I can't believe we're almost in November.
It's going to be time to put up the Christmas tree soon :)
This year has gone incredibly quick. But happily, it's been a year filled with a lot of platetrotting. So as it begins to wind down, I thought a series of posts on some of the highlights, strange sights and memorable bites would be a good way to pay tribute to 2013.
Starting off with my first trip for the year - St. Petersburg and my visit to the Russian Vodka Museum.
The Russian Vodka Museum held a lot of promise when I was in trip-planning mode. It was probably one of the first things that went down on my list of "Things to Do in St.P" (after the Hermitage and seeing snow fall out of the sky - both of which were also ticked off the list on that trip).
I was hoping this would be the place I'd actually learn something about vodka - considering that the most I knew about the drink could be summed up in three lines - it's made from grain or potatoes, it tastes best super-chilled and good vodka will leave you virtually hang-over free. (Oh, and the best vodka I ever drank was bought in Azerbaijan for 8 dirhams, so good vodka need not be expensive vodka.)
Sadly, my lesson in vodka making wasn't meant to be. The museum had just one bilingual guide and unfortunately said guide was busy delivering what sounded like a very informative lecture on vodka-making in Russian to another group during my visit.
So I had to make do with wandering around admiring the raw ingredients used to make vodka (labelled in Russian), equipment used to make vodka (all explained in Russian), posters depicting rather young drinkers (see below) and a beautiful collection of intricately-made bottle stoppers.
The self-guided tour ended with a tasting of three kinds of vodka - a softly flavoured vanilla vodka, a clean-tasting platinum vodka and a very crisp gold vodka, accompanied by herrings, pumpernickel bread and pickles.
However, despite the rather disappointing non-tour, the museum had a sizeable collection of interesting vodka bottles, including bottles nestled in slightly kitsch matryoshka dolls, and - the exhibit that made my visit - a Kalashnikov filled with vodka. Now, you can't get more Russian than that!
If you plan on visiting the museum, do check out the adjoining restaurant, The Russian Vodka Room No 1. It had the best plate of herrings I've probably ever eaten.
And if you do fancy the tour, remember to book ahead. Unless you speak Russian!
I've had my share of pancakes in Russia. From the obligatory blini smeared with sour cream and a glob of caviar, to the ubiquitous potato pancake crisped around the edges and served with everything from omelettes at breakfast to a hunk of beef at dinner, they seem to make an appearance in some form or the other at pretty much every meal.
Not like I'm complaining... pancakes make the perfect stodgy base to carry the rich, salty and oily flavours of the ingredients that usually accompany them.
But their savoury avatars aside, on a whistle-stop trip to Russia's northern jewel St Petersburg this past weekend, I came across a sweet version that could well be my favourite Russian pancake of them all - syrniki, or Russian curd cakes.
Syrniki (coming from the Russian or Ukrainian word syr meaning cheese) look like obese little blinis - round doughy pillows stuffed with chunks of solid curd. The ones I tasted were served with the ever-present smetana (heavy sour cream) and fresh strawberry compote at the cosy Singer Cafe, which overlooks St Petersburg's main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt and the Greco-Roman Kazan Cathedral.
My association with syrniki was, however, short and sweet. Having picked a generously sized savoury egg and potato pancake combo for breakfast, I had to make do with stealing a piece off my friend's plate and keeping my fingers crossed that there'd be another opportunity to order an entire portion for myself.
Sadly, that never came to pass (it was a very quick trip) so I have been left with a taste for a plate of syrniki that can be added to an ever-growing list of delicious dishes I'd like to relive eating in Russia.
But until I get to board a plane in that direction again, does anyone know a place that serves good syrniki in Dubai? I'd gladly book myself a spot for a Russian-style breakfast :)
Honey wine. The name alone does it for me. (But then again, I have a soft corner for the sweeter end of the wine scale, so that's hardly surprising.)
I got my first taste of honey wine - or mead - more than four years ago in the little Russian town of Suzdal, a few hours out of Moscow.
Suzdal did mead-tasting in style! It had an entire hall bang in the centre of town dedicated to it - complete with long log wood tables, stained glass windows and servers dressed in suitably serving-wench-like attire. All it needed to complete the mead-tasting-tableau in my mind were a few Vikings slapping down mugs of the stuff and platters piled high with chicken drumsticks stripped clean.
Ok... I'll admit... my overactive imagination may be running a little away with itself :)
Still, the mead tasting hall left an impression on my mind... and a lingering taste for the stuff in my mouth.
So when I found a stall selling mead at the very festive Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park in London a couple of weeks ago, I was first in line!
The stuff on sale was mulled mead. All the better in my opinion... nothing quite like a hot, sweet, spicy alcoholic drink to take the edge of a chilly winter's evening :)
I was all ready to part with my pounds having already downed a little taster cup when the server placed another cup in front of me containing - the rather intriguing sounding - Viking Blood.
Viking Blood is mulled mead (hence the Viking connection) tinged with cherry (hence the red = blood connection) and I'm pretty sure it's inventive name accounts for a good chunk of people having a go at trying it.
But even without the creative marketing, I think Viking Blood would be a winner.
Mead on its own can have a bit of a cloyingly sweet aftertaste. I remember the mead-tasting hall in Suzdal serving up its honey wine laced with a number of different ingredients including pepper and juniper berries, and the flavoured mead tasted a lot nicer than the plain variety.
The spices and tartness of the cherry brings the same advantages to the Viking Blood. I could easily have gotten through a few more cups of it... I may have to make like a vampire and hunt down a Viking or two this winter to get my fill :)
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