There was roast venison, ice cream made from black bread and beetroot, and a bar selling pints of pale ale. Such temptations, plus the promise of cooking tips from a slew of professional chefs, brought almost 12,000 people to Moscow’s Festival of Food last month.
The size of the crowds – three times the expected number – was testament to one thing: Russia is undergoing a gastronomic revolution.
“People are getting really sophisticated when it comes to food,” said Alexei Zimin, the festival’s organiser, in an interview this week. “When Russians go out these days they don’t only talk about cars and money, they talk about what they are eating.
“Fifteen years ago, 1,000th of 1% of the population regularly bought olive oil. Now it’s 1%. People are travelling abroad more, they know when a spaghetti carbonara is bad because they’ve eaten it at seven different restaurants and made it at home.”
The gastro-boom also involves the growth in the number of mid-market restaurants, a trend towards eating locally sourced produce, and the imminent expansion of “new Russian” cuisine into the west.
Zimin is editor of Afisha Eda, a slick food magazine which has become something of a bible for discerning Muscovites since its launch three years ago. At the festival in Gorky Park, a mile down the Moscow river from the Kremlin, Zimin held a masterclass on how to prepare shrimps with rosemary.
Visitors crowded around the stage, while stylish couples and families strolled through a nearby farmers’ market selling smoked duck breasts, goat’s cheese and organic vegetables. Other visitors joined long queues at field kitchens set up next to a boating lake by well-known city restaurants. Among them were Ragout and Bulka, two of a raft of new Moscow eateries that are neither smoky dives nor “elitny” hangouts for oligarch.
For now, the proliferation is confined to Moscow and limited to Russia’s slowly expanding middle class. Zimin, who trained as a chef in London, expects it to spread as wages rise and foreign travel becomes more accessible. “There is a big trend of restaurants opening that offer interesting food for sensible money,” he said. “It’s bistronomy; like the gastropub phenomenon in England.”
Foreign cuisine such as Italian and Japanese is especially popular but native dishes are also getting a makeover.
Russian cuisine is historically a bulky north European fare with an accent on boiled meat, soups and pies. Under Soviet rule the spiciest dining options were offered by Caucasian and central Asian restaurants. Yet even some of the hardiest of Russian recipes have been enticed into the realm of haute cuisine at Varvary (Barbarians) in central Moscow.
The high-end restaurant, owned by flamboyant chef Anatoly Komm sports blood-red chairs and the walls hung with traditional Vologda lace.
Offering the Guardian his own take on borscht – four melt-in-the-mouth duck livers and a perfectly spherical, hollow ball of smetana (sour cream) dissolved in a ladleful of beetroot soup – Komm said: “”I don’t do cafeteria food. After all, Tchaikovsky didn’t promote folk dancing, he wrote opera and ballet.”
Eighteen chefs at Varvary labour all day to produce a multi-course “spectacle” for 30 guests paying 8,500 roubles (£180) each. “In the beginning all my customers were foreigners but now at least 10% are Russians and I’m very pleased about that,” said Komm.
Several top chefs are planning steps abroad. Komm is exploring options in London, while the country’s most famous restaurateur, Arkady Novikov, is set to open two restaurants and a lounge bar on Berkeley Street in Mayfair, London, this autumn. Andrei Dellos is also launching a version of his Café Pushkin in New York.
In Moscow, one more sign of Russia’s food revolution is the appearance of businesses selling organic food via the internet. Companies suchas LavkaLavka and Ferma deliver lamb, eggs, cream cheese, vegetables and other products from farms near the capital.
In the absence of certification for organic foods, LavkaLavka gives detailed descriptions of each farmer and his or her property on its site.
“This is not just about healthy food,” said co-founder Boris Akimov. “It’s about tomatoes from farmer Ivan Novichikhin or butter from Nina Kozlova. It’s about money going to good people for good produce instead of being shovelled into the firebox of transnational companies that make who-knows-what, who-knows-where.”