again, but more so, for Maslenitsa, or Russian Orthodox Pancake Week.

Yes, their Lent/ Easter is a month behind the Western Christian Church’s one this year. No that isn’t going to be weird at all.

On banana bread

A few days ago you bought too many bananas. It seemed like a good idea at the time. So today you decided to get rid of some and make banana bread. Lots and lots of banana bread.

Here is a picture of the ones you used.

Here is a picture of the ones you have left. You see banoffee pie and lots of banana milkshakes in your future.

Anyway. You highly recommend that anyone cooking with children be very prepared to have flour thrown all over the kitchen. Today’s incident came when the Comet fell off the chair and took the flour/sugar/baking powder mixture with her. She was largely unhurt – she is quite adept at falling off chairs – but what with that and what she and the Star did with the wet ingredients bowl it should really have been baths all round. As it was, you flung everybody’s clothes in the wash, rinsed the worst off and made a mental note that hairwashing will definitely have to occur tomorrow.

You had fish to bake and potatoes to peel you see. Never stop a Solnushka on a cooking roll. You made your Christmas puddings today too.

Strangely enough, the banana bread turned out fine. You always worry that the children’s shenanigans will result in weird ingredient proportions in the mixture, but this never seems to happen. Well, you burnt the edges a bit. This always happens.

Can readers work out which is the banana bread-with-brandy-soaked-sultanas one? The banana bread-with-walnuts one? The banana bread-with-dark-chocolate-pieces one?

Or which one tasted the nicest?

On smug motherhood.

‘I wanna banana!’ said your son.

‘Sorry, sweets, no bananas today.’

The Star frowned. ‘Apple! Me have an apple?’

‘No apples either. We need to go shopping. How about a satsuma?’

‘Yes!’ Cherubic smile of satisfaction. ‘A sat-suma! I yike sat-sumas.’

There are times when you get to feel really smug as a mother, and when exchanges like this happen at top volume on a busy bus, that is one of them.

You feel justified in accepting the accolades that must surely have been rolling in upon you from your fellow passengers. You put a lot of effort into the Star’s food and eating habits. You do a lot of cooking. You do a lot of cooking from scratch.  Junk food in your house is pelmeni, Russian style ravioli. You even make your own hamburgers.

As a result you have a son who will refuse fish fingers*, can’t stand ketchup, has only recently discovered fruit juice is nicer than plain water, prefers the bitter dark Russian chocolate to the exceptionally sweet Cadburys  and whose favourite foods are apples,** brocoli, tomatoes and home-made chicken noodle soup.*** He doesn’t eat biscuits.  Or puddings. Not even with custard. He prefers fruit. He likes smoked salmon, steamed salmon, salmon and broccoli pasta and has never knowingly eaten a chicken nugget.

Of course, given that you can feel anxious about absolutely anything parenting related, you worry about this. Will he, you fret, rebel when he is thirteen, eat a Happy Meal and then consume nothing but McDonald’s for the rest of his life, die at 45 an obese blob as a result of your failure to desensitize him to fatty, sugar laden foods?

But the thing is, it’s not that you ban these things from his life. Every now and again you’ll make a cake and offer him some. He’ll nibble the icing and demand some grapes. You can’t even get him to eat sausages unless you hide them in toad in the hole, which is a shame as you like them.

In fact, it weren’t for the fact that he doesn’t really want to be adventurous, is steadfast in turning his nose up at stuffed peppers and adores ice cream, you’d be tempted to jack in the cooking and buy in a years’  supply of microwavable dinners to redress the balance.

Anyway. This is relevant because, as well as the fact that it doesn’t do to miss an opportunity for a good boast when you are a mother, you are about to wean the Comet.

Which means breaking out the baby rice and having at her with purees and not giving baby led weaning a chance.

Baby led weaning, for the child rearing fashion challenged amongst us, is where you cover the floor, the walls and any siblings in plastic sheeting, plonk a bowl of (unsalted but otherwise unadulterated) spaghetti bolognaise in front of a seven month old, stand well back and let them have at it. And then give them a bath and nuke the kitchen from orbit.

You would find it amusing, and as the Comet already has a good line in lunging for the nearest banana, or trying to face plant in the Rice Krispies, or flinging herself sideways to go after a piece of flying pasta, you doubt you will be able to resist giving her a spoon and a plate of cauliflower cheese sometime very soon, just to see what she makes of it.

But by and large, you don’t want to mess with the magic formula that has produced the Star and his disgustingly well-balanced attitude towards food.

Plus, there is the issue of the mess.

*Unless he’s at his Granny’s. For some reason he likes fish fingers at Granny’s.

**He ate four today. You are not sure this is entirely healthy. And nearly an entire bag of satsumas yesterday. On the other hand, surely this is better than him eating four lots of sweets?

***OK, and crisps. He doesn’t get to eat crisps very often though, so he has stopped asking for them. You save them for situations that call for really big bribes.

On the problem with cakes.

Cakes cause a certain amount of dissension in your house.

This comes to a head every birthday, when your MiL and you husband look on in mild bemusement as you wrestle with the latest offering on the altar of declaring your love through home cooking. Why bother? They have learned not to ask.

For in Russia they are not great cake makers. This is not, however, to say that they do not have great cakes. They do. There they are, all lined up in dedicated deli counters in any food shop larger than a kiosk. Here is a picture of your favourite. It doesn’t look that impressive, but that is because you were unable to wait to take the photograph and it is in the middle of being demolished. Yes, it is essentially meringue held together with cream and nuts. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.

Cream. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Of course, when you were visiting a few years ago, there seemed to be experimentation with healthy versions of the classics. Healthy cream does not taste nice. Luckily, that madness had passed by the time you arrived in Moscow this summer and it was back to business as usual with the spun sugar, the cream and the elegant fruit toppings. And more meringue.

So Russians definitely eat cake. A lot of cake. Particularly as Russians actually do afternoon tea. And elevennses. Office birthdays were also particularly spectacular, although as a hostess you always appreciated the habit guests had of turning up with large square boxes full of gooey goodness. These days you tend to get wine, vodka and chocolates instead and it’s just not the mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Chocolates. Really really good chocolates. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Where was I?


You found out why Russians don’t bake when you decided to make B a Russian classic for his last birthday, Bird’s Milk Cake.

It tasted a lot better than it looked.

It took six hours.

Admittedly, at least one of those hours was because you had run out of condensed milk and had to stop and make your own, which you highly recommend by the way as it keeps forever and tastes much better than the stuff in tins.

Still, that’s practically five hours longer than you would expect to spent on an undecorated British cake (although it was very very good).

Russian cakes are, in your opinion, meant to be constructed by professionals under controlled conditions. By contrast, most British classics are meant to be made at home. And for this reason, you very rarely buy shop-bought cakes in the UK, and wouldn’t dream of it for properly special occasions. Why bother? Well, you can do it better and with a surprisingly small amount of effort.

Well, except for the whole decoration aspect. Since you are completely without any crafting skills whatsoever, you do approach the summer months with trepidation due to the fact that you now have to regularly produce themed birthday cakes for your son… and, oh no! Soon you will be doing it for your daughter too. You really did not think this having more children thing through.

Here, for example, is the practice cake for B’s birthday a couple of years ago.

And here is the Star’s second birthday cake. Yes, that is three times the recommended dosage of food colouring in that butter icing in a vain attempt to make it red rather than pink.

Mmmmmmm. Sugar!

(Incidently, you learned a very important parenting lesson as a result of this cake.

Do not save the birthday cake as a surprise for the end of a hard day’s partying.

You whipped it out of its cupboard to very satisfying cries of the Star’s delight.

Cries which swiftly turned to screams when, ten minutes and many candles later, you whipped it away again… in order to brutally hack it apart).

But in the end the problem with the cakes you make is not the reckless use of electricity involved in the baking time, nor the assault on aesthetic standards caused by your decorating skills.

No, the problem is that B just doesn’t really like British cakes at all. Oh he eats them if you put raisins in, but he’s not enthusiastic. And he considers the great British sponge in particular to be one big waste of good eggs, sugar and butter.

This initially came as something of a surprise to you.

Because to your palette Russian sponges, well, Russian sponges taste stale*.

And in one of those misunderstandings that only occur when two cultures collide, you smugly and quite patronisingly assumed that all that when B had a real sponge, he would fall to his knees, mouth foaming in ecstasy and declare he had seen the light. You still find it difficult to believe that B actually prefers the (substandard) taste he grew up with. But he does, and that’s all there is to it.

The Bird’s Milk Cake helped you realise why. The ‘cake’ part of the recipe is made with flour, eggs, sugar and so on… and no raising agent. The flour is plain. There’s no baking powder. Nothing. One recipe you came across called it a biscuit. And it was certainly very flat. And a bit stale tasting.

So your advice to any British person visiting Moscow is stay away from the sponges* and stick to anything essentially held together with cream and meringue.

And if serving cake to a Russian, make muffins. This is the recipe you used, and which inspired this post.

Because B ate them. All. In one day. And demanded more. You have branched out from cranberries and done blueberry muffins and even banana ones. Add cinnamon. Leave out the orange peel.

Galling that the bloody things are actually American though.

*Except the Prague Cake, which is chocolaty and lovely. Although still not terribly light or fluffy. Western versions of the recipe add baking powder.

On office parties.

So much for posting every day until Christmas.

In your own defence, as well as the projectile vomiting, and the associated cleaning frenzy in the aftermath, there were also two Christmas dos to fit in and a morning chasing an appointment all over South London.

You recommend greyhound racing for a works outing by the way. It wasn’t your office party, or even B’s, but B’s driving instructor’s. What can you say? At least you spared them all from falling back on talking shop.

You won £3.50. That’s once.

You lost £24. That’s 12 races. You can conclusively say that you cannot pick a dog. Yours came in last three times.

You do have one tip, however. Wear extra jumpers and two pairs of socks. The viewing gallery stroke restaurant is not meant to be occupied in shirt sleeves in the middle of a cold snap.

But the food was good.

Which is more than you can say about the Argentinian restaurant your school patronised for the other blow out.

You were unsurprised to find that the main course consisted of a very large hunk of beef and nothing else, because you had rather gathered that this is Argentinian cuisine at its best, but you weren’t prepared for the two and a half hour wait that came between the starter and the steak. I mean, how difficult can it be to slap a cow on the barbie?

Very, apparently, given that anyone who had ordered medium rare got it raw. Of course, the funny thing about serving chunks of meat to British people is that British people have often been brought up on Sunday roasts and can be quite fussy about it. You, for example, didn’t appreciate the gristle and fat in what should have been a prime cut.

And in the end you barely had time to drink your completely unfrozen sorbet* before fleeing to catch the last train home. Becuase the other issue with the establishment is that it was almost the opposite end of London to where you work, and therefore to where most of the staff actually live.

Ah well. That’s what happens when restaurants are run by your boss’s former bank manager.

But the company was good, which is really the point.  Almost good enough to allow you to forget your howling stomach. And nobody photocopied their knickers, which is also a plus, and quite surprising given the very liberal hand your boss has with the wine.

* You are suspicious about this. Can sorbet be liquid? Everybody did politely neck it, but unlike the beef, you think that you were had and that the kitchen had run out of frozen pudding and just served what they had. Lemon flavoured water in this case.

On Shesh Besh.

Dizzy with the successful contemplation of high art in the Tretyakov Gallery, you have just fallen over on the street*. Or perhaps you were overcome by the heat. Either way you came down a right thump and have retreated to a café for food and tea.

The Tretyakov Gallery

They do exceptionally good tea here. It comes in a vast teapot accompanied by small glasses to sip it from, little rocks of sugar to add and tiny teaspoons to stir contemplatively. You have drunk a lot of those glasses by now, and partaken of, amongst other things, roasted aubergines smothered in garlic, and are feeling quite restored although not quite yet ready to go back out into the furnace that is Moscow at 2pm on what they promise is to be the last day of the heatwave**.

Tea in Moscow is a bit like coffee in London. You take for granted that it will be leaf of exceptional quality and frequently specially blended. And then you are surprised when you get back to the UK and somebody hands you a cup of lukewarm water with a teabag haphazardly immersed in it.

In much the same way you forget that in the UK, when you order coffee outside of the capital, it will be mid-range instant, whereas within the city limits even the meanest greasy spoon will have a go at brewing you something freshly ground. It may not be especially nice, but it can hardly be worse than the cup a five-star hotel gave you recently. Of course, that hotel was a good four hours north of the centre of the British universe.

Anyway, there was an ominous crack as your bag hit the pavement and so you are feeling the need to check over your computer thoroughly. It seems to be working. You hope you will be able to say the same about your camera. Perhaps you ought to give it a test and in this way demonstrate another feature of Moscow life, the theme restaurant showcasing the cuisine of the Caucuses.

You’ve already been to one of these this holiday and very nice it was too, with its English salad and mountain of kebab meat, not to mention the starter of yoghurt, dill and rice drink.

The English salad - it's the pomegranates that give it away.

But best of all was the small fountain tinkling between plastic grape vines, plush and slightly too low couches, tasselled nylon draperies and assorted atmospheric vessels of mysterious purpose.


The fountain


This one is not quite that impressive, but it does have the same attention to detail shown by the fibreglass walls simulating rustic mud huts. Sadly, the wait staff are not in full national costume today, but you can only hope they haven’t done away with it altogether.

You blame Irish theme pubs, but not too much as in fact, you’ve rejoiced ever since the Shesh Besh chain, which is where you are, opened about 8 years ago. This is because you enjoy unembarrassed tacky, partly because of the aubergines but mostly because it represented a new dawn in lifestyle in Moscow, something for the aspiring middle class. Prior to places like this, there was the very cheap or the very expensive and not much in between that wasn’t McDonalds.

There are only so many plates of pelamini you want to eat standing up and sadly very few of your friends are oligarchs.

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

**They lied. It wasn’t.