"So what was it like to be a university student here right when the Communist Government was falling from power?" I asked Peter, founder of Peter's Walking Tours in St Petersburg, Russia. As luck would have it, Peter was our guide on our accidentally private tour this late August morning.
Given Peter and I both studied film in university (him in St Petersburg smack at the start of the historic early 1990s) and then later both did stints as newspaper journalists, we had plenty to banter about besides the sights.
My favourite part of chat was over salmon and green onion & egg pie at Stolle, which serves fabulous sweet and savoury pies unique to St Petersburg, stemming from the city's pre WWI history of hosting many an academic German expat in its university district, one of the main areas of our walking tour. The pie crusts below look like brick, but actually taste and feel like brioche.
Peter responded that among he and his friends here in St Petersburg at least, politics wasn't actually their first concern at the time. Rather, it was how to access food.
Under communist rule, all food transport, distribution and sales networks throughout the Soviet Union had been controlled by the central government. So while there was food still being grown and stored out in say, the 'Stans, there was no functioning system to move the food to cities, let alone price it. A market system eventually filled the gap, clearly, said Peter, but it didn't just pop up overnight. And during that awful vacuum, people were quite hungry and afraid indeed.
A living lesson in the fragility of food security.
But those dark days had a lighter side, it seems. International aid organizations soon parachuted into town, and distributed food on the university campus. But by this time, everyone in the city also had food ration coupons... including vodka coupons! So each week, after coupons were issued, Peter and friends -- with their campus food aid socked away -- would run around town looking for teetotalling old biddies to trade in their food coupons for the old women's vodka coupons.
"That was a fantastic time!" said Peter with a smile, amused at his own nostalgia.
Another highlight of the walking tour for me a stroll through Andreevsky Market Place (located close to Andreevsky Cathedral on Vasileostrovkaya Island), where nary a tourist (except us) was in sight.
We stop at an Uzbek bakery for meat donuts. Yes indeedy. Meat donuts. While Babs and Peter deal through the retail window, I pop my head in through the back door to get this shot of their tandoori-esque oven.
We bite into the donut, and decide we have to get ourselves out into the 'Stans at some point. One of the bakers smiles and waves at me through the door, and then hollers "I love you!"
I'm going to assume that's simply all the English he knows.
A melon stall run by a guy I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. I can't decide if telling him "nice melons" will make his smile or piss him off. On the right, some kind of sour cherry, apparently, but I couldn't get the exact name of it. Please enlighten me if you know what these are called!
Caviar for the proletariat. Red caviar is usually from salmon and trout. I developed quite a taste for these paired with blinis (Russian crepes) during our time in Russia. Couldn't afford the black (sturgeon) variety.
How many pelmeni can you count in the picture below?
Well, enough to send us on a pelmeni pilgramage after we were done with the walking tour. We found some at this no-frills eatery called Pel'mennaya (guess what they serve) on the same street as our hostel, Hostel Zimmer Smart on 2nd Sovietskaya, close to Moscovsky train station. At just 95 rubles (just under £2) a bowl, I wish we had sniffed this place out sooner.
Pelmeni turned out to be one of those instances on this journey when I went hunting for something exotic, something fiercely local, but instead found something familiar and close to home. At Pel'mennaya you can drizzle white vinegar on your pelmeni; further east we would dunk Chinese guotie and Japanese gyoza in dark vinegar and ginger slivers. In Poland these globs of comfort would be called pierogi; in Turkey and Uzbekistan manti; in Kazakhstan manty; in Korea mandu.
Where else in between and beyond do these dumplings pop up? Are they local inventions -- i.e. does every people ultimately manage to concoct some local version of dumpling, like they do booze -- or are they improvisations based on basic recipes from roaming Mongols or traders on the Silk Road? And where does the ravioli sit on this spectrum? Your answer might depend on whether you believe Marco Polo brought noodles from the Italians to China, or from the Chinese to Italy.
What do you think? I'd love to hear from you. This could be quite the lively, educational and hilarious discussion, especially over vodka... like the best of those we had in university. Now where were those coupons...
St Petersburg Russia
Pel'mennaya (rough translation from Cyrillic)
St Petersburg, Russia