Russia is a country that values its traditions. And no more so, perhaps, than its culinary traditions, which stretch back centuries to the rule of the tsars and tsarinas, and largely managed to survive the Soviet period intact. With the obvious exception of swan and peacock meat – regular features on the Imperial menu in the sixteenth century – many of the dishes that would have made it to the royal table are still to be found on menus in St Petersburg today.
Most people have heard of bliny, or pancakes, but the tsarist dining table was also covered with varieties of ukha, a filling aromatic fish soup made from perch or sturgeon, meat jellies (a distinctly acquired taste) and steaming-hot pies with sweet and savoury fillings. Hors d'oeuvres, called “zakuski” in Russian, were also an important part of the meal in the court of the tsars, and included such treats as mushrooms, pickled cucumbers and caviar. And when guests had eaten their fill, they would wash their meals down with glasses of vodka, wine, or kvass, a fermented bread drink that is far, far tastier than it sounds.
Should you be lucky enough to receive an invitation to a meal at someone’s home, at least some of these dishes and drinks are certain to be on offer. One perennial favourite across Russia is the Olivier salad, which contained grouse, veal, caviar and lettuce in the tsarist era. Today, it’s more likely to be produced from eggs, ham, potato and an assortment of vegetables.
The food perhaps most associated with Russia is caviar, and both the red and black varieties of this delicacy are available all over St Petersburg – from supermarkets to open-air market on the outskirts of the city.
Pay a visit to Caviar: Black Caviar ,a small but stylish shop in the heart of the city that has been in business for about a year. Located in Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor, an eighteenth-century shopping arcade that is a sight in its own right, Russia’s top caviar producers are represented here. The shop also offers popular tasting sessions, and its knowledgeable and friendly staff are a mine of information on caviar production. The shop claims a commitment to the protection and breeding of sturgeon, and direct purchases from producing farms meat prices aren’t overly exorbitant. Before you start stocking up, however, don’t forget that visitors to Russia are only allowed to take 250 grams of caviar, sealed in a factory- made tin, per person out of the country.
As the story goes, when Prince Vladimir was choosing a religion for his fledgling nation in 988 AD, one of his reasons for rejecting Islam was because of its prohibition on the drinking of alcohol.
Inextricably entwined into the country’s culture, vodka has come to define Russia’s national character, although its popularity has declined slightly in recent years as beer and wine have made inroads. There’s no better place to find out about Russia’s long love affair with vodka than this museum, which advertises itself as “the first in the world dedicated exclusively to vodka”. As well as a wealth of information on its history and production, you’ll also pick up some vital tips on vodka- drinking etiquette. Guests also have plenty of opportunities to knock back a shot or two, including in a mock-up version of a Soviet style bar – or ryumochnaya – where customers traditionally drank at standing only tables. This one differs from the austere Soviet version in one vital respect however, it has 240 different types of vodka on offer. As no Russian would ever dream of drinking vodka without a snack, visitors are also offered gherkins, anchovies on brown bread and lard with mustard on brown bread along with their shot glasses.
This memorable bronze statue near the River Neva was created by the French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, and was unveiled in 1782. It depicts Peter the Great astride a horse and was commissioned by Catherine the Great as a tribute to the city’s founder. The serpent being crushed beneath the horse’s hooves is supposed to symbolize betrayal. The stone’s colossal pedestal is known as the Thunder Stone, and weighs some 1,200 tons.
Local legend has it that as long as the statue stands intact, enemy forces will never be able to conquer St Petersburg. Accordingly, it was covered with sandbags and a wooden shelter during World War II to protect it from Nazi bombs. The statue was initially unnamed, and took the name it is known by today from a long narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. In the poem, A Bronze Horseman: A St Petersburg Tale, the statue comes to life and chases a young man who had cursed Peter the Great for building his city in such a watery location after the death of his beloved in flooding.
St Petersburg’s Fabergé Museum contains the world’s largest collection of works by Peter Carl Fabergé, including nine of his famous Imperial Easter Eggs (inedible, of course). Jeweller to the tsars up until the Bolshevik Revolution, Fabergé’s famous gem- studded eggs were commissioned by Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their loved ones between 1885 and 1916. The Fabergé Museum contains the Hen Egg, the first-ever Imperial egg that Fabergé produced for the royal family. Around 50 of these near priceless eggs were produced in total, although only 43 are believed to have survived. Fabergé’s Imperial eggs were first shown publicly at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, spreading the jeweller’s name throughout Europe. The museum is located in the recently renovated tsarist-era Shuvalov Palace, which sits on the embankment of the Fontanka River. Worth a visit in its own right, the Shuvalov Palace also contains a grand imperial staircase and an exhibition of Russian religious icons dating back to the sixteenth century, as well as an impressive collection of bejewelled tsarist-era boxes.