Friday, September 21, 2007
To those who say that writing about restaurants is not hard work, I reply: "Have you ever tried eating six meals in a day?"
When I said I would try to post from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, I wasn't counting on the enthusiasm of the Eat & Joy organisers, who put our stamina (and stomachs) to the test with a packed schedule that started at 9am every day and never finished before 1am. In Helsinki we visited a record 22 restaurants in a single day, with tastings at each one, and in Russia our generous hosts put on a full spread at an average of six restaurants per day. Since our schedule was subject to last-minute changes, I was never really able to pace myself - just when I thought we had finally finished, we would be taken to a surprise addition to the list and served a five-course meal.
Do I regret a bite of it? Not at all: Helsinki's restaurant scene gets more exciting every year thanks to chefs who seek out local produce and it was fascinating to see how St. Petersburg is developing as a restaurant city, even if there was a little too much sushi for my taste (I love sushi, but when in Russia I'd rather eat blinis). International cuisine is all the rage in this strikingly beautiful city and I didn't eat a bowl of borscht in four days, though I did slip away once to have a blini experience.
I had noticed a chain of fast-food restaurants called Tepemok but known to the locals as "Blindonalds," which serve freshly made blinis filled with salmon, minced meat, chicken, berries or chocolate. The pancakes known as blinis in France are small and puffy, closer to a Canadian pancake than a French crêpe. In St. Petersburg they were far more crêpe-like, as big as the French version and only slightly thicker. This didn't surprise me as one of Sam's babysitters, a Ukrainian girl named Eugenia, had once shown me how to make blinis like her grandmother's. Hers were identical to the St. Petersburg blinis, which puff up a little when spread on a hot griddle, and have become my standard recipe for pancakes at home.
St. Petersburg is an expensive city but at Tepemok you can have a hearty and delicious meal for 150 rubles (the equivalent of about 5 euros), which explains the popularity of this chain. I ordered a blini with salmon, dill and sour cream and another with berries and cream, which came to 140 rubles. You can even order a blini filled with salmon roe, which the locals prefer to black caviar because it's far cheaper and reliably good.
Another highlight of my visit to St. Petersburg was the covered market Kuznechny, where I was delighted to see farmers selling local produce (many of the chefs mentioned how difficult it is to find local ingredients). Outside the market stood a row of women displaying tiny amounts of beautiful goods: a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms, plastic cups heaped with blueberries, a small bunch of carrots.
The dairy stand made me want to dive right into the vats of curd cheese and sour cream, whose color brought to mind cows munching on pale golden hay.
Every vegetable at this stand was pickled. I bought two ordinary (cucumber) pickles to eat right away and a head of purple pickled garlic, which I stirred into a potato salad the day I returned to Nice.
Thick honey was sold in vats and jugs. I bought some Siberian acacia honey, a pale, runny honey that looked like lemonade in its big glass jug.
Fresh horseradish is not something I can find at the markets in France. The roots look like pieces of dry bark.
Caviar tempted me, but had been warned by Russians that there is no guarantee of quality. A small jar of beluga caviar costs more than 100 euros.
The quality and freshness of the produce was impressive: I loved this pile of pumpkins.
I left St. Petersburg feeling I had only scratched the surface of what there is to see and taste there. With luck, there will be other trips.
8 heaped tbsp flour
1 cup milk
A pinch of baking power
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp butter
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add 4 generous tbsp flour and whisk until smooth. Pour in 1/2 cup milk and combine. Add 4 more heaped tbsp flour, along with the baking powder and salt. Stir well, then whisk in the remaining milk until smooth. Melt the butter in the frying pan you will use to cook the blinis. Pour the butter into the batter and combine. The batter should be slightly thicker than crêpe batter - add a little flour or milk to adjust the consistency if necessary. Wipe the frying pan with a paper towel.
Heat the frying pan over high heat and cook the blinis one by one on both sides. You may need to turn the heat down after the second or third blini and grease the pan with a little oil using the paper towel. Serve with savory fillings such as smoked salmon, sour cream and dill or sweet fillings such as berries and cream.